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Rewriting Russia: Jacob Gordin’s Yiddish Drama, by Barbara Henry.  Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2011.  276 pp.  $35.00.

 

When the Yiddish playwright Jacob Gordin died on the Lower East Side in 1909, a quarter of a million mourners lined the streets, to watch his funeral cortege go by. Despite this acclaim, his name and reputation sank quickly into relative obscurity, and few of his 80 or so plays continued to be produced.

But Jacob Gordin is currently enjoying a renaissance, thanks to a small band determined to illuminate his fascinating story. Foremost among these is Barbara Henry, associate professor of Russian literature and Jewish studies at the University of Washington, author of Rewriting Russia: Jacob Gordin’s Yiddish Drama. Another is Jacob Gordin’s great-granddaughter—me.

Professor Henry and I had a brief, mutually helpful correspondence before the publication of my own book about Gordin. I was distressed, however, by her determination to skewer one of the central stories of my great-grandfather’s life, and by the provocative title of a lecture she gave at Columbia: “The Lives and Lies of Jacob Gordin.”

But I’m happy to report that Barbara Henry has produced a significant book, passionately expressed, well written and meticulously researched. Henry points out that, despite the reverence accorded Gordin’s life and work in his time, “in the century since Gordin’s death there has not been a single scholarly study of his plays.” With this work that delves specifically into Gordin’s literary achievements in the context of his time and place—the Pale of Settlement in the 1880s, New York at the turn of the last century—she has rectified that neglect.

Fluent, I gather, in both Russian and Yiddish, and taking advantage of the new freedom of information in Russia, she travelled there to unearth valuable documents, including many of Gordin’s articles for the Russian and Russian-Jewish press and, most interestingly, his police files. Gordin emigrated from Odessa at the age of 38 and died in New York only 18 years later, yet the first four decades of his life have been more or less hidden, until now.

Professor Henry posits that although many of Gordin’s plays are at least partially adapted from the work of European writers like Tolstoy, Turgenev, and Shakespeare, this does not diminish their value or power. “Gordin’s plays,” she writes, “are not translations, plagiarisms, or mechanical transpositions of European works to a Jewish milieu; they are sustained critical dialogues with his source works, which assert Jewish continuity with European literature through its reinscription as popular Yiddish drama.” Taking three of Gordin’s major plays and analyzing the original works that inspired them, she pries open the aspects that Gordin retained and imitated and, just as important, those he did not. I was particularly interested in her analysis of “Khasia the Orphan,” a play that provoked a huge controversy in 1903 but that, unlike The Kreutzer Sonata and The Jewish King Lear, is not yet available in English translation.

Henry is gleeful in promoting her contention about Gordin’s “escape” story, a tale I heard from both my grandmother and great-aunt, two of his daughters. Gordin claimed that in Ukraine in 1891, just as the Tsar’s soldiers were coming to arrest him, he received advance warning from a friend in authority and escaped in the nick of time, concealed in a hay cart. After perusing the police files, Henry concluded that, although Gordin’s socialist utopian group the Spiritual Biblical Brotherhood was always under careful police surveillance, none of its members, even their leader, was in immediate danger of arrest. Gordin, she contends, emigrated for the same mundane reason as everyone else, to make a fresh start in America, but embellished his story.

That may be; the man was a dramatist and may well have dramatized not only his characters’ lives, but his own. I still contend he felt a growing and genuine danger. Not long after his arrival in New York, his Brotherhood was outlawed in Russia, and orders were sent to border guards to arrest him, should he try to re-enter. On the personal side, he left behind a wife eight months pregnant with their ninth child. Surely this indicates, perhaps not the drama of a hay cart, but a real urgency in his decision to depart.

Henry also claims that Gordin’s The Kreutzer Sonata, the first Yiddish play ever produced in English, is “his most successful play”; it is, not coincidentally, one of the plays she has chosen to analyze. But the play most associated with Gordin’s name, the warhorse vehicle for the Jewish theatre’s divas that has continued to be performed internationally—with recent productions in New York and Montreal—is Mirele Efros, subtitled “The Jewish Queen Lear.”

The depth of Professor Henry’s analysis is consistently impressive, as is her zealous, at times exhaustive research, lightened by fluid writing and a touch of wry humor. Most moving is her respect for Gordin’s integrity, “the titanic nature of his energies and achievements,” and his commitment to countless transplanted Jews, his fellow exiles, through the raucous theatre that sustained them. Gordin’s dramas, writes Professor Henry, “were essential in encouraging playwrights, critics, actors, and audiences to look upon the Yiddish stage as an art in its own right, one that was as true to the ancient, divided Jewish soul as any other art form.”

This is a balanced, expansive, and eloquent study.

Beth Kaplan

University of Toronto

and

Ryerson University