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Stargazing: Yiddish Theater and Hebrew Calendars Come Together in the Library of Congress

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(The following is a post by Ann Brener, Area Specialist, and Sharon Horowitz, Reference Librarian, in the Hebraic Section of the African and Middle Eastern Division.)

To most college students, curating your own display in a great museum might seem like a dream for some far-off future. But for the students who took part in the Library of Congress’ coveted Annual Summer Junior Fellows Program, the display was very real indeed. On Wednesday, July 24th, Junior Fellows from across the Library converged in the beautiful exhibition rooms in the Thomas Jefferson Building for a display that showcased their work over the course of the 10-week program. This year, the Hebraic Section of the Library of Congress was fortunate in having not one but two Junior Fellows, each of whose work culminated in a beautifully curated display of the Library’s treasures.

Talia Benheim shows off her display at the Library of Congress: “The Hebrew Calendar: An Ancient Genre Meets the Printing Press.”

A display of Hebrew calendars might not sound too exciting, but when the exhibitor is Talia Benheim, and the calendars drawn from the rich collections of the Library of Congress, the result is nothing short of spectacular. Talia, a junior at Wellesley College, explains that in antiquity, the calculations of the Jewish calendar were a closely guarded secret of the Sanhedrin, the High Court in Jerusalem. But over the centuries, as Jews dispersed across the globe, new ways evolved to disseminate information about the calendar. Talia points to a colorful image on display. “This manuscript,” she explains, “is a Sefer Evronot, a genre of Hebrew literature that deals with the calculations of the Jewish calendar. It was written in Eastern Europe in the 16th century, and is one of just six known illuminated manuscripts of this genre from that period.”

Calculations about the Jewish calendar also found their way into print soon after the invention of moveable type. Talia points to a large, obviously antique Hebrew book on the table. “This table of calculations,” she explains, “comes from a Commentary on the Jewish Prayers that was printed in Fez, 1516, and is actually the first dated book printed on the Continent of Africa in any language.”

Some printed books even included “volvelles,” rotating wheels that could be used to calculate the calendar for many years ahead. One particularly fine example comes from a “Sefer Evronot” printed in 1722, in Offenbach. Unlike many other illustrations of its kind, this volvelle has survived the centuries intact.

“Sefer Evronot” [Book of Intercalations]. Manuscript. 16th c. Eastern Europe. Hebraic Section. African and Middle Eastern Division.
“Perush ha-Tefillot” [Commentary on the Prayers]. Written by David Abudarham of Seville in 1340. Printed book. Fez, North Africa, 1516. Hebraic Section. African and Middle Eastern Division.
Detail of a volvelle from a printed “Sefer Evronot” [Book of Intercalations]. Offenbach, 1722. Hebraic Section. African and Middle Eastern Division.

Talia pauses in her explanations and looks around the display, taking in the new as well as the old. “What all these items have in common,” she reflects, “is the effort taken by Jews to maintain their cultural and religious identities in the Diaspora.” An effort with which many groups might identify today.

Over on the other side of the room, across from Talia as though to demonstrate the rich diversity of Jewish culture, Madeline Roger, a rising senior at Indiana University, is explaining her project on American Yiddish Theater to a group of entranced visitors.

Madeline Roger discusses her display at the Library of Congress: “American Yiddish Theater of the 20th Century and its Influence on American Society.”

“From Irving Berlin’s ‘God Bless America’ to Harvey Fierstein’s ‘Kinky Boots,’” Madeline notes, “American Jews almost exclusively created the template for American musical standards and the American Broadway musical. It has been an industry where American Jews have had heavy influence for nearly a century. What you may not know,” she continues, “is that this trend started long before Gershwin or Rodgers and Hammerstein. In fact, it began in the early 1900s with the rise of American Yiddish Theater.”

On the table before Madeline are several pieces representing the heyday of the American Yiddish Theater. One of these is the Yiddish theater periodical, Theater Zshurnal. Published biweekly in New York City during the early 20th century, the editions were chock full of advertisements, opinion pieces and reviews on local shows.

Next to each other on the table we find a piece of sheet music and a manuscript, both bearing the title A Brevele Der Mame [“A Little Letter to Mama”]. “Contrary to what you might expect,” Madeline explains, “it all started with the music.” The song tells the tale of a family that broke apart after persecution in the Soviet Union and of the life-long struggle of the mother to reconnect with her son in New York. The song was popular the world over and it inspired Mendel Osherowitch to write a play based on the music in 1928, which was produced in New York not long after.

Theater Zshurnal, Issue no. 4 (1901). Hebraic Section, African and Middle Eastern Division.
“A Brevele Der Mame.” Words and music by Solomon Smulewitz. New York, 1907. From the Irene Heskes Collection of American Yiddish Sheet Music. Hebraic Section, African and Middle Eastern Division.
“A Brevele Der Mame.” Typewritten playscript by Mendel Osherowitch. From the Lawrence Marwick Collection of Copyrighted Yiddish Plays. Plays (#783). Hebraic Section, African and Middle Eastern Division.

“The immigrant themes in the play resonated with theater audiences,” Madeline comments, “and in 1938 it was even made into a movie. In fact it was one of the last Yiddish films made in Poland before the Nazi invasion.” In addition to showing the treasures of the Hebraic section, Madeline’s display is supported by a 63-slide interactive presentation designed to engage participants interested in exploring the American Yiddish Theater and its impact on American Jewish culture and the evolution of the American musical theater.

Access to the Hebrew Calendar Collection and the American Yiddish Theater Collection is by appointment only. For those interested in exploring these collections, please use the division’s Ask-A-Librarian online inquiry form to contact the Hebraic reference staff or to send reference questions about these collections.

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