When it comes to drama and comedy, and I mean real drama, nothing beats good old Yiddish theater. Yet, where does this old tradition even come from? How did it come to be, in its professional form at least?
Very few people actually know that it is owed to one man. Abraham Goldfaden. Sometimes called the father of the “modern Yiddish theater”, his prolific plays in Yiddish, Hebrew and Romanian attracted crowds from all over the land-at least the Pale of Settlement.
Although originally from Tsarist Russia, Goldfaden immigrated to Jassy, Romania to start a theater troupe in 1876. Interestingly, he was called the “Prince Charming” of Romanian Jewish Culture- ultimately alluding to his integration as a Jew in Romania’s slavo-latin synthesis of cultural norms. What this means exactly is that he was able to get along and promote Jewish and Hebrew culture in relative peace.
He was a prolific artist, in the sense that not only was he a playwright and an actor, but also a poet and stage director of dozens of plays that he wrote in his lifetime. Yet, his greatest feat was not only setting up the first real Jewish theater as a fully functioning professional body, but he is also credited for putting on the first Hebrew play in the United States.
Life and times
Goldfaden was born in the small town of Starokonstantinov in Russia on July 24, 1840 into a small middle-class Jewish family. He was brought up in the Haskalah period-Jewish Enlightenment when Jews were becoming increasingly more educated in secular ideas and thoughts. This, had an undeniable effect on Goldfaden’s later modern outlooks, something which was visible in his more liberal plays. Even so, he attended a traditional cheder where he got a normal Jewish education. Yet at home his father would give him access to secular literature.
This might come as a surprise but Goldfaden actually went to rabbinical school in Zhytomir, and although the written word was his true passion, I think that these years were critical to his formation as a character. He began publishing his poetry in small but salient Yiddish newspapers in the 1860’s.
In his late 20’s he moved to Odessa, then part of the Russian empire, where he continued to engage in his poetry by which he was always able to express himself best. However, at some point he must have gotten bored of prose and began writing plays- the first being Die Murneh Sosfeh.
Most of his plays, at least in the early years, were extremely diverse from the most exuberant comedies to the most tear-wrenching dramas. The one thing that they all had in common was that they were all particularly very good. Still, in his early years Goldfaden found himself editing Yiddish newspapers like Dos Bukoviner Israelitishe Folksblatt, rather than living off his plays.
However, his writing also took a far more direct approach as well. He began to collaborate with a dear friend, a pianist, and together they wrote songs-usually with Goldfaden’s poetry serving as the lyrics. If anything, his songs were the ones that became most widely known, not only because they were catchy but also due to their fundamentally modern outlook and subject matter
Having found very little success in Odessa, he moved to Austria in order to attend medical school- something which ultimately did not work out. He then decided to move to Jassy, Romania where a rich and bustling Jewish community was flourishing ever since the 17th century. A decision which I am sure he did not regret.
In Jassy, he became serious about forming his own professional group of performers in order to actually make a living not only out of his songs but also various plays he had written. It was just his luck in fact that his name was already something of house-hold name, as Jews knew his popular songs.
Although his name was somewhat established, he still had a difficult time in finding the capital in order to start up his theatrical enterprise. He had borrowed money from his friend, a Jew by the name of Librescu, who reluctantly lent him the little needed to get a few people to together for performances. At first, his troupe put on shows outdoors, because he could not get the money to rent a place, but eventually he manged to find a small and shabby looking gig through some other acquaintance of his.
After a few years Goldfaden moved to the capital of Romania, Bucharest, with the hopes of expanding his troupe’s fame by finding a new audience within the Jewish urban elite. It is ultimately during these years that he gained the title of the “Yiddish Shakespeare” because of his turn to far more serious and tragic themes. In Bucharest he reached the epitome of his success, but soon moved back to Odessa at the request of his father.
In Odessa, Goldfaden continued to attract large crowds of intellectuals and the Jewish elite, but was forced to close down his theater as a result of Tsar Alexander’s ban on Yiddish theater as a result of the new anti-Jewish legislation that was taking hold of Russia. Goldfaden began to travel profusely throughout the world until he stopped in New York, where he sought to work as a journalist.
For the lack of a better label, Abraham was a Zionist. This was not only due to his pro-Zionist poetry, but it is important to consider that he also served as a delegate for Paris at the 1900 World Jewish Congress. Although he had never visited Palestine, he was still far more involved in pro-Zionist activities than most Jews at the time.
Everyone likes a good heart-warming, rags to riches story. I just have, shamelessly if I might say, relayed to you one. The difference is that this particular narrative is a Jewish one. Not enough attention has been given to such stories, which individually really make up the greater narrative of history as a whole. The fact is that people like Abraham Goldfaden have played an important role in Jewish history, although not on a big political scale, but rather in culture which is just as important.