In October 1928, an amateur troupe at San Francisco’s Temple Emanu-El performed the most famous play of Yiddish theater, The Dybbuk by S. An-sky (or Ansky). This production, only the third English-language staging of the play in the United States, was a signal event in the evolution of Jewish American identity in California and across the West. The players were a mix of elite San Francisco Jews of Western European descent and recent immigrants from Eastern Europe steeped in Yiddishkait, an approach to Jewish life that sought to transform and fortify the commonplace language and culture of Eastern European Jewry into a growing range of artistic, literary, intellectual, and social movements. The director, Nachum Zemach, had worldwide renown as an artist in Yiddish theater. The backers of the production had intended to bring about a revitalization of Jewish life in the city and the unification of a Jewish community splintered along lines of class, regional origin, and religious practice. Instead, the performance of the play became a catalyst for legitimizing the ongoing process of creating and recreating American Jewish identity out of a variety of cultural, social, and religious practices.
S. An-Sky’s The Dybbuk and the Process of Jewish American Identity in 1920s San Francisco
WARREN C. WOOD is a lecturer in history at the California Polytechnic University at Pomona. He is a historian of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, with a particular interest in gender and the developing American West. He has written about politics in early American San Francisco and is currently focusing on the history of working-class fatherhood in late nineteenth-century San Francisco.
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Warren C. Wood; S. An-Sky’s The Dybbuk and the Process of Jewish American Identity in 1920s San Francisco. California History 1 May 2022; 99 (2): 32–58. doi: https://doi.org/10.1525/ch.2022.99.2.32
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