On a pleasant June evening that year, Manhattan’s original odd couple strolled down Second Avenue. The tall man with black beard and dark, deep-set eyes was Jacob Gordin, now a dominant presence on the Lower East Side. With loud voice and spirited gestures, the Russian immigrant went on about his adaptations of Shakespeare and his interpretations of Tolstoy’s thought.
Gordin’s American companion, back in the United States after an absence of twenty years, was a dedicated author, master of nuance, life-long bachelor, apolitical, bald, clean-shaven in recent years, tentative in style and speech, as gentile in his ways as the other was Jewish. The playwright led the way and chattered on; Henry James did the gawking. He had followed the news of pogroms in Russia and of the ensuing torrent of immigrants spilling into downtown Manhattan. Ever curios, he demanded to see the phenomenon for himself. A friend had arranged the meeting between the novelist and the playwright, who grandly took his guest in tow. What James apprehended did not seem encouraging. All around him was the pulse of cultural life, the voracious appetite for technical knowledge and dramatic art — the very art at which he had failed so publicly in London. But the great observer failed to see what was spread out before him. His delicate senses were besieged and affronted. It seemed to him that these people bred like animals. The fire escapes that ran down every tenement were reminiscent of “a little world of bars and perches and swings for human squirrels and monkeys.”
And there were those offensive accents. At the Royal, a favorite hangout for Jewish performers, foreign intonations turned the café into a “torture-room of the living idiom.” This “Hebrew conquest of New York,” James predicted, would permanently maim the language. In the future, “whatever we will know it for, certainly we shall not know it for English.”
Gordin thought a comedy might be the best choice for Mr. James’s first downtown experience. He bought two tickets, and they entered the Liberty Theater. The fare turned out to be even more cringe-making than the world outside the stage door. The guest excused himself after the first act, not because it was incomprehensible but because the audience offended. Ticket buyers emanated “a scent, literally, not further to be followed.”
Appalled, James concluded, “There is no swarming like that of Israel, when once Israel has got a start, and the scene here bristled, at every step, with the signs and sounds, immitigable, of a Jewry that had burst all bounds.” This was an elegantly expressed variation of Henry Adams’s letter to his brother. “God tried drowning out the world once,” wrote this grandson of President John Quincy Adams, “but it did no kind of good, and there are said to be four-hundred-fifty-thousand Jews now doing kosher in New York alone. God himself owned failure.” They were doing a lot more than kosher. The swarm that had burst all bounds was slowly — too slowly for the likes of Adams and James — learning the ways of the New World.
With this second influx of Eastern European refugees, New York was serving yet again as a microcosm for both kinds of Jewish fervor: the passionately religious, and the purely ethnic. If the old orthodoxies were not persecuted, neither were they welcomed. The secular components of Judaism, on the other hand — adaptability, a pursuit of knowledge and opportunity, a high regard for artistic endeavor, an obsession with social justice, a heightened, almost melodramatic sense of life — were encouraged and rewarded in the Promised City.
Every immigrant group had its heroes and heroines, and many a business giant, sports figure, and politician was looked up to. But for the Jews on the Lower East Side, the artists of the theater were held in special regard. As journalist Harry Golden points out, during these years of struggle and assimilation, “the immigrants had not yet learned about Christy Mathewson or Ty Cobb… the folk heroes of the ghetto were the actors, the journalists, the cantors, the critics, the playwrights, and the composers; but mostly the actors.”
Ignored by the general public, Abraham Goldfaden wanted a piece of this hero worship. He ached to be recognized not only as the Father of Yiddish Theater but as a still viable playwright. But the indifferent responses of the producers told him that he had become irrelevant, and antique from another era. There was even a rumor, he learned, that the Father was repeating himself, retreating into senescence. As a desperate gesture he took his old work Ben-Ami to Boris Thomashefsky and begged for a professional reading with experienced actors. Boris could not refuse — and much to his surprise found that the play was met with considerable enthusiasm. He agreed to direct it. Goldfaden told his wife that he had but one ambition: to see Ben-Ami become popular once more. He could then die happy.
In December 1907, his dearest wish came true. Ben-Ami opened to a roar of applause, encores, the awarding of flowers, and, finally, a speech by the grateful playwright. He walked down Second Avenue to his apartment clutching the bouquet. Swinging open the door of the flat, he shouted: “Paulina, Paulina, they gave me laurel wreaths! I’m not senile, Paulina, I’m not senile!” The moment was so sweet he insisted on savoring it for the next five nights. At each performance he laughed and cried and took bows from his box seat. On the fifth evening he experienced some discomfort and pain in the chest. He walked home slowly. That night he died in his sleep. No one, not even Goldfaden himself, could have written a more emotionally satisfying finale.
Stefan Kanfer was a writer and editor at Time magazine for 20 years, and the author of “Ball of Fire” and “Groucho.”