The Greek-Jewish Theater in Judeo-Spanish, ca. 1880-1940

by Prof. Yitzchak Kerem

Abstract: The Greek-Jewish theater in Judeo-Spanish was the product of a combined expression of traditional Sephardic culture and of European education and modernization. It began in Thessaloniki in the 1880s and had become a popular form of entertainment in that city by the beginning of the twentieth century. In later decades the members of Zionist and socialist movements in Thessaloniki produced plays that reflected their political platforms. The history of the Greek-Jewish theater shows the transformation of the Greek Jews from a closed, religious society to an open, secular one.

The Jewish theater in Thessaloniki

In the late 1860s and early 1870s, Judeo-Spanish plays were already being performed in Edirne, Istanbul, and Izmir. It was not until the 1880s, however, that the Jewish theater began in Thessaloniki. 1 The rabbinical influence was very strong there, and time was needed for Western education and influences to infiltrate not only the classroom but also "regional" literature and culture.

The audience for Judeo-Spanish plays in Thessaloniki consisted primarily of recipients of the above-mentioned Western education--namely, the emerging middle and upper-middle classes. To them, theater meant primarily going to a playhouse to see a play produced by amateur actors but directed by pioneer semi-professional lovers of drama. Plays were also performed by school groups on Jewish festivals like Purim, when children liked to wear costumes, and fun and frolic were part of the festivities.

Beginning with the introduction of a drive for European modernization in the early nineteenth century, Judeo-Spanish came into the limelight in Thessaloniki as both a vernacular and a literary language. With the establishment of foreign language schools--first by private individuals and then by the Alliance Israélite Universelle, the Lycée Français, and other European sponsors--the Jewish community was [End Page 31] gradually transformed from a closed, religiously oriented social unit into a pluralistic, European-educated ethnic group. Judeo-Spanish, the vernacular of the Sephardic Jews, became the language of literature, politics, and culture. Novels were written in it; plays were performed in it; classic works were translated into it; songs, romances, and complas were published in it. Also, a flourishing Judeo-Spanish press evolved.

Judeo-Spanish differs from Ladino. The latter, which emanated from pre-expulsion Spain as the language utilized to translate the Bible and other holy writings from Hebrew, is a Judeo-Spanish calque (Sephiha 1986:56, 65). In Spain, Ladino was used to teach Hebrew and the basic religious and biblical texts. In the Ottoman Empire, although the rabbis employed it for exegeses and the people chanted it in some prayers, Judeo-Spanish supplanted Ladino for general use. Judeo-Spanish (or Judezmo, as it is sometimes called) has many loan words taken during the mid-nineteenth-century period of Europeanization both from Western European languages and from regional languages like Greek and Ottoman-Turkish. The Sephardic Jews of this period spoke a mesklatino, a "mixture" or "jargon" (Sephiha 1986:77), and this mélange of calques influenced the language and nature of drama.

The secularization process involved the growing influence of French and Italian over Hebrew and Turkish (the non-Romance languages of the Orient), as well as the use of new literary forms by writers in Ottoman Sephardic culture:

Although most rabbinical authors continued to employ the traditional scholarly variety of the language in works treating Jewish themes (e.g., biblical exegesis, Jewish law, morals, history), writers who experimented with new themes and literary genres (e.g., drama and the novel), with which the community was just becoming acquainted through interaction with Western culture, tended to cultivate a new, "secularizing" style practically devoid of non-Romance elements, and relying ever-increasingly on borrowings from Italian and French. (Bunis 1994:214-215)

Vidal Sephiha considered the influence upon Judeo-Spanish of the Alliance Israélite Universelle school system to be so extreme that he renamed the language "Judeo-fragnol." He also noted the strong influence of French culture and language upon the Judeo-Spanish theater and the novel.

