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
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
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,
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
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
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."