- Rewriting Russia: Jacob Gordin’s Yiddish Drama by Barbara Henry
Seattle and London: University of Washington Press, 2011,
229 PP. $35.00 Paperback, $75.00 Hardcover
When Jacob Gordin died in 1909, thousands lined the streets of New York’s Lower East Side to witness his funeral parade. This sea of mourners came to pay their respects to the Yiddish dramatist who had reshaped their beloved theater. Gordin was a controversial figure, a fiery Russian activist and artist whose significance to the Yiddish theater cannot be underestimated. His importance has since earned him such monikers as the Yiddish Shakespeare, the Yiddish Goethe, and the Reformer of the Yiddish Stage. However, as Barbara Henry’s new work, Rewriting Russia: Jacob Gordin’s Yiddish Drama, makes clear, our understanding of the man and his work is incomplete. Henry has done a service in rekindling the conversation regarding this iconoclast by constructing a new image of Gordin based on exhaustive archival work. For those not familiar with Gordin, Rewriting Russia will serve as a worthy introduction to a prolific writer who, as the book highlights, represents a pivotal intersection between Russian literary traditions and the early Jewish-American diaspora community.
Henry’s monograph functions on two basic levels. Her first task involves biographical revision through the dismantling of “Gordin’s ersatz radical credentials to establish the facts of his career in Russia as a Jewish religious reformer, creative writer, and journalist” (8). This required the excavation and examination of Gordin’s many published feuilletons, theater reviews, and journalistic endeavors (and the works written under his many pseudonyms) while he was still [End Page 276] in Russia, prior to his move to America in 1891. Henry also examines Gordin’s activist projects, which were so central to his persona. The book’s latter focus is dedicated to the analysis of Gordin’s plays as complex works of adaptation from Russian sources. Henry’s reassessment of Gordin’s biography and early literary work bolsters her analytical approach as she tries to establish continuities between Gordin’s early activist and literary career, and his playwriting in America. She paints a picture of Gordin not as a fiery absolutist, as he is often portrayed, but as a moderate reformer with elevated artistic rather than social goals.
Henry focuses on three of Gordin’s plays, of which there were some sixty or seventy in total, depending on whom you ask. Each of the plays she selects is an adaptation from a noted Russian text. Der Yidisher Kenig Lir (The Jewish King Lear, 1892) was Gordin’s first major success, and the work that has garnered the most critical attention. Joel Berkowitz, Leonard Prager, and Iska Alter have examined the play’s connections to its Shakespearean predecessor. However, Henry is concerned with the play’s relation to Turgenev’s short story Stepnoi Korol’ Lir (King Lear of the Steppes, 1870). Di Kreytser Sonata (The Kreutzer Sonata, 1902) has as its precursor Tolstoy’s novella Kreitserova Sonata (1889). And finally, Gordin’s Khasye di Yesoyme (Khasye the Orphan, 1903), the least commercially successful of the three works, has as its antecedent Turgenev’s short story Asya (1858). In each case Gordin, who also adapted canonic works by Goethe, Ibsen, Hauptmann, and others, created a Yiddish vernacular version of a Russian classic. Henry’s interest is in Gordin’s process of adaptation as it functioned in the context of the American-Jewish diaspora as a “literary reclamation and sacralization . . . [through which] the text became a substitute for the lost homeland” (7). This is not an entirely novel assessment of Gordin’s endeavors. However, it is Henry’s focus on the Russian antecedents of these works that legitimizes a less speculative continuity between a past Russian ideal, Gordin, and the Yiddish theater community in America.
Henry’s first chapter, “Amerika,” offers a short history of the Yiddish stage and of Gordin’s early attempts as a playwright. After two failures, Gordin produced Der Yidisher Kenig Lir, offering Jacob Adler a part that he would play for the next thirty years. Gordin’s melodrama corresponds more directly with Shakespeare...