Thessaloniki, which was the center of the world for the Sephardim, was a cosmopolitan city that embraced numerous ethnic cultures. Thus Thessalonian Sephardic artists had a multicultural exposure not only because of their Judeo-Spanish and Hebrew heritages. Since they lived in the midst of the infiltration of modernizing Western European educational and cultural institutions and trends, they absorbed French and Italian influences (Rodrigue 1990:80-90). [End Page 32]

After the foundation of the local theater in Thessaloniki toward the end of the nineteenth century, the number of classic works translated and adapted grew quickly. In 1882, El tyempo, an adaptation of Racine's Esther, was performed. In 1884, the Thessalonian David Joseph Hassid translated and adapted Molière's L'Avare (Sephiha 1992:83, 93-94; Kerem 1995). Entitled Historia de H. Binyamin, it was performed in Thessaloniki in the same year. At first, lacking a license, Hassid could not mount the piece, but approval to present the play was finally given by the Muarif Meglisi, Thessaloniki's Council of Public Instruction (Romero 1979:2.831-832; Franco 1980:275). Franco renders the title in French as Le Bonhomme Benjamin and notes that the work imitated a French play.

In order to create a Sephardic ambiance, Hassid changed the characters' names and made their personalities more Turkish (Romero 1982:272). In addition, he moved the play's setting from Paris to Thessaloniki. All this added a flavor more in keeping with the prevailing Levantine atmosphere. The flavor was further enhanced by the fact that Judeo-Spanish contains various Turkish loan words, especially everyday terms "denoting articles of clothing, the home, professions, foods, plants, and animals" (Harris 1994:109). Hassid also Judaïzed certain passages, seeking to reinforce widely shared Judaic themes so that the audience both empathized with the play and became informed about Jewish social issues.

Michael Molho defines the nature of the Sephardic Judeo-Spanish theater as follows: "At the end of the nineteenth century, the Judeo-Spanish drama was developed, was modernized, and it departed from Biblical sketch; the plays preferred were those that alluded to Jewish social life" (1960:301). Hassid changed his characters into Sephardic Jews because the Thessalonikan audience would not have identified with a Parisian Gentile or even an Ashkenazic Jewish figure. Such characterizations strengthened local Sephardic identity. Most of the local Jewish population were unaware of the original French characters and their social position.

At the beginning of the present century, a new adaptation of Molière's L'Avare, translated into a very popular form of Judeo-Spanish by Joseph Nehama, was entitled Han Binyamin. Nehama's popular adaptation was printed in 1904 in "Revista Popular," the literary section of the Judeo-Spanish newspaper El Avenir. In Thessaloniki there was a popular folk figure named Han Sem-Tob Binyamin who was noted for his insatiable desire for wealth. The name of this man became synonymous among the Sephardim with the Judeo-Spanish word avaro, meaning stingy (Romero 1969:198; 1982:272).

In 1886, the play Sefer milhama Beshalom (The Book of the War against Peace) was published in Thessaloniki. This treatment of the biblical story of Joseph is a translation and adaptation of the original [End Page 33] play Milhama Beshalom, written in Hebrew by Haim Abraham Katz in Shklaow, Poland, in 1797. The name of the translator is not given (Barouch 1982:283; Bunis 1994:213). In contrast to the prototype, whose rationalism and intellectualism reflect the West European Enlightenment (the Haskalah), the Judeo-Spanish adaptation contains beautifully soft, glamorous passages of melancholic poetry that are absent from the logical, stiff original. The Judeo-Spanish adaptation includes wonder, miracle, prodigy, anti-rationalism, and an almost cabalistic mysticism (Barouch 1982:283-284).

In this early stage of Westernization in Thessaloniki, the infiltration of Western characteristics into the drama was still slight. The Jews of Ottoman Thessaloniki were still surrounded by a Levantine environment; most of the population still maintained oriental Sephardic dress, habits, and traditions (Rodrigue 1994:441-442). It would be many years before the effects of the Alliance Israélite Universelle and other forms of European education could filter down sufficiently to produce a class of intellectuals versed in Western genres and ideas. Opportunities to acquire Western concepts were still few--Western literature was relatively foreign, the socioeconomic level of most of the population was low, and very few individuals traveled abroad.

