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Shakespeare on the American Yiddish Stage

Shakespeare on the American Yiddish Stage

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by Joel Berkowitz

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The professional Yiddish theatre started in 1876 in Eastern Europe; with the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881, masses of Eastern European Jews began moving westward, and New York—Manhattan's Bowery and Second Avenue—soon became the world's center of Yiddish theatre.  At first the Yiddish repertoire revolved around comedies, operettas, and


The professional Yiddish theatre started in 1876 in Eastern Europe; with the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881, masses of Eastern European Jews began moving westward, and New York—Manhattan's Bowery and Second Avenue—soon became the world's center of Yiddish theatre.  At first the Yiddish repertoire revolved around comedies, operettas, and melodramas, but by the early 1890s America's Yiddish actors were wild about Shakespeare.  In Shakespeare on the American Yiddish Stage, Joel Berkowitz knowledgably and intelligently constructs the history of this unique theatrical culture.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"Berkowitz's revealing study lovingly and meticulously recreates a fascinating moment when a Yiddish theatre tried to 'improve' itself by appropriating Shakespeare and his considerable reputation—and in the process created a newly enriched kind of Shakespeare, brimming over with pathos, melodrama, unabashed theatricality, and yiddishkeit." —Harley Erdman, author of Staging the Jew: The Performance of an American Ethnicity, 1860-1920

Product Details

University of Iowa Press
Publication date:
Studies Theatre Hist and Culture Series
Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.90(d)

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Shakespeare on the American Yiddish Stage STUDIES IN THEATRE HISTORY & CULTURE
University of Iowa Press Copyright © 2002 University of Iowa Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-87745-800-5

Chapter One 'Gordin Is Greater Than Shakespeare'

The Jewish King and Queen Lear It was Jacob Gordin (1853-1909), more than any other playwright, who gave Shakespeare a Yiddish accent. A handful of Shakespeare's plays had been staged in Yiddish before, but Gordin translated far more than just the language of his source. Retelling the Lear story from the vantage point of a contemporary eastern European Jew in The Jewish King Lear (1892), Gordin taught audiences a little bit about Shakespeare and a great deal about what it meant to be Jewish in their newly adopted home, the United States. Six years later, Gordin topped the success of The Jewish King Lear with The Jewish Queen Lear. The latter play, which quickly came to be known simply by its subtitle, Mirele Efros, departed more freely from the structure of King Lear while conveying its message with greater subtlety. The two plays combined would, paradoxically, help popularize Shakespeare while preempting any more faithful version of King Lear from ever taking hold with American Yiddish audiences. After 1892, if you mentioned King Lear to an American Yiddish theatregoer, he would undoubtedly think not of Shakespeare, but of Jacob Gordin and the actors who played his King and Queen Lear. Most Yiddish audiences would have agreed with the theater manager who reportedly claimed, "Gordin is greater than Shakespeare, for besides having the same dramaturgical talents, he also has Jewish charm, Jewish humor and Jewish pathos - qualities that Shakespeare does not possess!"

Gordin came late to playwriting. Born on 1 May 1853 in Mirgorod, Ukraine, he received both a traditional Jewish education and a broad exposure to Western culture. He married at age nineteen and was expected to settle into a business career, but quickly moved on to a series of other jobs while continuing his earlier work as a journalist and theatre critic and participating in a number of Jewish, socialist, and agrarian reform movements.

After immigrating to the United States in July 1891, Gordin quickly made a strong impression among New York's Yiddish writers and actors. What first caught their attention was not Gordin the writer but Gordin the man, whose majestic presence made actors like Bessie Thomashefsky take note: "His appearance impressed all of us. He was tall and thin, with a remarkably handsome, noble face; deep, intelligent eyes; a beautiful black beard, neatly trimmed; a great head of thick, black, curly hair, combed down to his nape; a large, soft black hat with a broad brim; a poor but clean suit that fit him well; and a walking stick in his hand." The critic Shmuel Niger argued that in order to understand Gordin's influence, one must recognize Gordin's persona as an integral part of his creative output: "His appearance was an expression of the strength he exerted, an emanation from his soul." The combination of Gordin's enormous charisma with a dramaturgic talent for placing the resources of the Yiddish theatre in the service of his didactic goals helped him become what Niger described as "the last of the American Yiddish enlighteners."

