Deborah and Her Sisters: How One Nineteenth-Century Melodrama and a Host of Celebrated Actresses Put Judaism on the World Stage

Univ. of Pennsylvania. 2017. 272p. illus. notes. index. ISBN 9780812249583. $49.95; ebk. ISBN 9780812294439. THEATER
Hess (Moses M. and Hannah L. Malkin Distinguished Professor of Jewish History and Culture, Univ. of North Carolina; Germans, Jews and the Claims of Modernity) examines an important piece of Jewish popular cultural history: a sentimental 19th-century play by German-Jewish playwright S.H. Mosenthal. Deborah, about a Jewish woman forsaken by her non-Jewish lover, was incredibly popular in German-speaking countries. The work's renown carried over to English translations as well. Although often critically dismissed as melodramatic and highly sensationalized, Deborah and its subsequent adaptations enjoyed plenty of praise from audiences for its actresses. The role of the titular character lent itself to "excesses of all types," and the women who played her garnered much adulation. This highly readable yet scholarly book sheds light on an aspect of popular Jewish culture not widely known. In an era of increasing anti-Semitism in Europe, the universal sympathy for Deborah engendered a liberalism and empathy at the same time that the ant-Semitism of Friedrich Nietzsche's and Richard Wagner's works were prevalent.
VERDICT This fascinating, well-documented title will be of interest to scholars and general readers interested in Jewish cultural history.
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