On the other hand, the Judeo-Spanish adaptation of the Joseph story, although non-European or even anti-European in the ways that I indicated above, reflects a new style and a new genre that depart from the "classic" genres of Judeo-Spanish literature (i.e., the canticas and the romancero), which were floundering at the beginning of the twentieth century. The new genre was an expression of what Carracedo calls "poesia-cancion" (1994:38), a product of the new times in which foreign literature is adopted and imitated. Undoubtedly, there is a paradox here between local non-acceptance of modernization and a style influenced by modern trends.

The theater in Thessaloniki was traditional, serving as a model for other Jewish communities in both Greece and Turkey. The plays were short dramatic productions with fixed themes. Often there was no written script; the child-actors memorized their roles. Many of the plays were passed down from generation to generation (Romero 1969:430). Year after year, plays were performed again and again with phrases altered in accordance with the actors' imagination as they improvised. Many of the plays dealt with biblical or post-biblical themes such as Joseph and his brothers, David and Goliath, Queen Esther (from the Purim story), and the seven brothers sacrificed on the ninth day of the Jewish month Av in a.d. 70 (Romero 1969:192-193).

The Sephardic Jews had a long tradition of remembering and lamenting major disasters in Jewish history such as the destruction of the [End Page 34] Second Temple, the expulsion from Spain, the rescue from mass destruction, and the Purim or Hanukkah stories. Romances were written about these important Jewish historical events (Seroussi 1995:61). Judeo-Spanish drama was a new means of integrating these themes into holiday celebrations. In the tightly knit Jewish families of Thessaloniki or Rhodes, mothers sang romances to their children as part of the bedtime ritual. Some of these stories and themes occur in Sephardic theatrical adaptations.

It was not until the turn of the century that Jewish theater in Thessaloniki became very active. This was later than in other major cities. For example, Romero (1983:5-18,46-66) cites notices for sixteen Judeo-Spanish productions in Constantinople (Istanbul) as early as 1873, whereas the earliest notice for a Judeo-Spanish production in Thessaloniki is 1897. For the period from 1897 to 1899, Romero cites thirteen notices for Thessaloniki. She notices eight productions in 1899 and another eleven in 1900. In addition, she notes the amateur dramatic activities of the Cercle des Intimes between 1873 and 1884, and the play Saul by Vittorio Alfieri, adapted into Judeo-Spanish by the local poet and train station manager Yosef Errera, who coordinated the Cercle's theatrical productions (Romero 1979:2.670). Influenced by French and Italian playwrights, Errera composed biblical plays in Judeo-Spanish and directed a group of amateur actors (Saloniki 1967:127). In Saul, Errera added music of his own, including a song that David sings in front of Saul, which became a popular tune. The revenues from the productions were donated to local Jewish charities.

After celebrating its eleventh anniversary in 1884, the Cercle des Intimes, which was formed by intellectuals and members of the emerging middle class, temporarily terminated its activities. Its members apparently became part of the Grand Cercle, founded in 1890 in order to defend the interests of Jewish merchants. This resembled a European labor union, but it also provided assistance to charitable and cultural institutions.

Moshe Ottolenghi from Livorno became a principal of the Talmud Torah school; he translated two Italian plays--Deguel ha-Torah (Bandera de la ley) and Mahaze ShaPashuim (Espectaculo divertido)--into Judeo-Spanish. These plays were performed at the school by his students in 1885 and 1897 respectively (Molho 1960:300). The Judeo-Spanish theater in Thessaloniki may have been quite active earlier, but owing to the inaccessibility of Judeo-Spanish newspapers and other publications from the last quarter of the nineteenth century, we cannot know for certain. Romero's quantification of Judeo-Spanish plays in the Orient (1979:1.84) shows the energy behind the Judeo-Spanish theater in Thessaloniki that would come to the forefront in the twentieth century. [End Page 35] She calculated 598 productions in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Of these, 302 took place in Thessaloniki while only 64 took place in Istanbul.

