Goldfaden, Abraham

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GOLDFADEN, ABRAHAM (Avrom Goldfodem ; 1840–1908), Yiddish poet, dramatist, and composer, founder of the modern Yiddish theater (see *Theater, Yiddish). Born into a watchmaker's family in Staro Konstantinov, Ukraine, he received not only a thorough Hebrew education but also acquired a knowledge of Russian, German, and secular subjects. To avoid the draft, Goldfaden was sent to a government school at 15 and there came under the influence of Abraham Baer *Gottlober, maskil and author of Hebrew and Yiddish satires, including the scathing anti-ḥasidic comedy Der Dektukh, Oder Tsvey Khupes in Eyn Nakht ("The Bridal Veil, or Two Weddings in One Night"), which exerted a strong influence on Goldfaden's early comedies. Upon graduation in 1857, Goldfaden entered the rabbinical seminary at Zhitomir, which trained rabbis, teachers, and Jewish officials for government service. Under the guidance there of maskilic leaders such as E.Z. Zweifel, H.S. Slonimsky, and Gottlober, he composed Hebrew lyrics, the first of which were published in Ha-Meliẓ (1862). A year later his first Yiddish poems appeared in Kol Mevaser. In 1865 he published a Hebrew collection, Ẓiẓim u-Feraḥim ("Buds and Flowers"), and upon his graduation, his first Yiddish collection, Dos Yudele ("The Little Jew," 1866), offering rich material for *badḥanim and folksingers. It was followed by a supplementary volume, Di Yidene ("The Jewish Woman," 1869), which included his first efforts at writing drama: a short two-character sketch, and the full-length comedy Di Mume Sosye ("Aunt Sosya"), closely modeled on Shloyme Ettinger's comedy Serkele. Goldfaden knew the latter play intimately, having played the title (female) role in the seminary's all-male production, which was the toast of Zhitomir.

In 1875 he joined his former classmate Isaac Joel *Linetzki in founding and editing in Lemberg a short-lived humorous magazine, Der Alter Yisrolik. Goldfaden then moved to Romania, where, in Jassy, he came in contact with the *Broder Singers, who were singing and acting out Yiddish songs, including his own, in wine cellars and restaurant gardens. He then conceived the idea that the dramatic effect of the songs and impersonations could be heightened if combined with prose dialogues and woven into an interesting plot. The first performances, at Shimen Mark's Pomul Verde cafe in October 1876, starring the veteran performer Israel Grodner and his young co-star, Sokher Goldstein, launched the professional Yiddish theater. Encouraged by the enthusiastic reception accorded his performances in Jassy, Goldfaden engaged wandering minstrels and cantors' assistants as additional actors, toured other Romanian cities, including Bucharest, and then went to Odessa. By 1880 his troupe was giving performances throughout Russia, and his phenomenal success was encouraging theatrical ventures by other enterprising actors and librettists. Of Goldfaden's early plays, the most successful were the musical comedies Shmendrik (1877), a satire whose titular anti-hero became a synonym for a foolish person; Di Kishefmakherin ("The Sorceress," 1879), which includes many of Goldfaden's most popular songs; and Der Fanatik oder di Tsvey Kuni Leml ("The Fanatic, or the Two Kuni Lemls," 1880), the apotheosis of the maskilic farces Goldfaden had been writing for the previous few years. All three of these plays retained uninterrupted stage popularity for decades in both their original forms and in a variety of adaptations. Though not a trained musician, Goldfaden had been writing songs for most of his life, and the music in his plays is a combination of original composition and artful selection of pre-existing music. He drew upon varied sources – synagogue chants and Jewish folksong, the non-Jewish folk and popular music of Eastern Europe, and Italian and French operatic arias. Many of his songs became enormously popular among Yiddish speakers. Among other types of songs, Goldfaden composed popular lullabies ("Rozhinkes mit Mandlen" / "Raisins and Almonds"), occasional songs (like "Tsu Dayn Geburtstog," the Yiddish "Happy Birthday"), allegories of God's relationship with the Jewish people ("A Pastekhl" / "A Shepherd"), and songs that poignantly captured a sense of aspiration for self-fulfillment on both individual and national levels ("Faryomert, Farklogt" / "Lamented, Mourned"; "Shabes, Yontev, un Rosh Khoydesh" / "Sabbath, Festival, and New Moon").

The Russian pogroms of the early 1880s prompted Goldfaden, like many other Jewish writers, to reassess Jewish life and politics, and a more serious tone becomes evident in his work beginning at this point. The romantic operetta Shulamis (1880) tells an epic story set in late antiquity and following the fortunes of a shepherdess and the soldier who falls in love with, abandons, and ultimately returns to her. In Doktor Almosado (1882), Goldfaden reacted to the pogroms of 1881, and even though he transposed the scene of the dramatic action to 14th-century Palermo, his audience sensed its timeliness and its veiled references to their sad plight. In Bar Kokhba (1883), a historical opera depicting the last desperate revolt of the Jews against their Roman oppressors, Goldfaden – an adherent of the Ḥovevei Zion movement – tried to stir his people with visions of ancient national grandeur and heroism.

