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All the World’s a Stage; Jewish Players Strut and Dance Upon it

God, Man and Devil: Yiddish Plays in Translation by Nahma Sandrow, Syracuse University Press, $24.95

WELL BEFORE WOODY ALEEN LEFT MIA for Soon Li, Hershele Dubrovner traded in his wife of 22 years, Pesenyu, for his niece and all but adopted daughter, Freydenyu in Jacob Gordin’s Faustian tragedy “God, Man and Devil” (1900), one of five works translated by Nahma Sandrow in this new anthology of Yiddish plays. Gordin’s work heralded a new trend toward literary dramas in the Yiddish theater and the remaining four were performed by the Yiddish art theaters of America and Eastern Europe as well as by Guild Theater in New York and Max Reinhardt’s famous company in Berlin. Also included in this volume are Peretz Hirschbein’s pastoral comedy about Jewish love in the countryside “Green Fields” (1916), H. Leivick’s workers’ drama—and a precursor to Clifford Odets—”Shop” (1926), David Pinski’s farce about greed and money “The Treasure” (1906) and Osip Dymov’s hilarious absurdist comedy which takes place on a subway entitled “Bronx Express: A Dream in Three Acts with a Prologue and an Epilogue” (1919). Together, the eminently performable scripts include one murder, two suicides, a divorce, five weddings, an engagement, three overnight millionaires and many vivid, tragic and comic characters. Also the roles for women are mighty and varied — a strike organizer, a social climbing ingenue, a struggling widow and a seductive cigarette magnate, to name a few.

A brief introduction to Yiddish theater begins this edition; it includes the names of many other important Yiddish writers whose work has yet to appear in English. (Curious readers should follow this collection with Sandrow’s “Vagabond Stars” — an introduction to Yiddish theater around the globe.) Sandrow also edits the scripts and explains her translation choices in the preface to each play. Most helpfully, she includes detailed explanations of Jewish rituals and customs that appear in each work. Like Joseph Landis’ translations before her, Sandrow does a great mitzvah for the American theater by rendering into simple, straightforward English five magnificent plays — three of them uniquely American — that otherwise would have been lost to history.