The play Mahaze ShaPashuim (1897) raises the question of "Lashon Hakodesh"--the Holy Language used in the Bible and in prayer, namely Hebrew. Moshe Ottolenghi wrote the play in Hebrew and Rafael Yishac Benveniste translated it into Judeo-Spanish (Romero 1968:402-406). Some felt that Hebrew served no purpose, but others felt that it was a beautiful, rich idiom that added much to their culture and that it should not be neglected (Romero 1983:46-48). When faced with employing both Hebrew and Judeo-Spanish, the actors thought that although foreign languages were useful, their mother tongue, Judeo-Spanish, represented them best as Jews.

Most of those attending the play on the occasion of the fourth anniversary of the Talmud Torah Hakatan school in Kalamaria, now a suburb of Thessaloniki, enjoyed the play more when it was performed in Judeo-Spanish, since they could learn little from a foreign language. It is of interest that the student actors debated this issue while speaking in Italian! At any rate, the play was published in a bilingual edition with the Hebrew on the top half of each page and the Judeo-Spanish on the bottom half. In the play, students discuss the generosity of the Jewish community of Thessaloniki in clothing the poor children of the Talmud Torah. Simon, the optimist, admires the community for its donations; Levi, the pessimist, citing Proverbs and the Shulhan Aruch, notes that to clothe the poor is an obligation of the rich and thus not worthy of admiration. He adds that it is not enough simply to clothe the children; in order to be considered truly generous, the community must also pay for a new Talmud Torah building. Stubbornly persisting, he talks to two moderate friends who take him to the Chief Rabbi in order to find a solution. Simon and Levi cheerfully praise God and, calm in spirit, they go out to dinner with friends (Romero 1968:405).

In the following year, 1898, plays were performed in Hebrew in the Talmud Torah Hagadol school at the "La Halbasha" ceremony, during which orphans and poor children received clothes before the Passover holiday. A play written by Moshe Alfandari was acted by two students. There was also a comedy written by Hanania Covo that included a reference to the deterioration of the school after four centuries and a hint that the merchants of the city ought to assist in its renewal (Romero 1983:53-54). The theater had become a new avenue for collecting funds for philanthropic purposes (Diaz-Mas 1986:176). Benbassa (1994:468) explains that the "middle class . . . had provided the founders and active members of the traditional associations." Neither the Jewish community nor the Alliance Israélite Universelle could train these people or provide [End Page 36] them with leadership positions. Yet as a result of its changing socialization and increased importance, the emerging middle class had anticipated its participation in the communal power structure as an economic group that would be requested to contribute not only financially but also administratively, by helping to operate these institutions.

In 1898, a comedy was performed in Turkish at the Talmud Torah Hakatan in Kalamaria in connection with the celebration for the distribution of clothes (Romero 1979:2.682-683; 1983:55; El Avenir, 20 April 1898, pp. 6a-7a). In 1899, several student plays were performed at the Eden Theater. One of these, organized by the Shemuel Modiano school, was performed in Turkish. The Instituto Poli, under the direction of Madame Poli and assisted by her daughter Olga Poli, produced several Italian plays in Thessaloniki. Elena Romero (1983:58) presents the following notice of the production of Ideales contrastados by Girolamo Ocoferi:

Circulo Filologico Italiano. Noche de alhad pasado [S.n, 2 dic.] tuvo lugar en los grandes salones del Circulo Italiano una magnifica representacion teatrala, jugada de algunos amadores escogidos de entre las mejores famillas de la colonia italiana de muestra civdad.

A la hora mueve a la franca la fiesta empezo con un hermoso pedazo jugado al piano de parte la maestra Irene Maraspen [?]. Despues fue el turno de la comedia Ideales contrastados, donde el autor es el valiente profesor Girolamo Ocoferi. Este ultimo se revelo artista de grande talento y merecimiento; su obra hacia un placer a sentirse. Todos los asistientes quedaron encantados, entusiasmados y no se cansaban de estar dando palmas . . .

