The Jew­ish King Lear: A Com­e­dy in America

Jacob Gordin; Ruth Gay, trans.
  • Review
By – December 12, 2011

The play, The Jew­ish King Lear,” writ­ten by Jacob Gordin, was first pre­sent­ed on the Yid­dish stage (on New York’s Low­er East Side) by the actor-man­ag­er-direc­tor, Jacob Adler. It remained in his reper­to­ry for over thir­ty years, and was pro­duced by oth­er Yid­dish lumi­nar­ies, such as Boris Tomashevsky. 

The remark­able achieve­ment of the authors in this book is to give us not only the trans­la­tion of the orig­i­nal play, as Gordin wrote it (pre­served in the YIVO archives), but to present the rich his­to­ry sur­round­ing the pro­duc­tion, includ­ing bio­graph­i­cal chap­ters con­cern­ing the author, the per­form­ers, and espe­cial­ly the impor­tance of Yid­dish the­atre in Amer­i­ca dur­ing the ear­ly 20th century.

For the hun­dreds of thou­sands of immi­grants liv­ing on the Low­er East Side, the plays of Gordin, Shalom Ale­ichem, Gold­fad­den, and oth­ers were their gate­way into a world of cul­ture with which they could iden­ti­fy. The authors point out that even some plays of Shake­speare were re-writ­ten, so as to make them mean­ing­ful to audi­ences wit­ness­ing them. Among the most pop­u­lar were Ham­let, Oth­el­lo, and — as men­tioned— King Lear. (Boris Tomashevsky’s pro­duc­tion of Ham­let was called Der Yeshi­va Bocher” (The Yeshi­va Stu­dent) and the the­atre poster read, Shakespeare’s Ham­let — Trans­lat­ed and improved — pre­sent­ed by Boris Tomashevsky”!) 

The final chap­ter of the book, Read­ing The Jew­ish King Lear,’” is a bril­liant analy­sis of the sim­i­lar­i­ties that the play­wright man­aged to achieve between the themes, the actions, and even the char­ac­ters of Shakespeare’s play and his own depic­tion of a dys­func­tion­al Jew­ish family. 

The world of the Yid­dish the­atre is brought to col­or­ful life in this charm­ing book, and I can only add this ancient Yid­dish expres­sion to mark their efforts. A gezunt oif zey­er kepelach”…a bless­ing on their heads. 

Shi­mon Gewirtz is a can­tor, com­pos­er, and play­wright who has lec­tured on Jew­ish music at var­i­ous uni­ver­si­ties and elder­hos­tels around the coun­try. His orig­i­nal songs and trans­la­tions (from both Hebrew and Yid­dish) appear in many antholo­gies. He has a Mas­ters Degree in The­ater Ed. from NYU.

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