Vol. 31 No. 1

Pageants and Patriots: Jewish Spectacles as Performances of Belonging

by Rachel Merrill Moss and Gary Alan Fine
The Journal of American Drama and Theatre
Volume 31, Number 1 (Fall 2018)

ISNN 2376-4236
©2018 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center

The night before Independence Day in 1933, something unprecedented occurred.[1] As part of Chicago’s Century of Progress Exposition, “Jewish Day” was celebrated, culminating in a record-breaking performance that garnered an audience of between 125,000 and 150,000 spectators crammed into Chicago’s Soldier Field, causing massive traffic jams before and after.[2] While some of Chicago’s other immigrant ethnicities were represented as part of the Expo, Jewish Day and its show-stopping finale were the most notable ethnically-oriented events of the entire fair. So impactful was the performance, The Romance of a People, that not only did it receive twelve columns of coverage in the Chicago Tribune the following day, but an encore performance was sponsored by the Tribune three nights after the initial performance. Ultimately a bold Zionist affair, raising money for creating the would-be Jewish refuge of Palestine, The Romance of a People combined spectacle and politics in a remarkably successful performance as Hitler was coming into power.

A decade later, in the midst of World War II, another Jewish pageant of massive scale graced the city, but after ten years of atrocities, the motives and emotions were much different. Well into wartime, 1943 brought the New York-originated pageant, We Will Never Die, to Chicago as part of a nationwide tour. While still promoting the increasingly insistent need for a government-sanctioned nationhood (the demand which transformed Palestine into Israel five years after the Chicago performance), the pageant, as evidenced by its title, spoke to the threat to Jewish life and identity by the Nazis. Even more than in The Romance of a People, We Will Never Die carried the fear of genocide. A somber tone and a tocsin of impending death replaced the patriotic and inclusive hunger for recognition evident in The Romance of a People.

Another decade later, as series of smaller individual performances were organized as part of a nationwide Jewish-American celebration: the American Jewish Tercentenary. Commemorating three hundred years of Jewish presence in America, the year-long event was held from 1954 through 1955, and boasted “forums, exhibitions, pageants, musical festivals, and public dinners organized by local committees in at least four hundred cities and towns.”[3] While these three decades of pageants bore similarities in theme and in production elements, their execution and tone differ drastically, speaking to the radically different times in American history for Jews and America’s relationship to the Jews.

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