Gordin, Jacob

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GORDIN, JACOB (1853–1909), Yiddish playwright and journalist. Born in Mirgorod, Ukraine, Gordin was writing for the Russian press at 17. Though tutored in secular subjects at home, he was essentially self-educated. He tried his hand at business but failed and became in turn a farm laborer, a stevedore, and an actor in a Russian itinerant troupe, all the while writing for the Russian press and deeply involved in utopian political movements. He finally settled in Yelizavetgrad (Kirovograd) as a teacher in the local "russified" Jewish school. Gordin's first political ideal was nurtured in a circle devoted to Ukrainian independence. Later, influenced by Tolstoy and by the dissident Stundists (a non-Orthodox Christian Evangelical sect in Russia), as well as by Russian populist and Jewish enlightenment currents, he founded his own sect, the Dukhovno-Bibliĭskoe Bratstvo ("The Spiritual Biblical Brotherhood"), in 1880. He and his followers rejected post-biblical Judaism, claimed the Bible as the source for their rationalist ethics, repudiated commerce, and saw in agriculture the sole healthy and virtuous occupation. Gordin's obsession with occupational reform led him to write an article which grossly offended the Jewish community. Soon after the April 1881 pogroms, he published in the Russian press an open letter "To My Jewish Brethren" in which he argued that Jewish usury, love of money, and middleman occupations were to blame for Russian antisemitism. The "Brotherhood" was ineffectual: its efforts to build a communal colony failed. In 1891, the czarist police decided to disband the group, and Gordin, forewarned, fled to the U.S. Shortly after arriving in New York, which was to become his permanent home, Gordin applied to the Baron de Hirsch *Fund for aid in establishing a communal farm and was refused. Family obligations, a pregnant wife, and eight (eventually 14) children to support, made Gordin turn to journalism; he soon began writing for the New York daily Di Arbeter Tsaytung. When that work proved insufficient to support his growing family, he turned to playwriting. Prior to his arrival in America, at the age of 38, Gordin had never written in Yiddish nor ever written a play.

His first drama, Sibirya ("Siberia," 1891), though an apprentice piece, reveals many of those qualities for which Gordin was to earn the title "Reformer of the Yiddish Stage." The Yiddish theater, as Gordin found it, was one of vulgar burlesque and of absurd and garish "historical operettas." In Sibirya, as in all of Gordin's plays, the characters speak colloquial Yiddish rather than the affected Germanized Yiddish favored by the bombastic style of the day. Gordin disciplined the ad-libbing comic actors and banned, or at least modified, the rhymed-couplet, song-and-dance routine. He built suspense into his plays and made spectacle secondary to dramatic action. Sibirya, however, also heralds Gordin's characteristic tendentiousness, stereotyping, moralizing, and excessive pathos. Yet the gentile judge in Sibirya is presented as a human being rather than as a caricature, something of an innovation, and indicative of the way in which Gordin's earnest view of the theater as school and temple yielded aesthetic fruit. But his melodramatic plays never ceased to be vehicles for his social gospel; he valued his art mainly for what it might teach. Gordin's first great popular success, Der Yidisher Kenig Lir ("The Yiddish King Lear," 1892), made his reputation. It also added further luster to the acting career of Jacob P. *Adler in the title role, and it was Adler's star power and popularity with the audience that helped them accept a play that dispensed with or modified many of the norms of Yiddish drama up to that point. Henceforth, Gordin was to write many plays for virtuosi. He created the lead roles in Der Vilder Mentsh ("The Wild Man," 1893) and Elisha ben Abuye (1906) for Adler; those in Mirele Efros (1898), Di Shkhite ("The Slaughter,"1899), and Khasye di Yesoyme ("Khasye the Orphan Girl," 1903) for Keni Liptzin; and those in Safo ("Sappho," 1899) and Kraytser Sonate ("Kreutzer Sonata," 1902) for Bertha *Kalish. Great actors respected Gordin, and he in turn wrote great roles for them. His use of borrowed plots was to become typical, and despite his open avowal of his sources, he was plagued with accusations of plagiarism. He adopted plots from Hugo, Hauptmann, Schiller, Gogol, Gorki, Sudermann, Grillparzer, Ibsen, Lessing, Gutzkow, Ostrovski, and others. From *Shakespeare he took the skeletal plot of King Lear for his Yidisher Kenig Lir – the title itself acknowledging the debt. The latter is essentially a Jewish play, a didactic melodrama which probes the problem of conflict between generations. The impulse behind its female analogue, Mirele Efros, one of the most popular dramas in the Yiddish repertoire, came from Gordin's own Lear play rather than from Shakespeare. The world of Mirele Efros is a Jewish world, yet the play was performed successfully in nine languages. Gordin was frequently attacked for introducing alien matter into the Yiddish theater; some critics denied he was a Jewish writer at all. Among his other popular plays may be mentioned Got, Mensh un Tayvl ("God, Man, and Devil," 1900), Di Shvue ("The Oath," 1900), and On a Heym ("Homeless," 1907). Only about a quarter of his plays have been printed, some in pirated editions, while many survive only in manuscript or have been lost. Gordin also wrote a score of one-act plays, largely to encourage amateur performers, as well as serious essays on the theater. He also wrote widely for the press. His stories and sketches are invariably characterized by socialist moralizing.

In his stormy 18 years in America, Gordin wrote more than 100 plays for the Yiddish stage, most of which have been forgotten. Yet he must be reckoned the most important formative influence, after *Goldfaden, in the history of the modern Yiddish theater. Gordin came to love Yiddish but denied it the status of "national tongue." He viewed with pessimism the future of the American Yiddish theater whose temporary decline he lived to witness. His dying words were "finita la commedia." A quarter of a million Jews attended his funeral in New York City. His works have not been well edited. The four basic collections are Yankev Gordins Ertseylungen ("J. G.'s Stories," 1908); Ale Shriftn ("Works," 4 vols., 1910); Yankev Gordins Dramen ("J.G.'s Dramas," 2 vols., 1911); Yankev Gordins Eynakters ("J.G.'s One Act Plays," 1917).


M. Winchevsky, A Tog mit Yankev Gordin (1909); A. Cahan, Bleter fun Mayn Lebn, 3 (1926), 186–94; 4 (1928), 344–77; B. Gorin, Di Geshikhte fun Yidishn Teater, 2 (1923), 107–26; Z. Zylbercweig (ed.), Leksikon fun Yidishn Teater 1 (1931), 391–461; idem, Di Velt fun Yankev Gordin (1964); S. Niger, Dertseylers un Romanistn (1946), 193–203; K. Marmor, Yankev Gordin (1953), incl. bibl.; lnyl, 2 (1958), 142–53; L. Prager, in: American Quarterly, 18 (1966), 506–16. add. bibliography: N. Sandrow, Vagabond Stars: A World History of Yiddish Theater (1977); L. Rosenfeld, Bright Star of Exile: Jacob Adler and the Yiddish Theatre (1977); S. Cassedy, To the Other Shore: The Russian Jewish Intellectuals Who Came to America (1997); J. Adler, A Life on the Stage (1999); J. Berkowitz, Shakespeare on the American Yiddish Stage (2002), 31–72; N. Warnke, "Reforming the New York Yiddish Theater…1887–1910" (diss. 2001).

[Leonard Prager /

Joel Berkowitz (2nd ed.)]