In 1946 the New Yiddish Theatre Company staged The Merchant of Venice at the Adler Hall, Whitechapel in the heart of London’s East End. Given the ambiguous role of the Jewish moneylender Shylock, it was a brave decision to stage the play so soon after the Second World War (1939–45), when the horror of the Nazis’ treatment of the Jews was so fresh in people’s minds.

As John Gross writes in Shylock (1992), it was as though the company was saying, ‘We are still here. And we are not afraid to confront The Merchant of Venice, with all its problems’ (p. 258).

What do these photographs show?

  • Meier Tzelniker (as Shylock) and his daughter Anna Tzelniker (as Portia), with director Robert Atkins in their dressing room at Adler Hall.
  • The trial scene (4.1) in which Shylock is prevented from taking a pound of Antonio’s flesh by Portia (disguised as a male lawyer). From left to right: Max Blum, Leon Blumenson, Meier Tzelniker, Anna Tzelniker, Joseph Sherman, Meta Segal and Yidel Goldberg.

A Yiddish Merchant of Venice (1946)

The company performed a version of Shakespeare’s play translated by Abish Meisels into Yiddish – the language of many Jews at the time in Europe and America. The company used a non-Jewish director, Robert Atkins. Possibly because of this collaboration, the production was thought to reflect the full complexity of Shylock’s role. Critics said that Meier Tselniker gave the Jew humanity, but also showed his cruelty.

Shakespeare in Yiddish

Although there has been much heated debate over Shakespeare’s portrayal of Shylock, there is also a long history of Jewish versions of the play. Not long after the first Yiddish Shakespeare (Julius Caesar published in Warsaw, 1886), Joseph Bovshover took on the challenge of translating The Merchant of Venice, with a Yiddish prose version in 1899. Another successful Yiddish adaptation was staged in New York in 1901 and 1903, starring Joseph Adler as a Shylock.

Adler saw Shylock as a man of ‘high intellect and proud convictions’, with a grandeur derived from suffering.[1] Yet other Jewish actors and critics have balked at what they see as the anti-Semitism of the play. The New Yiddish Theatre’s production of 1946 was the last Yiddish Merchant of Venice to be performed in Britain.

[1] This is quoted in John Gross, Shylock: Four Hundred Years in the Life of a Legend (London: Chatto and Windus, 1992), p.254. Most of the information on Shakespeare in Yiddish is also taken from Gross’s book.