Challenging the Theater of Memory.

Yiddish Song beyond Kitsch and Stereotype

A research project at MMRC, funded by the AR-Pilot Call 2022 of mdw – University of Music and Performing Arts Vienna


Brief description:

The project “Challenging the Theater of Memory. Yiddish Song beyond Kitsch and Stereotype” attempts to explore and deconstruct the ways that Jewishness is portrayed and embodied in the performance of Yiddish song through ethnographic research and musical performance.

In Germany and in Austria, there are scores of expectations regarding performer, repertoire and the type of Jew represented on stage. Sociologist Michal Y. Bodemann has called this phenomenon, in which Jewish participation in public life fulfills a role on the German post-Nazi national narrative, the Theater of Memory (Bodemann 1996). In the Theater of Memory the diversity and complexity of Jewish life is instrumentalized and reduced to a supporting role in the German or Austrian political narrative. The performance of Yiddish song and more broadly the cultural heritage of Ashkenazi Jews, are not exempt from this phenomenon. Often Yiddish culture and music is portrayed through the nostalgic tropes of traditional shtetl life, stereotypical images of “Ostjuden” and the destruction of the Shoah. Such performances of Yiddish music often reinforce hegemonic narratives rather than creating empowerment for Jewish minorities in Germany and Austria.

In this artistic research project Yiddish musicians and researchers Isabel Frey and Benjy Fox-Rosen reflect on their attempts to challenge the Theater of Memory in their artistic practice. Drawing from their experience of past performances, theory from both performance and Jewish studies as well as ethnomusicology, they develop an artistic performance which weaves together music, texts and visuals. This performance is situated at the center of this artistic research project; it will be presented in multiple settings, and to diverse audiences. The project will be documented through auto-ethnographic (see Bartleet 2021) research methods and audio/visual recordings, published in the Research Catalogue. The final goal of the project is to complete an application for the PEEK program of the FWF in Spring 2023 that will build on and expand upon the topics explored in the present pilot project.

Bartleet, Brydie-Leigh. “Artistic Autoethnography: Exploring the Interface between Autoethnography and Artistic Research.” In Handbook of Autoethnography, edited by Tony E. Adams, Stacy Holman Jones and Carolyn Ellis, pp. 133–145. New York: Routledge, 2021.
Bodemann, Y. Michal. Gedächtnistheater: die jüdische Gemeinschaft und ihre deutsche Erfindung. Hamburg: Rotbuch-Verlag, 1996.


Project lead: Isabel Frey and Benjy Fox-Rosen

Funding: AR-Pilot Call 2022 of mdw, Austrian Science Fund FWF Grant-DOI 10.55776/Z352