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Joseph Rumshinsky Tells About
Fifty Years of Yiddish Theatre
 A series of thirty-six articles written by Rumshinsky, over a four-month period, for the Jewish Forward newspaper,
from December 1, 1952, until April 2, 1953. Articles appeared in the Jewish Forward every Monday and Thursday.

Episode 4: December 11, 1952

The effect of Jacob Gordin. -- In his plays they must speak Yiddish and not speak any of their own prose.
-- He receives sixty dollars for his first play, but he receives five dollars a night for playing the role of a pristav .

At that time, when the leaders of the Yiddish theatre looked down on the writer, James Gordin arrived in New York. This was in 1890. When they told Jacob Gordin about the condition of the Yiddish theatre, about the relation of the actor to the writer, that they think a writer is a "yold," this did not frighten Gordin. "They can be taught," he said, "They need to teach the actors, and they need to teach the people to understand theatre."

Jacob Gordin came to America with a rich literary baggage. There was in the old country, in Yelisavetgrad, the founder of a biblical organization that recognized only the bible, and not the Talmud. In the old country he was a private teacher and also used to write feuilletons in the Odessa newspaper, "Odesskii Listok." He also wrote for the Odessa weekly page, "Nerelia." He used to sign [his name as] Ivan Koliutsky (Ivan the Prickly?). He was said to be a radical and used to openly come out with lectures. The Russian government kept an eye on him, and because of this he left Russia.

When he came to America, no one expected that he would choose the Yiddish stage for his career. He spoke a hard Yiddish, although as a katzap [nickname of a Russian], he wanted to speak Yiddish. Here they gave him a position as an editor of a Russian weekly newspaper, which did not last long. He then wrote in the weekly "Arbayter Tsaytung," which paid very little to its writers.

Philip Krantz then gave him a plan with which he could write a play for the Yiddish stage, and he wrote his first play, with the name, "Siber (Siberia)." The play was staged by Jacob P. Adler.

With the play, "Siberia," he began a new chapter in the history of the Yiddish stage. From the deytshmerish epoch with swords, kings, princes and overdone costumes, which was then borne in the plays of Professor Horowitz and Joseph Lateiner, and the play, "Siberia," there was a revival for the Jewish-Russian intelligentsia in America.

Ab. Cahan then wrote in the "Arbeter Tsaytung" his first critique, over the play, "Siberia." He compared it to a non-religious Jew who finds himself among the gentiles. Among Jews he was not considered a Jew, but among Christians, however, he is a Jew. Further, when measuring "Siberia" with the same measure as the important works of the world stage, it does not have any meaning; but when one compares the play "Siberia" with the awkward repertoire of the Yiddish stage, it is literature, and they need to welcome the writer Jacob Gordin.




The play, "Siberia," did not make any great impression with the ordinary theatre visitor, but it brought to the theatre some people who had not been seen there previously, and the circle of the Yiddish theatre visitor increased significantly .

At that time the poverty of the Yiddish writer was very great; the cost of a play [that was sold] then was from seventy to one hundred dollars.

When Jacob Gordin sold his play, "Pogrom," he received seventy dollars; but he earned five dollars for playing the role of the pristav.

One of his successful plays then was "Der rusisher yid in amerike (The Russian Jew in America)." There were two heroes there: a striker and a boss. The striker was played by Jacob P. Adler. At the first performance the curtain fell when the boss had threatened the striker, that he will throw him out of his house if he doesn't go to work. The curtain falls without applause, and it looked like the play was a failure.

At the second performance, however, the striker (Adler) answered the boss with a slap when he threatened to throw him out of his home. The curtain fell, and it was accompanied by great applause, and the play became a great success.

One of the greatest virtues of Gordin's plays was that a simple Yiddish was spoken. At first the actors had big complaints against him as to why he made them simple Jews. Even the genial comic Sigmund Mogulesco complained about this to him and used to say: "What does he want, the one with the black beard, that we speak Yiddish like a simple laborer?" But Gordin was a stubborn person, and he carried that out, that in the Thalia Theatre, where at times the greatest German actors, such as Zonental, Kainz and Fossarthad, guest-starred. Let them play Yiddish plays and talk to them in Yiddish.

The greatest battle that Gordin led was to separate the operetta from the drama, that in a drama one should not sing any songs and not do any hops. In his play, "Pogrom," the actor Finkel wanted to put into the scene where they play in fonds (such a naive game), a couplet with dancers, and Jacob Gordin did not allow it. Finkel, the boss and stage director, said that he will do as he pleases. Gordin took his play and left the theatre. Then he returned when they told him that they will do whatever he wants.

Jacob Gordin was pleased that the actors would read his own phrases and words.

In the same play, "Pogrom," Jacob Gordin plays a pristav [a former Russian supervisory official] and ate a piece of fish that Jews honored him with. The Jew Sara Henig was played by Bina Abramowitz. She said several phrases and said to the pristav: "Eat, eat, pristav," and it then went on to, "that he should be strangled." Gordin forgot that he is now playing for an audience as the pristav, and with a kulak he punched the table and shouted out, "Listen, this is not in my play."

The most successful of Gordin's plays was the "Jewish King Lear," which they play up to the present day. He did indeed enjoy the dry skeleton of Shakespeare, but he wore all kinds of Jewish types, not only in Jewish clothes, but also inhaled Jewish life. In reference to adopting foreign subjects, Jacob Gordin was similar to Abraham Goldfaden, and both of them did this in an excellent way.

Jacob Gordin's "Shloymke sharlatan" was adapted from Ostrovsky's "Bernost nie parak" ("Oremkayt iz nit keyn shande [Poverty is no Disgrace].") Kessler had his greatest success with this play. It never felt like the play was taken from a stranger. So it was with Abraham Goldfaden; but he used to create with melodies and nigunim [religious melodies, which he adapted for the Yiddish theatre. And it is remarkable that the nigunim, which Goldfaden took from strangers, only then received the correct correction, the correct evaluation. For example, his immortal song in "Shulamis," "Shabes, yom tov, un rosh khodesh," is taken from a Romanian romance, a folk love song. In one of his plays, a thief sings a couplet, "Khap-lap." This he took from Meyerbeer's opera, "Hugenoten (The Huguenots)," when they sing, "Fif-faf," and many other songs].

His immortal song from "Shulamis," "Ot der brunen ot der (At the Well)." Goldfaden took the melody from Cantor Shevtapol's composition, "La hamatim ihllu ih." Here the composition was virtually unknown and not popular, but with Goldfaden's words for "Shulamis," "Ot der brunen," the melody first received a fix, and then the entire world sang it.

As was already said, Jacob Gordin possessed the same power and downplayed [aroptiren] it in some of his plays. In his play, "King Lear," where a merchant distributes his property during his lifetime and then wanders the streets, begging for a piece of bread. It used to have so much of an effect on the spectator, that the next day, girls and boys were running from the Bronx, sending money to their parents in the old country.

The bank tellers in the first Jewish bank already knew when Adler had played "King Lear" ...

Almost the same example from "King Lear" Jacob Gordin had with his play, "Mirele Efros." It is almost the same action; but the King's role, David Mosheles; Gordin created Mirele Efros for the former dramatic actress Keni Lipzin.

In Jacob Gordin's plays, the actors have the opportunity to bring about human figures.


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