Nahma Sandrow is the author of "Vagabond Stars: A World History of Yiddish Theater," as well as other books and plays related to the topic. She is currently at work on a Folksbiene Yiddish Theatre production of Goldfadn's "Shulamis."
You've heard of the Oscars, the Emmys and the Tonys. But the Goldies?
Indeed, though you might have missed it, when the Hebrew Actors Union decided to give out awards for excellence, they named them the Goldies in honor of Avrom Goldfadn, the father of Yiddish theater. And the statuettes would follow the theme: silver-painted plaster renditions of the man himself sporting a flamboyant cloak and moustache.
But the union was not merely honoring someone from Yiddish theater history. Quite the contrary: Though Goldfadn passed away in 1908, over the last few years, interest in him has increased — as have the opportunities to see his plays.
Last fall, "Goldfaden's Legacy: The Origins of Yiddish Theatre," a documentary by Romanian filmmaker Radu Gabrea, had its American premiere in the theater of the CUNY Graduate Center as part of its International/World Theatre Series. The film makes clear that Goldfadn's legacy is nothing less than the institution of Yiddish theater itself. One of the evening's organizers was Moshe Yassur, a director of Yiddish plays — as well as Romanian, Hebrew and English ones. Yassur — who as a boy performed in the very same Romanian wine garden theater where Goldfadn first stepped onstage — was among the original organizers of the now-annual International Goldfadn Festival of Jewish Theater in Jassy (Iasi), Romania. The Folksbiene Theater, the longest continuously running Yiddish theater in the world, has started plans to mark the centenary of his death. And, in the meantime, Goldfadn's operettas have become repertory staples in Montreal, Melbourne and Buenos Aires.
"Goldfadn's material is so accessible," explained actress Joanne Borts, who directed a Goldfadn play at KlezKamp, the weeklong program of Yiddish culture, this past December. "The songs have melodies people love, and they tell a story. When something is a classic, it's a classic for a reason."
Goldfadn created Yiddish theater almost by accident. It all began in 1876. Goldfadn, in his mid-30s, had by then published several popular volumes of songs and poems, but he had failed at a string of jobs and businesses in several countries. That year, passing through Jassy, Romania, he was — as usual — desperate for cash. So he decided to give the local Jews what they didn't have. He wrote, produced and directed the first professional secular Yiddish play. (There were never more than two characters onstage at any one time, because he could afford only two actors.)
In retrospect, the event looks the opposite of accidental; in fact, it seems inevitable. Goldfadn brought to that moment a lifelong love of Yiddish folk culture, including songs, Purim plays and the traditional rhyming of wedding jesters. His father and his schoolteachers were committed to the ideals of the Enlightenment Movement, which called for Yiddish-speaking Jews to participate fully in the modern world. Indeed, a modern secular "European" Yiddish literature was already developing. Historical circumstances gave Goldfadn a public, gathered in town and ready for a show. His moment had come.
By 1882, when Yiddish theater debuted in America with a performance of Goldfadn's operetta "Koldunye; or, The Witch," there were companies in many cities; Yiddish playwrights were turning out scripts, and Goldfadn himself had become a celebrity. Still, he spent the rest of his life hustling and trouping from town to town, turning out scripts and scores and putting together shows. In his memoirs, he complains of wandering the streets, hearing his songs through open windows, while he walked by without a coin in his pocket for supper.
Among the most popular of Goldfadn's operettas is "The Fanatic; or, The Two Kuni-Lemls," typical of his earlier works in its Enlightenment theme. Outmoded tradition, represented by parental authority, is the real villain, and the happy ending comes when the young lovers outwit an arranged marriage. This is a comedy plot that has been popular since the Greeks, especially by way of slapstick farces with music, so no wonder "Kuni-Leml" still — in show biz parlance — "has legs." In fact, I myself based a musical on it, with composer Raphael Crystal and lyricist Richard Engquist; it ran almost a year off-Broadway, reappeared yet again this past winter in Florida, and still sells CDs. And other adaptations of "Kuni-Leml" can be seen in the ongoing repertory of Tel Aviv's Yidishspiel Theater and in several film versions. Plus, Goldfadn's original script will be available for the first time this spring, translated by Joel Berkowitz and Jeremy Dauber, in "Landmark Yiddish Plays: A Critical Anthology" (SUNY Press).
Another of Goldfadn's themes was Zionism. One of the favorite operettas in the Goldfadn canon is "Bar Kokhba; or, The Last Days of Jerusalem," about the hero who rebelled against Roman occupation. When "Bar Kokhba" opened, czarist censors objected to a play celebrating revolution; a play about Jewish nationalism was even more dangerous under Stalin. But actors kept performing it because audiences loved its romance, heroism, stirring score and comic relief. Last December, the Folksbiene presented a staged concert version of "Bar Kokhba," including a splendid lion in yellow papier-mache. After the show, the audience crowded around directors Zalmen Moltek and Motl Didner, demanding a repeat performance. And a CD. Goldfadn, never modest, would not have been surprised.
Classics lend themselves to many visions of rediscovery. The 20th century brought Marxist revivals of Goldfadn operettas, expressionist productions, productions in Spanish and Ukrainian and various language combinations. Last year at the Folksbiene, director Allen Rickman devised a vaudeville treatment for his own translation-adaptation of Goldfadn's "The Capricious Bride," about a girl who falls for a cad. The year before, the Folksbiene presented a staged reading of "Akeydes Yitskhok," a charmingly quaint rendering of the biblical episode of the binding of Isaac, complete with angel.
Although Goldfadn never achieved the luxury he longed for, he got what he craved the most: immortality. Watching Gabrea's film, he would have twirled the points of his dandified moustaches in satisfaction. He would especially have preened when the camera turned to Alyssa Quint, who earned a doctorate from Harvard with a groundbreaking dissertation analyzing his contribution in historical context. (Although he would have appreciated all the growing body of scholarly analyses of Yiddish theater, Goldfadn — who had an eye for the ladies — would certainly have relished Quint's remarks the more because she is young and pretty.)
Still, much of Goldfadn's legacy remains invisible. Tunes and even words he coined have been so fully integrated into Yiddish culture that we feel as though they've always been there. "Kuni-leml" and "shmendrik," widely used generic nouns meaning "fool," are actually names he made up from scratch for clownish characters. The marching anthem from "Bar Kokhba" and the birthday song from "The Witch" would be familiar to anyone who ever belonged to a Yiddish social, political or cultural organization. "Raisins and Almonds" ("Rozhinkes mit mandlen"), from the score of "Shulamis; or, The Daughter of Jerusalem," was the only lullaby my grandfather knew. As a grownup, I was astonished to discover that it is not a traditional folk melody; my grandfather couldn't have heard it as a baby from his own mother (and she from hers), as I'd always assumed, because Goldfadn hadn't composed it yet. Though Goldfadn lies buried in Brooklyn, his songs and plays give him the truest immortality of all.
Yiddish Theater in America
The roots of Yiddish theater
Growing Grapes And Culture In Romania
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Abraham Goldfaden (1840-1908)