Todo en exprimiendo mi estima y admiracion al bravo y valiente profesor Girolamo Ocoferi, demandaremos una copia de la comedia para tresladarla en muestra lingua. ¿ Habrá algunos amadores que la queran representar a profito de una obra de bienfecencia? -- E.S.A. [ = Eliyahu Sem-Tob Arditi]

Italian Philological Circle. Night of last Sunday [S.n, 2 Dec.] a magnificent theatrical representation took place in the large halls of the Italian Circle, played by some select amateurs among the best families of the Italian colony of our city.

At nine o'clock in the evening the festivity opens with a beautiful piece played on the piano by the master [mistress] Irene Maraspen [?]. Afterward there was the turn of the comedy Ideales constratados, where the author is the valiant Professor Girolamo Ocoferi. This latter reveled himself as an artist of great talent and merit; his production was a pleasure to hear. All of the audience remained charmed, enthusiastic, and did not tire itself of applauding . . .

All in expressing my esteem and admiration for the fine and valiant Professor Girolamo Ocoferi, we will request a copy of the comedy in order [End Page 37] to translate it into our language. Will it be that some of the amateurs would want to perform it for a philanthropic organization? -- E.S.A. [ = Eliyahu Sem-Tob Arditi]

In 1900, the play La mancha de sangre was performed in Italian under the direction of Pucharelli, professor at the Ordeo Italiana. The event was a benefit for the organization "Asistencia al Trabajo." Pucharelli had formed the Societa Filodramatica (La Bohem), composed of youth filled with passionate zeal for the theater. The actors in La mancha de sangre were Matilde Tiano, Mademoiselle Boton, Pucharelli himself, Samuel Menahem, Jacques Burla, Herera Saul, and Lieto and Jacques Noah (Romero 1983:59-64).

That same year objections were raised to dramatic productions in the schools. It was claimed that up to four months of the school year were wasted rehearsing plays, obtaining permits from the authorities, giving the school children acting lessons, and selling tickets. Moreover, although these productions, as well as a lottery, normally produced revenue, they did not always generate a profit (Romero 1983:64-66).

Another play staged in Thessaloniki in 1900 was the five-act Los males de la colada (Romero 1979:2.838-839, 915-926). 2 The play depicts the daily lifestyle of Thessalonian Jewry. One sees how laundry is done at home or is sent out, and how an intensive house cleaning process begins before Passover. When the doctor comes for a house call, the mother notes that the time has arrived to eat and requests her daughter Lucha to call the servant girl, Sarica, to bring the doctor a glass of raki. The doctor explains that he always warns his patients against drinking raki, but in order to be polite he sometimes drinks socially, whereupon he makes a toast and downs his glass. Spicy phrases like "Ya vas a traer el mundo en un mostacho de raton" (literally "you are going to carry the world in a rat's mustache" but actually meaning "you are going to exaggerate ridiculously the gravity of the situation") add humor to the play and indicate the local tradition of riddles, sayings, and proverbs.

Eventually, each of the political factions of the Jewish population mounted its own theatrical productions. In 1914 the drama group of the Socialist Federation produced Molière's comedy Garonudo and El hastron, another comedy (Romero 1979:2.737; 1983:301). The same drama group produced Tolstoy's Resurección in 1919. The Zionist movement was equally vibrant in Thessaloniki and throughout Greece. Theater was part of the Zionist cultural agenda. The Zionist Federation of Thessaloniki produced Los meraguelim (The Spies) for Yom haPibri (Hebrew Day) in 1919 (Romero 1983:302, 306-307, 430). The following year, La liberacion de Palestina was staged at the Teatro Panteon. The participation of non-Jews was noteworthy; the singer Paraskevopoulou and the actress [End Page 38] Georgiadou took part in this play. In 1920, the first Hebrew play, Yoash y PAtalia, was produced at the Theater of the White Tower by the l'Ecole Franco-Israélite. The Judeo-Spanish theater also produced Judeo-Spanish versions of Yiddish plays such as Sholem Aleichem's Mazal Tov and Ansky's The Dibbuk.

