This Day in Jewish History |

1910: ‘Trashy’ Yiddish Playwright of Dubious Character Dies

Did Moshe Horowitz really convert to Christianity, or was that an evil tale spread by his haters? Whatever the case, he didn’t mind utilizing the rumor for his own ends.

David Green
David B. Green
Yiddish theater had its heyday in the U.S. at the turn of the previous century.
Yiddish theater had its heyday in the U.S. at the turn of the previous century.Credit: Wikipedia
David Green
David B. Green

On March 4, 1910, the Yiddish playwright Moshe Horowitz, who did not cavil at pleasing the masses, died in New York at the age of 76.

Horowitz was a Galician-born transplant to the United States, where he found an audience hungry for theater in Yiddish. He was amazingly prolific in his ability to satisfy that hunger, even if there were some who considered his work lowbrow.

Horowitz was born in Stanislau, Galicia (then in Austria-Hungary, today part of Ukraine), on February 27, 1844. He grew up in a traditional Jewish family, but also studied German and other secular subjects.

When he was 18, Horowitz took a job teaching Hebrew in Iasi, Romania, and soon after that he became principal of a Jewish school in Bucharest.

According to the standard lore about his life, when Horowitz was dismissed from his principal’s job, his response was to disavow Judaism, not only converting to Christianity but also becoming a missionary. But the great scholar of American-Jewish history Jacob Rader Marcus urges caution when considering that charge, noting that it was a rumor spread by his enemies – of which Horowitz had quite a few.

Marcus, writing in his monumental “United States Jewry, 1776-1985,” even went on to write about Horowitz that “there was no question however, that he was a sharp operator. He organized a mutual-aid organization and used the funds to rent a theater, to buy a house, and to parade ostentatiously with a horse and carriage.”

According to Nahma Sandrow, author of “Vagabond Stars,” a history of the world Yiddish theater, Horowitz explained to people that Christian missionaries made a good living, and that he and his family had got “tired of living on potato peels.”

Reconversion ceremony

In any event, Horowitz had a regular ritual of entering a tavern, buying drinks all around, and then treating his guests to a “reconversion” ceremony, in which he became Jewish again and added “Halevi” (the Levite) to his name. He would then sell tickets to a performance of his theater company, usually in the beer garden behind the saloon.

Horowitz also claimed to have been a professor of geography at the University of Bucharest, and until the end of his life, people did refer to him as “professor,” although some of the time they seem to have been mocking him. (Sandrow says some people even called him “Prof. Meshumed” – “apostate” – but only behind his back.)

In the years before Horowitz sailed for America, he established a Yiddish-language theater troupe to perform his plays – after Abraham Goldfaden, the leading light of the Yiddish stage in Romania (and later, at the end of his life, in New York), turned down the opportunity to stage his work.

Horowitz and his performers arrived in New York in the mid-1880s (sources vary on the date), and for the next three decades, he turned out new plays with astounding regularity.

True, he often lifted whole sections from other writers’ creations, but in this Horowitz was not alone. In popular parlance, his work, and that of such contemporaries as Joseph Lateiner, his main rival, were referred to as “shund,” “trash” in Yiddish.

During that period, Horowitz wrote an estimated 169 plays, most of them on historical or topical themes. He wrote melodramatic plays about true crimes, but also about the 1889 Johnstown Flood, and about a blood-libel case in Hungary (“Tiszaeszlar,” 1888, a play so long, it required two evenings to perform), about the Dreyfus Affair, and about the Homestead Strike, a labor action at one of Andrew Carnegie’s steel mills in 1892, in which a number of strikers were shot dead.

In 1903, in response to the Kishinev pogrom, he wrote a five-act tragedy. His most successful production, commercially, was the operetta “Ben Hador,” from 1901.

In 1905, Horowitz began work on a grand opera – in Yiddish – for the Lower East Side’s Windsor Theater. To this end, he invested his considerable savings. The project failed, the money was lost, and Horowitz suffered a stroke and paralysis. He ended his life at New York’s Montefiore Home, where his friends and former colleagues paid for his care. It was there he died on this day in 1910.

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