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The Digital Yiddish Theatre Project

Joel Berkowitz, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
Debra Caplan, Baruch College, CUNY

In 2012, we formed the Digital Yiddish Theatre Project, a research consortium dedicated to the application of digital humanities tools and methods to the study of Yiddish theatre and drama. The Digital Yiddish Theatre Project is an experiment in scholarly collaboration across fields, methodologies, and institutions. Our sixteen members include theatre researchers, historians, literary scholars, musicologists, film scholars, librarians, archivists, performers, musicians, and independent scholars who are among the leading authorities on Yiddish theatre, drama, and related fields.

The Digital Yiddish Theatre Project was formed in recognition of the linguistic, cultural, and geographic complexity of the Yiddish theatre, and of the remarkable ability of digital humanities tools and methods to address that complexity, particularly when employed by a collaborative team of researchers who draw upon each other’s complementary strengths and expertise. Our goal is to use digital humanities tools to advance the scholarly study of the Yiddish theatre and to provide a means for members of the public to access and interact with authoritative information about this tradition.

Digital humanities allows us to sift through, manage, and organize quantities and types of information that human beings either couldn’t do on their own, or would take impossibly long to do. One of the fundamental characteristics of scholarly work in general is making connections – noticing relationships between and among disparate bits of information and putting them together in ways that no one has ever done before — or at least not in quite the same way — and as a result adding to humanity’s understanding of the subject at hand.

Digital humanities can simply do this on a much larger scale: for example, rapidly scanning large amounts of text to find every instance of a particular term being mentioned–say, ‘Warsaw’ or ‘Molly Picon’ or ‘vaudeville.’ It can also create links between different kinds of information. Let’s say we create an interactive timeline of a set of historical events, such as the life and career of a notable actor, that allows users to click on various milestones where one can find information to bring each of those moments to life. That information could include, say, a photograph of the actor taken around that time, a song the actor recorded that year, or a map of the actor’s travels during that period. around that time. This helps us visualize information in ways that more traditional forms of scholarship often cannot do. I hasten to add that none of us has anything against traditional scholarship; quite the contrary. But we are interested in complementing such work by harnessing the power afforded us by the many advances being made in the digital age.

There are several reasons why Yiddish theatre and digital humanities can be considered, as we say in Yiddish, a ziveg min ha-shamayim: a match made in heaven. For one thing, it was and is an international phenomenon. Though it originated in central and eastern Europe, Yiddish theatre followed the paths blazed by Eastern European Jews as they emigrated by the millions beginning in the 1880s: particularly to North America, but also to Latin America, Western Europe, Palestine, South Africa, and Australia. Theatre is often a peripatetic art; the image of actors constantly traveling from town to town, state to state, or country to country is deeply embedded in the annals of theatre history. But one could call Yiddish theatre a double nomad, traveling toward both the next audience and greener pastures, since its fate has so often been intertwined with the lives of Jews living in troubled times and places. Yiddish theatre, in other words, is a particularly slippery field of inquiry, and the instability of our subject matter tends to mirror the circumstances of its actors and audiences. Geographically, culturally, linguistically, Yiddish theatre is more often than not a moving target.

All of this leaves the historian of the Yiddish theatre with a tangled history. Digital humanities tools are particularly well suited to managing the information needed to make sense of that history: for example, by putting interactive maps in conversation with text, so that the historian can simultaneously show and tell the stories of our ‘vagabond stars.’ We see tremendous potential for our field in gathering and analyzing the extant data about Yiddish theater in order to more accurately pinpoint aesthetic trends, intellectual debates, rivalries, partnerships, and networks of influence related to this short-lived but remarkably influential theatre tradition.

The Digital Yiddish Theatre Project is an experiment in scholarly collaboration across dozens of fields, methodologies, and institutions. We’re a kind of laboratory for new modes of collaborative, public-facing scholarship that are new to all of us, but urgently needed in our field (and dare we say, for the humanities at large). In the Fall of 2014, we launched the first incarnation of our website in the form of a blog. This site represents the first fruits of our collaboration: a place for us to share and discuss our findings with each other and with a wider public audience of those interested in learning more about the Yiddish stage. Future projects in the works include a mapping and data visualization initiative and the preparation of digital multimedia critical editions of Yiddish theatre texts.