The Yiddish theater expanded and flourished in Eastern Europe until 1883, when the Russian government, fearing this new mass medium, banned performances in Yiddish. This action compelled many authors, actors, and producers to migrate to other lands, though some remained in Russia and found various ways to sidestep the ban. Those who left helped establish Yiddish theaters in Warsaw, Paris, London, and New York, among other places. In 1887 Goldfaden was invited by some of his actors who had moved to New York to join them, but when he arrived he encountered severe competition from producers who had preceded him and from playwrights like Joseph Lateiner and Moyshe Hurwitz, who were even more prolific than he. During this American sojourn, he composed his successful biblical dramas Akeydes Yitskhok ("The Binding of Isaac," 1887) and Kenig Akhashveyresh ("King Ahasuerus," 1887), but professional disappointments drove him back to Europe. He led a troupe at the Princess Club Theatre in London for several months during 1889, but soon moved to Paris and then on to Lemberg (Lvov), where he remained for most of the 1890s.

As he grew older, Goldfaden's commitment to Zionism became increasingly prominent in his life and work. In 1900, he served as Paris delegate to the World Zionist Congress in London. Many of his plays and poems reflect his political views. The epic play Meshiekhs Tsaytn!? ("The Messianic Era?!," 1891), for example, takes the characters on spiritual and physical journeys resulting from pogroms and ultimately concludes that the Land of Israel is the only suitable home for the Jews. His last play, Ben Ami (1907), reaches a similar conclusion. To a large extent an adaption of George Eliot's novel Daniel Deronda, Ben Ami transposes the action to pogrom-ridden Odessa, and the philo-Semitic English aristocrat becomes a Russian baron. The play ends with the pogrom victims and their noble savior experiencing regeneration as pioneers of Jewish national redemption on the soil of Zion.

In spite of the enormous popularity and influence of his plays, Goldfaden and his wife, Paulina, perpetually struggled to stay out of poverty. His final years brought continued wandering and declining health, ultimately bringing him to his deathbed as Ben Ami was running in New York theaters during the closing weeks of 1907; he died there on January 9, 1908. The following day, 100,000 mourners were said to have greeted his funeral procession to Washington Cemetery. His death ended one era and inaugurated another – that of the reinterpretation of his works by other artists. Avant-garde productions of his work were mounted by notable companies like the Moscow State Yiddish Theater, which offered a groundbreaking, Sovietized reinvention of Di Kishefmakherin in 1922; the Yiddish Art Theater in New York, which produced three ambitious revivals of Goldfaden plays in the mid-1920s; and Warsaw's Yung Teater, with Trupe Tanentsap ("The Tanentsap Troupe," 1933), a play-within-a-play revolving around a fictional production of Di Tsvey Kuni-Leml during the early years of the professional Yiddish theatre. Other prominent playwrights who would take up the challenge of adapting Goldfaden's plays included Shmuel *Halkin (Shulamis and Bar Kokhba) and Itsik *Manger (Hotsmakh-shpil / "Hotsmakh Play," 1947), an original work based on characters from Di Kishefmakherin).

[Sol Liptzin /

Joel Berkowitz (2nd ed.)]


Goldfaden himself furnished the tunes to his plays, although he was unable to write music and played no instrument. He drew upon the most varied sources – synagogue chants and Jewish folksong, the non-Jewish folk and popular music of Eastern Europe, and Italian and French operatic arias. Many of the songs from his plays have remained popular: some were folksongs initially (such as the cradle song Rozhinkes mit Mandlen which he adapted and put into Shulamis, from where it achieved its fame), and others became folksongs. Goldfaden described his musical activity with engaging frankness in his short autobiography; A.Z. *Idelsohn's analysis of the melodies in Shulamis and Bar Kokhba, and his conclusions, are a fair appraisal both of Goldfaden's musical shortcomings and his merits. For the performance of Di Kishefmakherim ("The Witch") by the Jewish Chamber Theater of Petrograd in 1922, the music was rearranged by Josef *Achron. In 1947, "The Witch" was staged in Tel Aviv in Hebrew by the *Ohel Theater, on the 70th anniversary of its first performance. The text was adapted by Abraham Levinson as a play within a play – bringing Goldfaden himself and his contemporary audience on the stage – and the music was arranged by Marc *Lavry.

[Bathja Bayer]


J. Shatzky (ed.), Goldfaden-Bukh (1926); Idelsohn, Music, 229, 447–53; Z. Zylbercweig, Leksikon fun Yidishn Teater 1 (1931), 275–367; N. Meisel, Avrom Goldfaden (1938); J. Shatzky (ed.), Hundert Yor Goldfaden (1940); N.B. Minkoff, Literarishe Vegn (1955), 29–40; lnyl, 2 (1958), 77–87; Sendrey, Music, indexes; S. Liptzin, Flowering of Yiddish Literature (1963), 33–51. add. bibliography: B. Gorin, Di Geshikhte fun Yidishn Teater (1923); N. Oyslender and U. Finkel, A. Goldfadn: Materyaln far a Biografye (1926); J. Shatzky (ed.), Arkhiv far der Geshikhte fun Yidishn Teater un Drame (1930), 255–301; Y. Dobrushin, Di Dramaturgye fun di Klasiker (1949), 6–52; A. Quint, "The Botched Kiss: Abraham Goldfaden and the Literary Origins of the Yiddish Theatre" (diss. 2002); P. Bertolone, L'esiliodel teatro: Goldfadn e il moderno teatro yiddish (1994); J. Berkowitz (ed.), Yiddish Theatre: New Approaches (2003), 77–104, 139–55.