Theatrical activity in Thessaloniki became intense in the 1920s and the 1930s. 3 In 1932, the musical Ester was performed on Purim in Judeo-Spanish at the Winter Theater on Megalou Alexandrou by members of the religious Zionist movement BPnai Mizrahi. The play was written by the Betar activist Shlomo Reuvain. Isaac Sion composed the music, and an orchestra accompanied the production. Reuvain based his adaptation on the dialogue between Esther and King Ahasuerus in the play Esther by Jean Racine, the seventeenth-century French playwright, in which Racine has Esther reveal her Jewish identity to the king (Alexander and Weich-Shahak 1993:46). The folklorist Tamar Alexander notes that the Esther story is a classical Jewish folk tale in which there is a confrontation between a good Jew, representing the Jewish community, and a wicked Gentile. The king sides with the Jews. Most of these tales end with the words, "The Jews had light and happiness," evoking another Jewish archetype, "the miraculous rescue of the persecuted Jewish community" (Alexander and Weich-Shahak 1993:43).

Reuvain, a member of the militant Zionist Betar youth movement, chose the holiday of Purim to produce a play depicting a humiliated Jewish victim's aspiration to defeat a Gentile oppressor. Reuvain intended the production of this play as a vindication of injustices committed against the Jews. The traditional Sephardic community of Thessaloniki was so influenced by performances of this play that many of its members were motivated to "make aliyah"--that is, to ascend to a higher spiritual plane by emigrating to Israel.

The secular Betar movement in Thessaloniki merged with the Mizrahi religious movement. This was a event made possible only by the Sephardic community of Thessaloniki. In this community, secular ideas could mesh with religious ones thanks to the tolerance and moderation that stemmed from the community's origins in Spain and from the French Enlightenment, which was so influential. Thessaloniki's religious fervor was complemented by a right wing Zionist nationalism. Religious Jews from Thessaloniki had been migrating to Israel for generations. Rejecting secular Socialist-Zionism, they ignored the Revisionists' extreme militant character but wholeheartedly supported the idea of a Jewish State.

The Sephardic Jews did not endorse the Zionist leftists who rejected religion; instead, they embraced the secular Revisionists, who were not averse to tradition or to partial religious observance. The [End Page 39] Mizrahi youth, influenced greatly by the dynamic personality of their leader, Avraham Recanati, a close friend of ZPev Jabotinsky's, the Revisionist leader, accepted this unusual instance of rapprochement between the two movements. Indeed, Recanati was unique in instituting a merger of the two movements.

According to the young Mizrahi leader Toledano (1972:443), "the Mizrahi Federation in Thessaloniki strove for radical Zionism, for a complete Judaism. . . . On a political plane, this was an ideological joining of the aims of Mizrahi in connection with the implantation of the Torah and tradition, and the aims of the Revisionists in connection with a Jewish State and the cultivation of a Jewish Military Force." Reuvain actually led the protest to break away from the Mizrahi movement led by Recanati. The Revisionists, including Reuvain, were adamant in their rejection of the diaspora, whereas the Mizrahi actors displayed more tolerance regarding the diasporic phenomenon (Alexander and Weich-Shahak 1993:46).

This was reflected in the musical Ester, which, like so many other Judeo-Spanish plays, was an adaptation of a French prototype rather than an original Jewish piece. Racine's play fit the Judeo-Spanish mold because it dealt with a traditional Jewish biblical theme and emphasized the connection to Zion in its allegories of destruction and hopes for rebuilding (Alexander and Weich-Shahak 1993:45). 4 But the fact that all this derived from a French context fulfilled the actors' desire to bring French culture to the local Jewish community in response to the diasporic view that, since there was no guarantee of permanent settlement in one place, every intellectual Jew must know French culture to insure future security, because a knowledge of this culture was a way to put down roots in the greater world.

