Jacob Mikhailovich Gordin

Jacob Mikhailovich Gordin

Gordin, Jacob Mikhailovich, 1853-1909, American writer of Yiddish plays, b. Russia. He was for some years a teacher and a newspaper writer in St. Petersburg, Odessa, and elsewhere. In 1880 he founded the Bible Brotherhood, a reform movement of Judaism. After the movement was suppressed, he left Russia in 1891 for the United States. In New York City he found the Yiddish stage in need of good plays, and for the rest of his life he wrote (more than 70), translated, and adapted plays in the vernacular. Among the best of these were Siberia; God, Man, and the Devil; The Jewish King Lear; The Jewish Sappho; and The Kreutzer Sonata (an English translation was produced in 1907). His collected plays were published (1910) in Yiddish in New York.
Jacob Michailovitch Gordin (May 1, 1853June 11, 1909), was a Ukrainian-born American playwright active in the early years of Yiddish theater. He is known for introducing realism and naturalism into Yiddish theater.

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature characterizes him as "the acknowledged reformer of the Yiddish stage". At the time of his rise, professional Yiddish theater was still dominated by the spirit of the early (1886–1888) plays of its founder, Abraham Goldfaden, which derived in no small measure from Purim plays, often spectacles more than dramas; Goldfaden's later works were generally operettas on more serious subjects, perhaps edifying, but not naturalistic. Again quoting the Cambridge History, after his 1892 arrival in New York City, "Gordin took the Yiddish drama in America from the realm of the preposterous and put a living soul into it", bringing it up to the level of "realistic melodrama".

Born in Mirgorod (also known as Novomirgorod), Ukraine, Gordin received a liberal though irregular education at home. When he came to New York in July, 1891, he was already a reformer and a fairly well recognized Russian writer. He had also been a farmer, a journalist, a shipyard worker in Odessa, and, reportedly, an actor. When he first arrived in New York, he tried to scratch out a living writing for Russian-language newspapers and the socialist Arbayter Tsaytung (precursor to The Forward), but his acquaintanceship with the noted Jewish actors Jacob Adler and Sigmund Mogulesko prompted him to try his hand at play-writing. His first play, Siberia was based on a true story about a man sent as a prisoner to Siberia who escaped, lived out a normal life for many years, and was then exiled again. Although initially it met a rocky reception (as did his second play, Two Worlds), it was critical success. His third play, Der yidisher kenig lir (The Jewish King Lear) loosely adapted from Shakespeare and the Russian writer Nikolai Leskov's "King Lear of the Steppe", and set in 19th century Russia, laid the foundation of his career as Yiddish playwright. The play drew a new audience of Russian-Jewish intellectuals to the Yiddish theater; it constituted a defining moment in Adler's career as well as Gordin's, and is widely seen as ushering in the first "Golden Age" of Yiddish theater in New York. [Rosenfeld, 1977]

To some extent he had to compromise his modernist vision with the theatrical conventions of the time. As in the plays of Goldfaden, Hurwitch, and Lateiner, dancing and songs unrelated to the plot still occupied a prominent part in the play, but Gordin's plots were naturalistic and the characters were living persons. Under the influence of his plays, Jewish actors began to regard their profession as one which calls for study and an earnest attitude.

Gordin is noted more for bringing naturalism and realism into the Yiddish theater than as an intrinsically great dramatist. Again quoting the Cambridge History, "With all the realism of his situations, with all the genuineness of his characters, he was rather a producer of plays for a particular theatrical troupe than a writer of drama. That his comic characters generally stand in organic relation to the play is one of his chief merits. Of his many pieces (about 70 or 80) only a score or so have been published, and some of these are worthless as literature." They single out as some of his best Mirele Efros, Got, Mentsh un Tayvl (God, Man, and Devil, based on Goethe's Faust), and Der Umbakanter (The Unknown).

Partial List of Works

Some of these plays may have earlier dates than indicated: it is possible that sources are referring to publication dates or revivals.

