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From Jester to Gesture: Eastern European Jewish Culture and the Re-imagination of Folk Performance


This dissertation examines the rise of folk performance as a national and social(ist) symbol in modern Eastern European Jewish culture, focusing on the wave of fascination with the badkhn (rhymester/jester), the folksinger, the klezmer, and above all the purim-shpiler (player in the traditional Purim play) between the two world wars. This upsurge of interest, I argue, marks a radically modern turn to the past which aims to construct an alleged lineage of secular Jewish culture. Investigating such varied fields as literature, film, theater, memoirs and historiography, I look into the ways in which traditional types of Jewish performance were reclaimed and used as tropes, cultural symbols and models for alternative poetics.

To provide the historical context for the innovations of the interwar era I examine in the first chapter the ways folk performance was imagined by the Haskala movement of the nineteenth century, the starting point of modern Jewish culture. Notwithstanding their contempt for traditional Jewish performance, the Haskala writers, I claim, introduce the performer into the realm of art, rather than folklore, and thus constitute the first phase in the modern project of reclaiming traditional performance as the roots of- and a model for- modern Jewish culture.

In chapter two I investigate the fervent and highly politicized scholarly discourse that evolved around traditional forms of Jewish performance, which provided the essential theoretical framework for the dramatic, literary and cinematic appropriations of folk performance. Through the writing and cultural production of Zigmunt Turkow I strive to corroborate my claim about the interconnections between scholars, artists and other cultural activists, who together contributed to the construction of Jewish folk performance as cultural heritage.

Usually perceived as oppositions, modernist high-art and popular mass culture of the interwar period are discussed in this study as interlinked arenas of cultural production that address the same modern challenges of secularization, urbanization and immigration. I thus look at the experimental reclaiming of the purim-shpil and the broder zinger in the modernist poetry and drama of Moyshe Broderzon alongside the commodified appropriations of folk performance in Yiddish cinema of the late thirties, including the films Yidl mitn fidl, Der purim-shpiler and Der dibuk. By exploring the various ways in which Eastern European Jewish folk performance was re-imagined, be they rejection, veneration, mimicry or reproduction, I shed new light on the modern Jewish project of self-reinvention and self-remodeling, as well as on the complex relationship between modernism, mass culture and folk creativity.

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