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Spectaculars for Citizenship: Informal Education through Meyer Weisgal’s 1930s Theatrical Productions

Tue, December 17, 8:30 to 10:00am, Hilton Bayfront San Diego, Aqua Salon C

Abstract

Considerable research has assessed the effectiveness of a range of Jewish educational institutions, youth movements, summer camps and Israel trips in building Jewish knowledge, stimulating Jewish identification, and mitigating assimilation. Far fewer studies have considered alternative forms of informal learning, including theater as a vehicle of education, in spite of American Jews’ significant involvement in dramatic endeavors. In response, this paper explores the ways in which the productions of the Zionist activist Meyer Weisgal brought a number of social and political issues to the attention of a broad American public. Alongside the rise of Nazism in Germany, the 1930s were marked by substantial anti-Semitic discourse in the United States, with Jews frequently accused of exploiting and corrupting a white Christian-dominated nation. Whereas the majority of prominent Jewish organizations and producers duly evaded public Jewish and anti-Nazi causes or themes for fear of exacerbating anti-Semitic attitudes, Weisgal’s productions actively challenged discriminatory stereotypes, educated Americans about Jews’ contributions to societal progress, and raised public awareness of the plight of Germany’s Jews. For instance, the pageant THE ROMANCE OF A PEOPLE, first presented to a record audience at the 1933–1934 Chicago world’s fair and later repeated in several other American cities, intertwined biblical stories, historic events and Zionist political themes in order to associate the Jewish pioneer with the larger American national imagination. Moreover, having received the approbation of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the media for his pageant’s educational value and response to anti-Semitism, Weisgal produced the biblical musical THE ETERNAL ROAD to accentuate Nazi actions in Germany. Weisgal also directed the development of the Jewish Palestine Pavilion at the 1939–1940 New York world’s fair to enlighten the public about Zionist concerns. Thus, in supporting the resettlement of German Jews in Palestine while expressing Jewish commitment to the American nation, the productions staked a claim for acculturated (as opposed to assimilated) citizenship rights both at home and abroad, and enabled Jews to engage with identity questions among a broader audience, with implications for the subsequent advancement of American Jewry.

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