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.