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June 11: Jacob Gordin and the Yiddish Theater

June 11, 2014
Jacob GordinJacob Gordin, the Yiddish playwright who helped take Yiddish theater out of the realm of spectacle and biblical operetta into realism and naturalism in the second half of the 19th century, died at 56 on this date in 1909. Ukrainian- born, he came to New York in 1891 and only then sought his livelihood in theater. Gordin’s best-known work was The Jewish King Lear, which cast a spotlight both on Gordin and on Jacob Adler, who became the leading man of the Yiddish stage. Other Gordin plays of note (he wrote more than seventy) were Mirele Efros, The Kreutzer Sonata, Khasye the Orphan, God, Man and Devil, and The Oath. Many of his works were adaptations from world literature (Tolstoy, Ibsen, Gorky, Shakespeare, Turgenev), and many of them, conforming to the conventions of Yiddish theater, retained songs and dances and other “entertainment” elements — but his plots were realistic, if melodramatic, his characters were realistic, and his influence upon Yiddish theater and its actors was profound. To see a short video (in Yiddish, with English subtitles) about Gordin’s career, look below. “I still see him walking along the streets, straight as a palm, his princely beard covering his broad chest, his eyes like two bits of fire, sharp as daggers. In his right hand he carries a cane; in his left, one of his plays. He is going to the theater to read it to the actors. Those who know him say, ‘That is Jacob Gordin.’ Those who do not know him stop and remark, ‘What a fine man!’” —Leon Kobrin, Reminiscences of a Jewish Playwright