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June 12: Modicut Theater

Lawrence Bush
June 12, 2010

Folder 72 - Publicity shot of two puppets from Modicut puppet theaterYiddish puppeteer and artist Yosl Cutler died on this date in 1935. Cutler was championed as an artist by the great Yiddish satirist Moishe Nadir, and then teamed up with artist Zuni Maud in the early 1920s in the offices of der groyse kundes (the Big Stick), a leading Yiddish satirical journal. Together they opened the Modicut studio near Union Square and launched an artistic collaboration that included a puppet theater. Edward Portnoy writes that the Modicut theater, “satirizing Jewish and general politics of the day, provided an experience unlike anything previously seen in Yiddish theater.” Modicut endured for eight years and was seen and enjoyed by thousands. It combined “Maud’s cynical humor with Cutler’s fantastic Jewish grotesques.” (Cutler, writes Portnoy, was “a modernist who experimented with cubism and surrealism.”) In 1929-30, Modicut had a triumphant tour of Europe (Paris, London, Brussels, Antwerp, Vilna and Warsaw), and in 1932, the puppet theater toured the Jewish precincts of the USSR. Yosl Cutler dissolved his partnership with Zuni Maud in 1935, for personal reasons, and was killed in an automobile accident in Iowa Falls while on a puppet-show tour sponsored by the Morning Frayhayt (the communist Yiddish daily). Between ten and fifteen thousand New Yorkers attended his memorial service. Cutler made an 18-minute film of his puppet work in 1935, which is available from the National Center for Jewish Film at Brandeis University. To see an excellent presentation on Modicut by Eddy Portnoy and puppeteer John Bell, look below.
“It was a tragedy when Zuni Maud and Yosl Cutler separated. . . . How many thousands of workers and simple folk were thrilled by them . . . how many thousands of children from the Yiddish schools did they charm?” —Khaver-Paver

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.