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Staged Rebellion

Yiddish playwright Jacob Gordin inspired fury and adulation

by
Eric Molinsky
July 10, 2007

When Jacob Gordin first arrived in America in 1891, he had no intention of writing for the Yiddish stage. The plays by Chekhov and Ibsen that had inspired the playwright in Russia had little in common with the melodramatic and vaudevillian charades that dominated popular productions on the Lower East Side.

Gordin was won over, however, by stars such as Boris Tomashevsky and Jacob Adler, and went on to write plays—like The Kreutzer Sonata and The Jewish King Lear—that unflinchingly portrayed the conflicts and difficulties faced by new immigrants. His often heartbreaking, sometimes incendiary works earned him a devoted following (they called him “the Shakespeare of the Jews”), and more than a few enemies, among them Forward editor Abraham Cahan, who made it his mission to destroy Gordin’s career.

Today Gordin is all but forgotten. But that may change with two recent publications: a biography by Beth Kaplan, Gordin’s great-granddaughter, and a new, annotated translation of his King Lear by Ruth Gay and Sophie Glazer.

Eric Molinsky speaks with Kaplan, along with Yiddish theater scholars Barbara Henry and Stefan Kanfer, about Gordin’s work and legacy.

Photos: From the Archives of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, New York.

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