Yiddish theater, which saw its heyday in the early decades of the twentieth century, played an important role in the lives of the American Jewish community. More than just entertainment (although that was important too), the art form provided a communal cultural activity that helped immigrants both integrate and remain loyal to their Jewish identity.

May 1st is the birthday of a man whose work as a playwright had tremendous impact on Yiddish theater. His name was Jacob Mikhailovich Gordin, and until he arrived in America in 1891, at the age of 37, he had never even tried writing a play. His inspiration came from some of the Yiddish actors he fell in with while trying to develop a career with the Yiddish and Russian press.

While Gordin’s first two plays, Siberia and Two Worlds, received critical praise, they were not particularly successful. His third play, Der Yiddisher Kenig Lir, (The Yiddish King Lear) gained popularity from a new type of Yiddish theater-goer, the Russian-Jewish intellectuals. They were drawn by Gordin’s use of naturalism and realism, a new tone in Yiddish theater. The Yiddish King Lear, while based on the William Shakespeare play, was set in 19th century Russia and presented a world very real to its audience.

Additionally, Gordin brought gravitas to the theater. Until his time, Yiddish plays most often included random song and dance numbers, and Yiddish actors felt entitled to ad lib when they felt the script warranted change. Gordin, however, insisted on discipline and sticking to the script.

Following the success of The Yiddish King Lear, Gordin’s output increased significantly. He penned several scripts each year, not all of which saw publication. Jacob Gordin passed away on June 11, 1909, having left a significant mark on the Jewish world at a time of critical change.

 A bit of amusing trivia: A favorite phrase used to promote Yiddish translations of Shakespeare’s plays was “Ibergezetst un farbesert” – “translated and improved.”)

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