Jewish theater in other cities

The earliest evidence for Jewish theater in a Greek town apart from Thessaloniki is found in Rhodes. The play Zavali choyuk was performed twice in Turkish in 1886 by the students of the Jewish school in Rhodes. El casamiento farzado was performed in Judeo-Spanish (Romero 1979:2.675). However, no plays were performed in other Jewish communities until the beginning of the twentieth century. The students of the Jewish schools in Kavala performed a "dialogo" in 1902 at the ceremony, held at the Jewish community building, in which clothes were given out to boys and girls (Romero 1979:2.689). That same year, the boys and girls of the Alliance school in Serres presented "Monologos" and "Dialogos" in Lashon Hakodesh, Turkish, and French at the award ceremony (Romero 1979:2.691, 707). By 1906, the graduates of this [End Page 40] school had founded an acting society called "Los Amigos de la Instruccion," and they performed a very moving play, Los cativados, in Judeo-Spanish. On the eve of the holiday of Purim in 1905, the students of the school in Langadas performed the play Esther by Ya'acob Abraham Shemuel (Romero 1979:2.704). In April of 1905 and 1906, Teatro was performed at the Communal Council headquarters in Didymóteikhon (Romero 1979:2.705). A short comedy written by the school director was performed in Turkish by the students of the Jewish schools of Gumulgina (renamed Komotini) in 1909 (Romero 1979:2.722). In the city of Drama, the first recorded performance took place on 14 September 1912, when the students of the Jewish community school participated in a fund-raising effort by mounting a theatrical "representation." In 1914, the students of the Jewish school performed a monologue and a dialogue in French, Hebrew, and Spanish. They also performed El hacino imaginario (The Imaginary Invalid) at the prize distribution ceremony (Romero 1979:2.737, 746). In Xanthi the Jewish school students produced a monologue, a dialogue, and a small theatrical "pieza" in 1923. In 1924, the amateur actors of the Ben Sion society performed El coreo de Lyon in a fund-raising event at the Panteon Cinema for the construction of a school building (Romero 1979:2.772-773). During the same year, the amateur actors of the sports society Hatikva performed the biblical drama Saul y David at another fund-raising event for the reconstruction of their school.

Kastoria had an active, vibrant theatrical life. The first play noted was performed on 18 November 1917 for the benefit of the numerous victims of the large fire that had ravaged Thessaloniki at the beginning of the previous summer. This was a theatrical "representation" (Romero 1979:2.756, 793, 801). In 1932, on the holiday of Tu Bishvat, the amateur actors of the Association of Young Jews (A.J.J.) celebrated their third anniversary with the plays El triumfo de la justicia 5 and Molière's El medico malgrado. The next year, they celebrated their fourth anniversary by repeating El triumfo de la justicia, this time in Greek. It was translated from Judeo-Spanish for the benefit of their audience at the local high school and for members of the A.J.J. Later, the play was again performed in Greek translation for a mixed Jewish-Gentile audience in Florina. As the curtain was lowered at the end of the performance, the audience applauded with loud cheers. This play was the A.J.J. drama group's greatest success. The school principal, Jacques Ashkenazi, had obtained it for them in Judeo-Spanish; he might have translated it himself from French. Since Judeo-Spanish was the only language that they knew well, all of their plays were first performed in that language and only afterwards in Greek.

Shortly after its establishment, the A.J.J. organized short plays to be [End Page 41] performed at communal events. Prepared texts were obtained from central Jewish institutions in Thessaloniki. The young people of the drama club quickly developed a talent for producing and acting these plays. They performed a diverse repertoire of plays utilizing both Jewish and non-Jewish subjects. This diversity was encouraged less by changing themes at the usual festivities and more by the actors' eagerness to perform an expanded repertoire. Acting had become a satisfying hobby for many of the A.J.J. members of both sexes. These productions brought in enough revenue to enable the actors to establish a recreational facility and a meeting place by renting a club in which they installed furniture, a snack bar, and a library (Eliyahu 1983:30-31).

