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Fordham-NYPL Lecture Series in Jewish Studies: Elizabeth Polack, Jewish Emancipation, and the Archive of 19th-Century Melodrama

Wednesday, February 2
4 – 5:30 p.m.

Elizabeth Polack is the earliest-known female Jewish playwright in Britain. We know very little about her life, but her entertaining melodramas in the late 1830s made a lasting impact; people were still talking about the spectacular murder mystery The Echo of Westminster Bridge well into the 20th century. They address such pressing issues as the struggle for the emancipation of the Jews and of women at a time when both were subjected to overwhelming legal and cultural disabilities. And they brought together in public theatres in largely Jewish neighborhoods both Jewish and non-Jewish audiences to mingle while enjoying such plays as Esther, the Royal Jewess, or the Death of Haman!, even though it was clearly a Purimspiel as well as a melodrama. Although recovering a forgotten but significant Jewish woman writer is part of this project, it also seeks to emphasize the value of Polack’s gathering diverse communities in the same playhouse to enjoy a theatrical performance.

Sharon Aronofsky Weltman is the director of comparative literature at Louisiana State University, the Davis Alumni Professor of English, and co-editor of Nineteenth-Century Theatre and Film. Her most recent book, Victorians on Broadway: Literature, Adaptation, and the Modern American Musical (University of Virginia Press, 2020), was named a “must-read” summer theater book by Playbill in 2020, is a Top 40 academic best seller in theatre and music—according to Library Journal (March 2021)—and it won the 2021 SCMLA Book Prize. One chapter focuses on performing Jewishness in the musical Oliver! Her article titled “Melodrama, Purimspiel, and Jewish Emancipation” on the first Anglo-Jewish woman playwright won the 2020 Nineteenth-Century Studies Association Best Article Prize. In September and October 2021, she visited the New York City Public Library’s collections on a Fordham-NYPL Short-Term Research Fellowship in Jewish Studies to work on Elizabeth Polack and her contemporaries. In April 2022, she will begin participating in the Margaret Belcher Visiting Fellowship in Victorian Studies at St Hughs College, Oxford University, where she will continue her research on Polack.

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This event is open to alumni, faculty/staff, parents, students, and the public.