The Reformer Fellow socialists invited Gordin to write for their newspaper, Di arbeter tsaytung, but since his sketches did not pay well enough to feed his large family, he sought to supplement his income by writing for the Yiddish theatre. He was, however, appalled by what he saw there. Yiddish plays at the time shared certain basic ingredients: dialogue in a Germanized Yiddish known as daytshmerish; plot complications that would have sent an Aristotelian screaming for the exit; and songs, dances, jokes, and sword fights at every possible opportunity - and at some opportunities that might previously have been thought impossible. "Everything I heard and saw there was far from Jewish life," Gordin later wrote; "coarse, unaesthetic, false, mean, and vulgar."

Ever the crusader (fig. 1), Gordin set out to change the situation himself - an undertaking he later described in characteristically inflated rhetoric:

I sat down to write my first drama, which at its circumcision was given the name "Siberia." I wrote my first play as a God-fearing scribe writes out a book of the Torah. Such a scribe, every time he writes God's name, immerses himself in the mikve [ritual bath]. Naturally, I did not go to the mikve, but I guarded my pen so that every word should be clean and every thought holy.

Gordin launched his aesthetic campaign on two fronts: playwriting and criticism. A few months before the premiere of The Jewish King Lear, he published in Di arbeter tsaytung a 200-line poem in rhymed couplets entitled, "The Subject of My Future Drama." The poem describes a hypothetical, fantastical, five-act operetta, a blend of everything Gordin finds wrong with the Yiddish theatre. Lest his readers miss the point, Gordin follows with an explanation:

I just wanted to make all Yiddish actors aware that they are taking the wrong path: on the one hand ... making fun of [the theatregoer], on the other flattering him and letting themselves perform all sorts of idiocy to please him. They debase both the people and their own talents. I did not plan to become a Yiddish dramatist, but now that I am, I will do everything I can to clean the mud off of the Yiddish stage.

Making such a declaration was simple enough, but in practice, the task would not be so straightforward. Working in the theatre is a collaborative process - not just between playwright and theatre company, but also between the producers and consumers of the theatrical event. What Gordin saw as the "wrong path" was the very path that had led dozens of actors from jobs in factories and behind pushcarts to careers on the stage. What he deemed "idiocy" delighted thousands of theatregoers every week. Gordin would have to balance his desire for reforming the Yiddish theatre with the practical need to keep both the other theatre personnel and their audiences satisfied - that is, to leave enough of their beloved "mud" behind while doing his cleaning.

That Gordin had some understanding of the pressures on theatre artists to compromise their aesthetic ambitions for the sake of commercial necessities come across in an early one-act sketch, Yokl der opern-makher [Yokl the opera maker]. The comic curtain raiser premiered along with another Gordin play, Der yidisher galekh [The Jewish priest], at a benefit for Gordin at Adler's Theatre on 3 May 1894. Publicity for the evening emphasized Yokl's function as criticism: "Whoever does not understand what Jacob Gordin has done for the Yiddish theatre and Yiddish literature, he ... should go see the comedy "Yokl the Opera Maker." Then this critique of the Yiddish theatre will really make him begin to understand." Gordin's sketch is billed as education as well as entertainment; the ellipsis appears in the original, as if the copywriter was so staggered by the thought of someone not appreciating Gordin's greatness that he had to pause to catch his breath.

In Yokl (a diminutive for Yankev, Gordin's first name in Yiddish), Gordin simultaneously airs his lofty ideas about art and pokes fun at his own seriousness, as the play makes clear that the Yiddish theatre has no place for such high-mindedness. Yokl, an idealistic composer, has been commissioned to write music for a historical operetta. Shlemiel Ox, the show's director, tries to teach Yokl the tricks of the trade:

Take a look, I've brought some scissors, and in one hour I'll paste together a brand-new historical opera, with a scene from here, an act tacked on from over there, a couple of acts stolen from an old operetta, an epilogue pilfered from a French melodrama, a prologue from Barnum and Bailey's Circus with clever sayings for the comedians ... and brother, there you have it: a new, stunningly successful, historical opera! And the morons pay their money and cry, "Bravo!" Yokl, don't be a yokel; write operas - that is, steal music and shut up.

