by Dr Deborah Butcher
Since the first phase of our project got inconspicuously underway in early September, a large chunk of my weeks has been productively and enjoyably spent perusing a richly-diverse collection of the Scottish Jewish Archives Centre. This is an enormous task, yet also an incredibly exciting one. Opening a box, I am never quite sure what delights or distractions await me.
The first collection I decide to scope comprises ten boxes containing materials relating to the Jewish Institute (later Avrom Greenbaum) Players. Browsing through a selection of theatre programmes, newspaper reviews, photographs, hand-annotated scripts, posters and other ephemera I am able to piece together a somewhat sketchy history of the company. Formed in 1936 in the Jewish Institute at South Portland Street by aspiring playwright, actor and producer Avrom Greenbaum, the Jewish Institute Players constituted the first all-Jewish drama group in Scotland. The Players were renowned for their innovative productions grappling with the themes of Jewish identity, such as folk drama The Dybbuk performed as part of the 1951 Festival of Jewish Arts. They also staged various socialist plays (by the likes of Sean O’Casey, Maxim Gorki and Clifford Odets) exploring working-class life in the Clydeside shipyards. After the death of their founder in 1963, the Jewish Institute Players became known as the Avrom Greenbaum Players and remained strong until the early 1980s.
Contained within the Greenbaum collection is much to excite the dramatic enthusiast, as well as those interested in the history of Scottish-Jewish cultural and artistic output. For members of the local community, there is also the promise that the collection will reignite fond memories, and reacquaint them with long-lost friends: this I discover to my astonishment, when I present what I consider to be the most stimulating of the Greenbaum sources to a group of volunteers at the Archives Centre, and am rewarded by their animated sharing of delightfully amusing anecdotes.
For me, one of the collection’s strengths is its eclectic appeal, blending the organisational and official with the personal and sentimental: Avrom and his wife Ray’s marriage certificate, passport and childhood photos are unexpectedly buried amongst promotional materials and official correspondence. Several of his poems – “Yom Ha-Rabbie Burns” and “Address to the Fress” – testify to the adaptability of his literary talents, and succinctly express his ability to seamlessly fuse the Scottish and Jewish. In his introductory preface to a performance of Giraudoux’s ‘The Madwoman of Chaillot’, Greenbaum tentatively expresses his conviction that his dramatists “may have, however modestly, added something of our own to Scottish Theatre.”
I think this is something of an understatement: the contribution of this grass-roots theatre group, boldly staging avant garde and sometimes gritty productions dealing with the complex intersections of class, ethnic and cultural identity to national drama was profound.
For me, it’s a shame that the company is not more widely known and better appreciated beyond the local community. Yet for those with personal recollections of the players and the performances, the Greenbaum Players (and the memorabilia which tells their story) remain justifiably highly esteemed, fondly remembered and much-loved.