The King of the Jewish Stage

Extract from an article in Issue 17, December 10, 2007 of The Jerusalem Report. For full story please subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here to subscribe. Two new books cast light on Jacob Gordin, the Yiddish world's most beloved playwright, who died in New York in 1909 Our subject is the Jewish "King Lear," but perhaps the most telling anecdote about the Yiddish theater remains the oft-told tale regarding Boris Thomashefsky's translation of "Hamlet." Produced at the turn of the 20th century in New York, the golden age and golden stage of Yiddish theater, "Hamlet" proved a howling success - so much so that at the curtain calls the audiences clamored, "Author! Author!" Thomashefsky had to step up to the footlights and apologize to the crowd that because the playwright lived far away, in England, he could not be present to acknowledge the acclaim. At just about the same time, when Jacob Gordin's version of "Lear" was on the boards, it is reported that so disturbing was the mistreatment of the play's eponymous pater familias by his ungrateful children that one member of the audience ran up to the stage and insisted that lead actor Jacob Adler come home with him, where he would be treated with due respect and loving kindness. Such anecdotes illustrate not only the enduring and universal appeal of Shakespeare but also reveal a good deal about the Yiddish theater and its audiences. As these fine books by Beth Kaplan and the Ruth Gay translation of the Jacob Gordin's classic make abundantly clear, the Yiddish theater was an amazing phenomenon. From its humble beginnings in Rumania as tavern entertainment (Abraham Goldfaden is the acknowledged father of Yiddish theater), the era of Yiddish playwriting and performance as a popular art would last only some 50 years. Yet in its heyday, nearly a dozen theaters, some with as many as 3,000 seats, were offering plays to the poor peddlers and garment workers of New York's Lower East Side. The children of those devoted theater-goers would prefer its plays in English - and on Broadway. Restrictions on further immigration and the advent of the movies would also help kill the Yiddish theater. Nevertheless, when Gordin, the Yiddish world's most beloved playwright, died in New York in 1909, a quarter-million or more mourners lined up to watch his funeral procession. Some 30 speakers eulogized Gordin in the Bowery's vast Thalia Theater, and 20,000 Jews followed the funeral cort?ge across the Williamsburg Bridge to the cemetery in Brooklyn. Jacob Gordin was an unlikely king of the Jewish stage. Born in 1853 in the Ukrainian town of Mirgorod, he was the son of a prosperous merchant of "enlightened" leanings. Offered little in the way of either religious or secular education, Jacob was largely an autodidact. His first language - and his favored tongue throughout his life - was Russian. Although he would eventually write some 80 plays, as well as criticism and essays, in Yiddish, that language, ironically enough, would never really come easily to him. Historian Ruth Gay has done a wonderful job of introducing the Jewish "Lear" and rendering the text into English. (How thrilling to rediscover the words: "You don't have anything else to do? Go bang your head against the wall!" - the very commandment my mother addressed to me so many times throughout my dissolute childhood.) Gay and the critic Sophie Glazer also provide essays on theater history, on Jacob Gordin and on "Lear" as added value to an already splendid volume. Beth Kaplan meanwhile makes her own invaluable contribution with her full-length biography of Gordin, who happened to have been her great-grandfather. Kaplan, a Canadian actress, writer and teacher, says she devoted 20 years to assembling her biography and, despite having to rely on others to translate the Yiddish sources, she has done a fine job. Her book admirably combines scholarly research, critical analysis, loving tribute and personal memoir. Among Kaplan's sources are the playwright's many descendants (remember those 11 children) and, interestingly, among her discoveries is that few of her relatives knew much or for that matter cared much about Jacob Gordin. Many, by dint of intermarriage and inclination, had simply left Jewishness far behind them. Many apparently believed there was something mildly embarrassing about being connected to what they viewed as the monarch of a shabby domain like the Yiddish theater. Such a dismissive attitude recalls nothing so much as the cruelty visited upon King Lear by his heartless daughters Goneril and Regan. Fortunately, Jacob Gordin has a faithful and loving Cordelia in the person of Beth Kaplan. For full story please subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here to subscribe.