Gordin implies that Shlemiel carries out the standard operating procedure for writing Yiddish plays, brazenly stealing material from sources that have nothing in common except their potential entertainment value.

When Yokl naively tries to resist such cheap tactics, Shlemiel insists that the more outlandish the effect, the more the audience will applaud. "And Shakespeare? What will he get you? A bloody abscess and two ulcers!" (186). Yokl balks at the allusion:

Oh, why is poor Shakespeare guilty, when you destroy him? Shakespeare and Professor Treytl Henfoot [a thinly veiled allusion to Yiddish playwright Moyshe Hurwitz] are all the same to you. You throw scenes out of Shakespeare's classic works and insert silly couplets and stolen jokes and perform it so that the public doesn't understand what you say, and the actors don't understand what Shakespeare wants from them. I saw Shakespeare's "Antony and Cleopatra" on the Yiddish stage. Antony stands with the posture of a highwayman, gnashes his teeth, rolls his eyes, puckers his lips and cries, "Gevald [help], Cleopatra, I love you!" And Cleopatra moves about like a beast, contorts her mouth like a little boy who's been spanked, makes a sour face as if she had just bitten into a lemon, and screeches ... (186)

Yokl's description suggests that Yiddish actors adopt a particular style for performing classic plays, making them lose whatever claim to naturalness their performances may achieve in other genres.

Gordin goes so far as to have Yokl quote some of the stilted lyrics from this imaginary performance. As the stars are shamelessly mugging for the audience, they move to a safe position behind the prompter's box and sing:

Gey nit fun mir! Ay vey iz mir! In hartsn a geshvir! Es iz heys un ikh frir! (186) [Do not leave me! Oh woe is me! An ulcer in my heart! It is hot, and I am freezing!]

The chorus responds in non sequiturs and a mishmash of unconnected phrases from the Hebrew liturgy, ending improbably with "Hooray, hooray!" In this Shakespearean spectacle, music and lyrics contribute to the incongruity and falseness of the proceedings.

Initially, Shlemiel Ox plays the role of pragmatist, with Yokl resisting his boss's more outlandish proposals for the forthcoming production:

Today we need to read through a new play, then turn it into a historical opera, then stick a catchy name onto the opera, then rehearse it, and by Saturday we'll be putting it on stage with eye-catching scenery; stunning effects; Oriental music; African dances; Arabian horses; Spanish sheep; authentic, historical Jewish goats; Turkish costumes; Chinese shoes; Russian nihilists; Italian melodies; Indian marches; German swords ... (184)

In an environment that lumps all these elements together so shamelessly, Shakespeare is but one more ingredient on a long list of attractions, a cheap cultural commodity to be exploited only so far as the audience applauds the effects his work provides. As passionately as Yokl excoriates the composers and lyricists who collaborate in this process, he joins their ranks once he realizes that he will never make a living as long as he insists on unrealistically high artistic standards. Even Shlemiel, it turns out, once had ideals, but he has learned from hard experience that the Yiddish audience wants something else: "Oh, how happy I would be if our audience would demand serious words, pure, true art, beautiful music! There are talented, capable people among us. But is it our fault if that's not what they demand? You ask us for second-rate American machine work, so that's what we have to produce!" (193). Yokl turns out to be a joke ending in an Aesopian moral rather than a punch line. If the audience will only get its act together, the Yiddish theatre, in Shlemiel's words, "can hold its own with any theatre in the world ... serve truth, and campaign for lofty ideals as well as the richest languages in the civilized world!" (193).

If Gordin was to be the Moses to lead the Yiddish theatre out of its bondage to melodrama and operetta, he would need an Aaron to convey his message. He found his first spokesman in actor Jacob P. Adler (1855-1926), who had been among the first Yiddish actors in Russia, and was already a star by the time Gordin arrived in New York. After encouraging Gordin to write for the theatre, Adler took the starring role in Gordin's first play, Siberia (1891), a realistic drama that omitted many of the typical ingredients of the American Yiddish theatre at the time, and thus risked alienating both actors and audience. Critic Irving Howe helps account for how resistant Gordin's first audiences were to realistic drama:

Realism seldom attracts uncultivated audiences: it is a sophisticated genre resting on the idea that a controlled exposure to a drab reality will yield pleasure. To the masses of early Jewish immigrants, most of whom had never before seen a professional stage production, realism seemed dry, redundant, without savor. What stirred their hearts was a glimpse of something that might transcend the wretchedness of the week: a theatre bringing a touch of the Sabbath, even if a debased or vulgarized Sabbath.

