Monday, August 27, 2012

The Story of Joseph

In an interview conducted in 2003 in Zhovkva, Ukraine, Polina Lebvol related the entire plot of the Yoysef-shpil, or Joseph Play, that she remembered from her youth. As you might recall from Izrail Gliazer's account in this post, such plays were often performed on the holiday of Purim. Polina, however, believes that in Zhovkva, where she grew up, the play was performed on Passover. Not only does she remember the plot in great detail, but she also is able to sing a few of the songs from the play, as can be seen in the clip below.

Polina was born in 1920. Her father worked as a butcher and glass-blower, and her mother raised eight children. Polina briefly attended a Beys Yankev (Bais Yaakov) religious girls' school and began working as a seamstress at age 13.

She remembers the Joseph play so well in part because she performed in it several times when she was young. Plays based on the Biblical story about the sale of Joseph by his brothers were very common throughout Europe for centuries, primarily as Purim plays (purim-shpiln). The introductory song that appears in the clip above is very typical of the introductory songs of other Purim plays, such as this one, called Golias-shpil (the story of David and Goliath), and recorded by Sh. An-ski's ethnographic expedition in Kremenets in 1913. Such plays later formed the foundation for Yiddish theater.

The informed listener might notice that the Yiddish in Polina's song is somewhat daytshmerish, or Germanized, as can be seen in words such as "layte" instead of "layt" (people), "fon" instead of "fun" (from), and "shpile" instead of "shpil" (play). This type of speech reflects the longevity of these plays in Ashkenkazic Jewish culture, as these Middle High German forms, more typical of Old Yiddish, have been retained to the present day. These variants are a marker of the plays' origins in German-speaking lands, where Yiddish-speaking Jews lived prior to their migration to Slavic lands.

-- Asya Vaisman

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