Rewriting Russia: Jacob Gordin’s Yiddish Drama
By Barbara Henry
University of Washington Press, 276 pages, $35
Barbara Henry’s new book recounts a telling anecdote about the opening of Jacob Gordin’s first Yiddish play, in 1891. As the play progressed, the New York audience became restless; it wanted more songs and diversion than it received from “Siberia,” a serious play about an escaped convict. After Act 2, actor and manager Jacob Adler came onstage and asked the audience to show some respect for a “famous Russian writer.” The audience members honored Adler’s request, but the actor had not been completely honest with them.
Although Jacob Gordin (1853–1909) was Russian, and his literary sources were indeed extremely well known, he himself was not particularly famous. Gordin became better known after he derived some of his plots and characters from Tolstoy and Turgenev, as Henry persuasively demonstrates in “Rewriting Russia: Jacob Gordin’s Yiddish Drama.”
The book examines in depth three of Gordin’s plays: “The Jewish King Lear,” “The Kreutzer Sonata” and “Khasye the Orphan.” Henry’s investigation of these Yiddish plays reveals how the Russian-born playwright came to adapt Tolstoy and Turgenev for theater audiences on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, transforming himself from journalist and religious reformer into a playwright who was actually famous.
By the time Gordin immigrated to New York in 1891, Henry notes, “reverence for Russian literature was a given among immigrant New York’s leftist Jewish intelligentsia, for whom Russian writers enjoyed a close association with a radical political activism.” Gordin benefited from that favorable literary environment, as he portrayed Russian characters and settings in his drama; but he was not simply exploiting the New York Yiddish audience’s Russophilia. Writing plays about Russian life allowed Gordin to revisit his own past, to draw on his earlier life and writing as well as on his former country’s literature, and to reshape Russian culture in new forms accessible to Yiddish speakers in America.
Henry’s book explores, in her words, “the interconnectedness of Russia, Russian literature, and Russian Jews that Gordin’s plays insist on, and their belief that Russian culture is vital and essential for American Jews.” While admitting that her focus on three plays among the many written by her subject “constitutes a narrowing of focus that is at odds with the titanic nature of his energies and achievements,” Henry proceeds to find a wealth of artistic and social implications in her limited sampling.
Those interested in the performance history of Gordin’s plays will have to look elsewhere: to Joel Berkowitz’s fine writing on “The Yiddish King Lear”; Beth Kaplan’s Gordin biography, “Finding the Jewish Shakespeare,” or the reviews reprinted in Zalman Zylbercweig’s Lexicon of Yiddish Theatre. Henry focuses on play texts and their sources, not on stage production. Her subtle philosophical and aesthetic commentary establishes that while the plots of these plays are filled with sex, betrayal and murder, they are not simply the shund, or literary trash, so popular among audiences at the time.