Sweden’s national theater stages its first-ever Yiddish production

Actors in this weekend’s production of “Waiting for Godot” at the Royal Dramatic Theater in Stockholm performed neither in the classic play’s original English nor in Swedish translation.

Rather, they were speaking Yiddish, a language spoken by few Swedes but increasingly cherished by many.

The Yiddish version of Samuel Beckett’s classic absurdist play, translated by Shane Baker, premiered in 2013 through the New Yiddish Rep, a theater company in New York City, under the direction of Moshe Yassur, a Holocaust survivor whose career in Yiddish theater dates to his prewar childhood in Romania.

It has toured as far afield as Paris and Enniskillen in Northern Ireland.

The performances marked its debut in Sweden, and the first time ever that a play in Yiddish was staged at Sweden’s national theater company — the only home that its local backers considered.

“I didn’t want it anywhere else but in Dramaten,” said Lizzie Oved Scheja, the executive director of J!Jewish Culture in Sweden, one of the institutions responsible for bringing the performance to Stockholm, about the choice of the venue.

“We believe that Jewish culture should be a part of Swedish culture, and that it should be presented on all the main stages in Sweden,” she said.

The three performances were filled almost to capacity and drew prominent audience members including the Swedish minister of culture, leading Scheja to characterize the staging as “a triumph of a culture that was supposed to be wiped out” in the Holocaust.”

In Sweden today, no more than 3,000 people out of a Jewish population of roughly 25,000 can speak Yiddish, according to the country’s Society for Yiddish (Jiddischsällskapet). Even that figure may well be an overestimate, given the country’s small number of haredi Jews, the population that most often speaks Yiddish in their regular lives, and high rates of assimilation.

But the language has a long history in the country, dating back to the 18th century, when Jews were first allowed to settle in the country. The population of Yiddish-speakers further rose at the beginning of the 20th century, with a new wave of Jewish emigration, mostly from Russia, and after World War II, when thousands of Holocaust survivors arrived in Sweden, which had sheltered its own Jewish population from the Nazis.

In 2000, Yiddish became one of Sweden’s official minority languages (alongside with Finnish, Sami, Meänkieli and Romani). The status of “cultural heritage” brought governmental funding for initiatives aimed at preserving the language within Sweden over the past 20 years.


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