The Other Side of Avrom Goldfaden: reviewing The Rise of the Modern Yiddish Theater by Alyssa Quint5 min read

 In Review, Reviews, Russia
Avrom Goldfaden (1840-1908) is touted as the father of modern Jewish theatre – but his ambitions were not always community-driven as many would like to believe. The Rise of the Modern Yiddish Theater by Alyssa Quint attempts to dispel some of the most widely held narratives about Goldfaden’s life. She shifts her focus from his lengthy memoirs, instead, to the actors and audiences Goldfaden’s work impacted.

Goldfaden grew up in urban areas with merchant-heavy populations under the liberal rule of Alexander II in the Russian Empire. He attended a rabbinical seminary school for the elite-class of Russian Jews, read Russian literature, and traveled freely beyond the Pale of Settlement. After graduation, Goldfaden and his peers were part of the Jewish intellectual class who read worldly journals and hung out in cosmopolitan cities like Warsaw and Odessa. He identified with the Russian urban-based cultural intelligentsia, acquired their taste and manners, and wrote his plays to cater their interests. In 1876, Goldfaden founded the first Yiddish-language theatre troupe in present day Iași, Romania. His plays were a revelation in representation for Jews in Central and Eastern Europe – and mainstream commercial success followed his theatre troupe wherever they went. 

Quint presents Goldfaden with an “oversized sense of entitlement to a haute-bourgeois lifestyle devoted to cultural pursuits”, dispelling previous notions of folk authenticity. He might not be a Haskala thinker but rather, a playwright who was always trying to catch his next big break. Quint attributes this to “Goldfaden’s ever-growing nimbus of renown and activity… nourished by his expertise in self-promotion”. His troupe drew crowds in cultural centers like Ishinev, but not because of Goldfaden’s devotion to enlightening the masses.

The lady and gentlemen of Goldfaden’s troupe

Quint dives into the lives of his actors and audiences to get a cultural reading on Russian Jewry at the turn of the century. Their motivations and aspirations prove just as worthy of examination as Goldfaden’s plays. Goldfaden competed with non-Jewish operetta companies to recruit synagogue cantors and choirmasters. Among his first performers was the great Israel Grodner (1848-1887), already a star in Iași salons. Like Grodner, Goldfaden’s actors were “products of rarefied vocal training informed by the high standards of city life; they were hardly examples of ‘primitive folk culture’.” 

American Yiddish theater actor Dovid Kessler (1860-1920) recounted in his memoirs of being entranced by Goldfaden’s actors and the access to celebrity that his theatre offered young Jews. American Yiddish journalist Bernard Vaynshteyn (1866-1946) wrote that “everyone was jealous of the Jewish actor… all the young people, men and women dreamed of becoming Jewish actors.”

Despite their obvious talent, Goldfaden seldom mingled with his actors, suggesting an underlying class and educational elitism. He continued to view many of them as rough-hewn jesters despite their prominence and distinction. Virtually all of his actors grew tired of his  chutzpah and exploitation and eventually left, with many tolerating Goldfaden just long enough to memorize valuable lines that could be performed for another troupe.

Almost all Yiddish troupes contained male-only actors and Goldfaden legitimately was one of the first playwrights to introduce female actresses to the Yiddish stage. Bertha Kalich (1874-1939) was the first woman to publish her own memoirs in 1925 and her role of Shulamis in Goldfaden’s Shulamis became the role all modern Yiddish actresses aspired to play. Even so, Goldfaden could never overcome his sexism and contempt for the women in his shows. Overbearing mothers are seen in Shmendrik. Murderous women are present in Aunt Sosya, Sambatyon, The Sorceress, and Brayndele the Cossak

Caricatures gone wrong

Haskala, a growing reformist Jewish movement in the nineteenth century, included a belief that Hasidism was a corruption of Judaism and circulated anti-Hasidic propaganda to stop the spread of Hasidism. This conflict was nor tsvishn-undz or “only among us” – an ongoing internal debate among Yiddish and Hebrew speaking Jews. Although Goldfaden had no strong opinion on this matter, he drew on anti-Hadsidic sources for familiar ethnic material and ready-made narratives in The Two Kuni-Lemls. Goldfaden’s intentions backfired on him. His anti-Hasidic characters shifted from representing Hasids to representing all Jews, no matter how enlightened and integrated urban Jews had become. The Russian press were already referring to Yiddish troupes as “Jewish theatre” rather than Yiddish. Goldfaden’s coreligionists did not take this lightly.

Yiddish theatre lives on

Quint asks fans of Yiddish theatre in the Russian empire to “ignore Goldfaden’s deflated version of this period and, instead, consider events through the eyes of others and as they are captured by the contemporary press.” Her book is an invaluable source in aiding scholars of contemporary theatre review Goldfaden with nuance. I found Quint’s research interesting and an accurate portrayal of Goldfaden’s legacy and the not-so-humble beginnings of Yiddish theatre. Jewish talent in acting and film is a well-recorded phenomenon in American cinema and framing Goldfaden as the father of Yiddish theatre texture the multifacetedness of contemporary Jewish perspectives. It also sheds light on Yiddish theatre as a precursor to American film-making. Goldfaden, like many Yiddish actors and playwrights, found refuge and continued to create in the United States after Tzar Alexander III’s tightening on Jewish life in the Russian Empire. 

Yiddish language preservation outside of New York City is minimized for updated Hebew-dominant narratives of history. Goldfaden’s actors were talented enough to attract a sizable goyim fanbase in many parts of the Russian Empire. The audience and their reactions were an effective litmus test of the cultural consequences of Goldfaden’s writings. The focus on the actors and audience in The Rise of the Modern Yiddish Theater is a comprehensive window for understanding Goldfaden’s appeal.

Book details: Quint, Alyssa.The Rise of the Modern Yiddish Theater, Indiana University Press, 2020. It is available to buy here.

Featured image: Itzak Andres / Wikimedia
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