Another production in Greek by the group in Kastoria was the comedy To kainourgio spiti (The New House). Still another was Ta arravoniasmata (The Engagements), which dealt with the problems of a fisherman's family on a small Greek island. The play exposed the difficulties involved in fishing, land disputes, and complicated familial problems. The theater was filled, the actors enthusiastically gave their souls to the production, and the play was a great success. Noted for their acting in this production were Mayo Demayo and his brother, the young boy Albertiko. In 1937, after this production, many of the members of the A.J.J. went to Palestine, where they founded the Greek-Jewish agricultural cooperative settlement Moshav Tsur Moshe (Golan 1987:15-17).


The Greek-Jewish theater emerged in the 1880s and reached its peak at the beginning of the twentieth century. Most of the plays were adaptations of European plays into Judeo-Spanish. However, many plays were also performed in Turkish and Greek. Most of the plays were originally written by French and Italian playwrights. However, there was a significant number of original Judeo-Spanish plays that, for the most part, were short and simple. The overwhelming number of productions were amateur, and were mounted by youth groups. However, local directors like Herrera gave them a touch of professionalism. The history of the Greek-Jewish theater shows the transformation of the Greek Jews from a closed, religious society to an open, secular one. The relatively late arrival of Europeanization to the northern part of the Greek peninsula and the islands in the nineteenth century, and the Holocaust in the 1940s that annihilated all those who participated in this ethnic theater, explain why the Greek-Jewish theater lived for such a short time. When we compare the existing Sephardic culture and the dramatic literature [End Page 42] that has survived in Judeo-Spanish to the long and vibrant Eastern European Ashkenazic culture and literature in Yiddish, the former seems minuscule. Unlike Italian Jews, the Jews of the Greek peninsula worked as artisans. After the expulsion from Spain in 1492, the Sephardic Jews were employed as fishermen, boatmen, loaders, and seaport workers. There were no full-time actors, playwrights, or theatrical personnel.

Very little scholarly research has been completed and published on Judeo-Spanish drama. Most studies are included in Bunis's bibliography of Sephardic studies (1981:146-147). Romero cites many notices of theatrical productions, but she provides very little discussion of the plays. My hope is that this essay will pave the way for further research in this unexplored area.

The Hebrew University of Jerusalem


1. The number of plays performed in Thessaloniki and other Jewish communities is too great to analyze systematically in such a short article. In addition, many of the works listed by Romero and by Yaari have never been located; they are merely cited or described in secondary sources, especially newspapers. Accordingly, the present article can be no more than a preliminary study.

2. This play was serialized in La Epoca, 9 February 1900, pp. 9a-b; 16 February 1900, pp. 8a-9a; 16 March 1900, pp. 4a-b; 30 March 1900, pp. 9a-9b; 6 April 1900, pp. 9a-b; and [?] May 1900, pp. 9a-b.

3. This rich theatrical life continued until the Holocaust, when most of the Jews of Thessaloniki were sent to the Auschwitz and Treblinka extermination camps.

4. Ester also evoked the Judeo-Spanish tradition of the Marranos, who stayed in Spain after the 1492 expulsion and hid their Judaism. The state of being a crypto-Jew was ingrained in the Sephardic condition in the Balkans. Many arriving in the Ottoman Empire after the expulsion were Marranos or had previously been crypto-Jews in Spain during the Inquisition. For several generations after the expulsions, waves of Marranos continued migrating to Thessaloniki (Alexander and Weich-Shahak 1993:46-47).

5. Yaari (1934:14) notes that this drama in three acts, which speaks of Jewish life in Russia in 1917, was written by Moiz Nagari and published in 1921. It was also performed in Thessaloniki by a group of amateurs from the Zionist movement "Max Nordau."

References Cited

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