  • Siberia (1891)
  • Der pogrom in rusland (The Pogrom in Russia) 1892
  • Tsvey veltn, oder Der groyser sotsialist (Two Worlds, or The Great Socialist). According to B. Gorin, 1892; according to Z. Zylbercweig, 1896
  • Der yidisher kenig lir (The Jewish King Lear) 1892
  • Der vilder mentsh (The Wild Man) 1893
  • Captain Dreyfus; Pogrom (1893)
  • "Di litvishe brider lurie (The Lurie Brothers from Lithuania) 1894
  • Zelig itzik, der fidler, free adaptation of Schiller's Intrigue and Love (Kabal und Liebe)
  • "Der folks faynd" (An Enemy of the People), an adaptation from Henrik Ibsen, 1896
  • Medea: a historishe tragedye (adapted from Franz Grillparzer) no later than 1897
  • Mirele Efros, oder di yidishe kenigin lir (Mirele Efros or the Jewish Queen Lear) 1898
  • Di shkhite (The Slaughter — the title refers to ritual slaughter, in accord with Kosher laws) 1899
  • Shloime khokhem (Solomon the Wise, Solomon Kaus) 1899-1900
  • Di shvue (The Oath) 1900
  • Got, mentsh un tayvl (God, Man, and Devil) 1900
  • Safo (Sappho) 1900
  • Der momzer (The Bastard, a reworking of Victor Hugo's Lucrezia de Borgia, 1901
  • Di makht fun finsternish, translation of The Power of Darkness by Leo Tolstoy 1902; Gorin lists as 1905
  • Di Kreytser sonata (The Kreutzer Sonata), adapted from the Tolstoy novel, 1902
  • Khasye di yesoyme 1903
  • Der emes or Die varhayt (The Truth) 1903
  • Ta'ares-hamishpokhe (Family Purity) 1904
  • Di emese kraft (The True Power) 1904
  • Tkhies-hamey" (Resurrection''), adapted from the Tolstoy novel, 1904
  • Elisha Ben Abuyah (1906)
  • Der unbekanter (The Stranger) 1905
  • Der meturef (The Worthless) 1905
  • Der fremder (The Foreigner)1906
  • On a heym (Homeless) 1907
  • Di sheyne Miryam (no later than 1908)
  • Dementia Americana (1908)
  • Dovid'l meshoyrer (David the Choir Singer) no later than 1911


  • —, " Jacob Gordin", in The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21). VOLUME XVIII. Later National Literature, Part III. XXXI. Non-English Writings I. § 52.
  • —, Partial list of plays on 4-wall.com. Probably more reliable for names of plays than for specific dates.
  • —, Harvard Yiddish Index, useful for some titles and dates. Their dates appear to be publication dates, which may have considerably lagged first performance, so they are listed above as "no later than..."
  • Adler, Jacob, A Life on the Stage: A Memoir, translated and with commentary by Lulla Rosenfeld, Knopf, New York, 1999, ISBN 0-679-41351-0. This is probably the most reliable for English-language titles of some of Gordin's plays.
  • Bercovici, Israil, O sută de ani de teatru evreiesc în România ("One hundred years of Yiddish/Jewish theater in Romania"), 2nd Romanian-language edition, revised and augmented by Constantin Măciucă. Editura Integral (an imprint of Editurile Universala), Bucharest (1998). ISBN 973-98272-2-5. p. 98.
  • Kaplan, Beth, Shakespeare Was a Secular Jew, an excerpt from Kaplan's Finding the Jewish Shakespeare: The Life and Legacy of Jacob Gordin, jbooks.com
  • Rosenfeld, Lulla, "The Yiddish", New York Times, June 12, 1977, 205. This provides enormous detail on his start in New York theater with Adler and Mogulesko.
  • Zylbercweig, Zalmen, editor, "Gordin, Yankev", in "Leksikon fun idishn teater", vol. 1, Farlag "Elisheve", New York, 1931, pp. 392-461.
    This five volume encyclopedia on the Yiddish theatre is an essential reference source for information on actors, writers, and plays.

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