How a Failed Poetry Reading Led to the Birth of Yiddish Theater

In the early decades of the 20th century, the Yiddish theaters of New York’s Lower East Side were the great cultural center of immigrant Jewish life, and would eventually leave their mark on Broadway and even Hollywood. At the same, time the Yiddish stage flourished in Poland, the Soviet Union, and elsewhere, playing a crucial role in the birth of Hebrew theater. The phenomenon began when Abraham Goldfaden (1840-1908), a Russian Jew enamored with Russian-language opera and theater, received a letter from a Romanian coreligionist named Isaac Librescu. Alyssa Quint writes:

In his letter, Librescu invited Goldfaden to visit him in Iași, Romania, where Librescu belonged to a fraternal lodge of progressive-minded Jewish men that sought stronger connections with their more sophisticated Russian counterparts. Hard up for cash, Goldfaden went to Iași and entertained the men with lectures and formal declamations of his poetry. So impressed were they with his presentations that they convinced him to perform his poetry at Shimon Mark’s Café, a tavern that provided small-time Yiddish-language entertainment to its customers. Although embarrassed at the thought of performing in a tavern, Goldfaden agreed.

As he describes in his memoirs, Goldfaden dressed impeccably that night in a tuxedo, bowtie, and gloves, and recited a poem in the formal Russian declamatory style. The crowd promptly booed. Insulted and incensed by what he considered a boorish audience, Goldfaden left the stage. In his place, an entertainer of Yiddish skits and songs named Yisroel Grodner danced onto the stage dressed in ḥasidic garb. He sang a song composed by Goldfaden. The crowd loved it.

That evening, Goldfaden and Grodner began a collaboration in which Goldfaden wrote songs and dialogue, and Grodner performed them. From this, they grew into a troupe. . . . Over the following months, they added more performers, mostly former synagogue choristers or folk performers. With each new recruit, Goldfaden’s works became more elaborate.

The rest, as the saying goes, is history. And Goldfaden’s work attracted surprisingly diverse audiences:

Most seats at most Yiddish productions staged in city opera houses during this period, however, were filled by non-Jews. How can this be? Yiddish theater benefited from the wide-ranging tastes of non-Jewish Russian theatergoers, which had long included a diet of works in foreign languages. The Yiddish language was as incomprehensible as German or Italian to most Russian theatergoers. Moreover, the ethnic elements of Goldfaden’s theatrical productions, whether it was the hapless Ḥasid or the judicious modern Jew, played to the expectations of Russia’s theater audiences. In January 1880, Goldfaden negotiated a contract to stage Yiddish operetta at Odessa’s majestic Mariinsky Theatre twice a week. After only five years, he had finally arrived.

Subscribe to Mosaic

Welcome to Mosaic

Subscribe now to get unlimited access to the best of Jewish thought and culture

Subscribe

Subscribe to Mosaic

Welcome to Mosaic

Subscribe now to get unlimited access to the best of Jewish thought and culture

Subscribe

Read more at Tablet

More about: East European Jewry, Odessa, Romania, Yiddish theater

How European Fecklessness Encourages the Islamic Republic’s Assassination Campaign

In September, Cypriot police narrowly foiled a plot by an Iranian agent to murder five Jewish businessman. This was but one of roughly a dozen similar operations that Tehran has conducted in Europe since 2015—on both Israeli or Jewish and American targets—which have left three dead. Matthew Karnitschnig traces the use of assassination as a strategic tool to the very beginning of the Islamic Republic, and explains its appeal:

In the West, assassination remains a last resort (think Osama bin Laden); in authoritarian states, it’s the first (who can forget the 2017 assassination by nerve agent of Kim Jong-nam, the playboy half-brother of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, upon his arrival in Kuala Lumpur?). For rogue states, even if the murder plots are thwarted, the regimes still win by instilling fear in their enemies’ hearts and minds. That helps explain the recent frequency. Over the course of a few months last year, Iran undertook a flurry of attacks from Latin America to Africa.

Whether such operations succeed or not, the countries behind them can be sure of one thing: they won’t be made to pay for trying. Over the years, the Russian and Iranian regimes have eliminated countless dissidents, traitors, and assorted other enemies (real and perceived) on the streets of Paris, Berlin, and even Washington, often in broad daylight. Others have been quietly abducted and sent home, where they faced sham trials and were then hanged for treason.

While there’s no shortage of criticism in the West in the wake of these crimes, there are rarely real consequences. That’s especially true in Europe, where leaders have looked the other way in the face of a variety of abuses in the hopes of reviving a deal to rein in Tehran’s nuclear-weapons program and renewing business ties.

Subscribe to Mosaic

Welcome to Mosaic

Subscribe now to get unlimited access to the best of Jewish thought and culture

Subscribe

Subscribe to Mosaic

Welcome to Mosaic

Subscribe now to get unlimited access to the best of Jewish thought and culture

Subscribe

Read more at Politico

More about: Europe, Iran, Israeli Security, Terrorism