This Day in Jewish History

1908: Farewell to the Father of Modern Yiddish Theater

The prolific writer Abraham Goldfaden launched the golden age of Yiddish theater with his amusing, and probing, plays and productions.

Nathaniel Herz

On January 9, 1908, playwright, poet, actor and theatrical producer and director Abraham Goldfaden died in New York. Although he began his creative career writing in Hebrew, it was his work in Yiddish that made Goldfaden legendary, earning him a reputation as the father of modern Yiddish theater.

Goldfaden was born on July 24, 1840 in Starokonstantinov in what is today Ukraine. He attended a government-run rabbinical seminary in Zhytomyr but his middle-class parents, influenced by the Enlightenment, saw to it that he was also educated in secular studies. Goldfaden taught school for a decade, wrote and published poetry, first in Hebrew then in Yiddish, acted and practiced journalism.

But it wasn't until he came to Iasi, Romania, in 1876, that his career in Yiddish theater got its start. A businessman he approached for funding to publish a Yiddish newspaper suggested instead that he present a public recital of some of his songs. Goldfaden put together a musical revue at the Green Fruit Tree Garden of a local Jew named Shimon Mark. That evening is now considered the first professional Yiddish theater performance. (There is disagreement, however, with regard to the number of performers and the precise program.)

Goldfaden and his partners, Israel Grodner and Sokher Goldstein, performed in the garden throughout the summer of 1876. Then began an itinerant life, as they moved from Romanian town to town, putting on shows. All the while, Goldfaden was turning out plays, many of them musicals, in Yiddish. Between 1876 and 1878, he wrote 22 plays, some of them original, some translations of works from French and Romanian. The company grew, and artists often left it to go off on their own, as professional Yiddish theater became more and more popular.

The names of some of his characters have entered the Yiddish glossary: “Shmendrik” was the title character of a play about a hapless yeshiva student, and “Kuni-Leml,” which has a similar connotation, also emerged from Goldfaden’s pantheon of schnooks.

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Goldfaden’s ambitions, however, went beyond merely amusing people, even though he understood that confronting them with serious themes could put him “pure and simply at war with the public.” He wanted his theater “to be a school for you” – the members of his audience. “In youth you didn't have time to learn and cultivate yourself... Laugh heartily if I amuse you with my jokes … Then, brothers, I'll give you a drama, a tragedy drawn from life, and you, too, shall cry – while my heart shall be glad."

He began writing melodramas and tragedies based on biblical or Jewish historical themes that often had political implications: “Judith and Holofernes,” “Judas Maccabeus,” “Shulamit” and “Bar-Kokhba.” On the technical level, too, Goldfaden had serious intentions, and wanted to compete with non-Yiddish companies. Many non-Jews knew Yiddish at the time, and mainstream critics saw and wrote about his company’s work. He in turn, took into account contemporary Romanian theater, and insisted on high production values in such matters as set design. As his subjects became weightier, however – an operetta about the Bar-Kokhba revolt, for example, was written after a series of pogroms -- it began to run afoul of the authorities, and in 1883, two years after the assassination of Czar Nicholas II, Yiddish theater was banned in Russia, just as Goldfaden’s company was touring the empire. 

During the 1880s and early ‘90s, Goldfaden continued moving, to New York, and then back to Lvov (Lemberg) and Bucharest. In Romania, the competition among Yiddish theater companies was fierce, and the economy and political situation were difficult for Jews, a large percentage of who emigrated. By 1904, sick and unable to make a living (the concept of royalties was not well established at the time), he moved back to New York, where he continued to write, both in Yiddish and Hebrew, but without much material success. He died in penury on this day in 1908, having written some 40 plays and hundreds of poems and songs.  

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In death, Goldfaden received the appreciation he didn’t always find in life. The New York Times, which referred to him as the “Yiddish Shakespeare” in an obituary, reported that 75,000 mourners participated in his funeral procession, which went from the People’s Theater, in Manhattan’s Bowery, to Washington Cemetery, in Brooklyn.