A tale of a refugee from Siberian prison camps who escapes and tries to start a new life elsewhere, only to be blackmailed by someone who knows the secret of his past, would hardly "transcend the wretchedness of the week" - particularly if unalleviated by songs, dances, and comic scenes.

During rehearsals, Adler urged his fellow performers to respect Gordin's dramaturgy, and had to cajole the audience into giving the play a fair hearing on opening night. The spectators reportedly grew increasingly restless during the first two acts, prompting Adler to make a tearful appeal to them after the Act II curtain: "I stand here embarrassed and humiliated, my head bowed in shame, that you, my friends, cannot understand such a masterpiece by the famous Russian writer Yakov Mikhailovitsh Gordin. My friends, my friends, if you understood what a great work we are performing for you today, you would not laugh and would not shout." Adler's ploy worked. According to fellow cast member Leon Blank, the audience settled down for Act III, and burst into tears at the play's climax. Significantly, Adler couched his exhortation in terms extraneous to the merits of the play itself. His speech, as described by Blank, consisted of two parts Jewish guilt ("embarrassed and ashamed"), three parts intimacy ("my friends"), two parts condescension ("you cannot understand," "if you understood"), and a healthy dollop of cultural snobbery ("such a masterpiece by the famous Russian writer Yakov Mikhailovitsh Gordin"). Adler, in effect, browbeat his audience into appreciation, using both his relationship with the theatregoers, and their relationship with Russian high culture, as his weapons.

With Siberia, Gordin had scored a resounding critical success - if only a modest one commercially - and found in Adler his leading man par excellence: attentive enough to detail to create a rich subtext for his characters, but not so grounded in realism as to be unable to deliver a climactic speech in grand nineteenth-century fashion. Gordin followed Siberia with another drama of Russian life, The Pogrom in Russia (1892). He then adapted two plays by Avrom Goldfaden before, in the words of theatre historian Zalmen Zylbercweig, "swimming in the great sea of the world repertoire" by turning to Shakespeare. But though Gordin's first plays had caused a sensation among critics and the intelligentsia, the actors were harder to impress. When the time came for Gordin to read his new play to them (standard practice in the Yiddish theatre at the time), one of the actors launched into a sarcastic running commentary that theatre historian B. Gorin reports was "so coarse that one cannot put it down on paper." Even Adler, who had championed Gordin so vigorously, found enough fault with Gordin's dialogue to add some of his own - something the playwright would not tolerate. But Adler, realizing how much he could do with the role and knowing that he would lose it if he crossed Gordin, backed down and played his part as written.


Excerpted from Shakespeare on the American Yiddish Stage by JOEL BERKOWITZ Copyright © 2002 by University of Iowa Press. Excerpted by permission.
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Shakespeare on the American Yiddish Stage 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I had never read anything about the Yiddish theater before, so this was a real eye-opener: a book that brings to life the vitality of the culture. It's written with wit and style, and full of fascinating stories as well as subtle analysis. Definitely one of the best books I've read about the theater!
Guest More than 1 year ago
Don't let the title fool you: this book is and is not about Shakespeare in Yiddish. Of course, that is the book's focus, but it is really the story of how the American Yiddish theater tried to balance the demands of high art and a vocal audience that was more interested in pure entertainment. The book is handsomely produced and illustrated, beautifully written, and full of fascinating stories. Highly recommended for anyone interested in Yiddish culture or Jewish history.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Joel Berkowitz has achieved that rare coup: a work of substantial scholarship that is eminently readable. He traces the development of the American Yiddish theater through its productions of Shakespeare, both in translations and in "Judaized" adaptations, which reinvented Shakespeare's plays as stories of modern Jewish life. The book is full of revelations on every page, with entertaining anecdotes of actors and audiences, and insights gleaned from the author's extensive investigation of sources such as newspaper reviews, memoirs, scripts, and other materials. Any reader interested in Jewish history and culture MUST read this book!