The Jewish King Lear: A Comedy in America
by Jacob Gordin
Reviewed by Stephen Greenblatt
The New Republic Online
For as long as I remember, my father took a lively interest in how many people showed up at the funerals of his friends and acquaintances, most of them members of the synagogue where he served as president or of the many Jewish organizations with which he ceaselessly busied himself. "Mollie," he would say with excitement when he returned from the funeral parlor, "you should have seen Stanetsky's this afternoon. It was packed, a real mob scene." My mother would look up with interest from whatever she was doing -- salting a veal tongue, or rolling the dough for rugelah -- and call upstairs to my Aunt Rose, who lived above us with my Uncle Ben in our two-family house: "Ro, did you hear about so- and-so's funeral? Harry says there was a big crowd." Aunt Rose in turn would phone my Aunt Dora and Uncle Al, and, if the magnitude seemed to warrant the expense of a long-distance call, Aunt Dora would phone my Uncle Mo in Montreal. Later in the evening my father would doubtless provide his sisters, Aunt Esther and eccentric Aunt Sadie, with a detailed bulletin. Who knows where it all came to rest? Sitting at the table cutting paper or drawing a picture (which I was allowed to do every day of the week except Saturday), I would wonder out loud, for the thousandth time, why it mattered how many people came to your funeral. You were dead, after all, and couldn't enjoy it. "It's a big yikhes," my father would answer, as if that word -- Yiddish for status or honor -- made anything clearer.
My father lived for yikhes -- not the kind you could inherit through your lineage, but the kind you could earn for yourself. He was not uninterested in money and the things it bought -- "I saw so-and-so in a new Caddy," he would remark with admiration and a touch of envy -- but the currency about which he truly cared was measured out not in dollars but in laminated plaques, framed awards, engraved pen-and-pencil sets, a prominent place on the bimah in synagogue, and the size of the crowd at a funeral.
Jacob Gordin's death in New York in 1909, at the age of fifty-six, provoked a spectacular manifestation of the yikhes that so captivated my father. Indeed, my father, who was twelve years old at the time, must have heard about the great event. On a catafalque in the Lower East Side's Thalia Theater, which had been draped in black and purple for the occasion, Gordin's body lay in state. Three thousand people with tickets managed to crowd in to listen to the Yiddish eulogies (along with the Halevi Choral Society's rendition of the "Pilgrim's Chorus" from Tannhäuser), while outside an estimated quarter of a million mourners thronged the streets to pay their respects. Vendors sold photographs of the deceased, along with black mourning bands, buttons, and wreaths. In the afternoon, a procession some ten thousand strong accompanied Gordin's remains across the Williamsburg Bridge to his final resting place in Washington Cemetery in Brooklyn.
This immense display of respect, whose magnitude one might associate with a prince or a prophet, was mounted for a playwright who had garnered none of the marks of international recognition showered on figures such as Shaw or Ibsen, and whose work was little known outside the Yiddish community for whom he wrote. Indeed, even within that community Gordin's detractors were numerous and highly vocal. Some of them lamented the changes that Gordin, with his output of eighty or so plays, almost single-handedly brought to the Yiddish theater, and pined for what they regarded as its glory days.
Older immigrants from Romania and Odessa fondly remembered the plays written by Abraham Goldfaden, "the father of the Yiddish theater" -- raucous comedies, the Eastern European equivalent of commedia dell'arte, full of singing and populated by such stock figures as the illiterate alte bubbe, the conniving shadkhn or marriage broker, the drunken hasid, and the gonif on the lookout for someone to swindle. Alternatively, they were nostalgic for Goldfaden's heroic mode, grand costume dramas on the martial exploits of the likes of Bar Kochba and Judah Maccabee, in which the glamorous heroes, in tights, gaudy cloaks, and golden crowns, declaimed their extravagant sentiments in a peculiar stage-language, a bombastic, heavily Germanified variant of Yiddish called Daytshmerish. These theatergoers -- like the aging television viewers who find The Sopranos loathsome and long for Milton Berle, or the Elizabethans who hated the moral conundrums of Measure for Measure and craved a revival of the melodramatic old chestnut Mucedorus -- would have agreed with Goldfaden's own bitter assessment in 1902 of Gordin's influence on the medium that he, Goldfaden, had pioneered: "Look at what he has done to my child! Taken my beloved child, my Jewish child, my Benjamin, and has converted him. My son who would say Kaddish for me -- he has defiled him."
The charge of conversion, however metaphorical, was a serious one, and not only because Jews traditionally regarded apostasy with horror. In Russia, as many still recalled, Gordin had caused a scandal in the wake of the bloody anti-Semitic pogroms of 1881 from which he, his wife, and his four children had narrowly escaped, thanks to a Christian neighbor's kindness. At a moment when Russian Jewry was deeply shaken by the overwhelming hostility of virtually all segments of the surrounding population, Gordin personally contributed to a fund organized to benefit the families of rioters who had been arrested for their violence against the Jews. Still more remarkably, he published an article in a Russian newspaper that asked his "Brother Jews" whether anti-Semitism was motivated simply by religious hatred. "Or is it," he wrote, "our love of money, unquenchable, our stinginess, chasing after ways of earning money, our impudence [chutzpah], our fawning style, our slavish and foolish imitation of the puffed up and corrupt Russian aristocracy, our usury, our tavernkeeping, our impulse to trade and all our other failings -- all these provoke the Russian people against us."
These sentiments -- startling even now, let alone when the blood of the innocent victims was not yet dry -- created a furor that followed Gordin all his life and undoubtedly intensified the bitterness in the charges leveled at him by the critics of his fervent secularism, his radical politics, and his plays. Yet the quarter of a million mourners who paid their respects at his funeral provide vivid proof of the extent to which Gordin seemed to the great mass of his contemporaries not an apostate or a traitor, but the voice of their innermost thoughts. The Jewish King Lear, the late Ruth Gay's fine and lively translation of Gordin's most famous play, along with the richly informative accompanying biographical and interpretative essays by Gay and Sophie Glazer, enable readers without Yiddish to understand what stirred Gordin's original audience so deeply.
It is important to grasp that the aesthetic dimension of Gordin's success in The Jewish King Lear is bound up with the strain of radical Jewish self-critique -- the anger directed not against the persecutors but against the values and the behavior of his own community -- that Gordin voiced in the wake of the pogroms. This self-critique is not the same as Jewish self-hatred or identification with the aggressor. It was more complicated, and certainly more valuable. It emerged from a momentous embrace of the Enlightenment and a consequent departure from traditional religious practices and social customs that had long seemed to define Jewish identity. This embrace -- not Gordin's alone but that of a huge number of his fellow Jews -- was closely linked to the experience of emigration to America. Between 1881 and 1924 (when Congress's Johnson-Reed Act drastically restricted the flow of the immigrants), some two and a half million Jews -- fully one-third of the total Jewish population of Eastern Europe -- crowded onto ships, mostly in steerage, and sailed away not to the promised land but to the land of promise, the goldeneh medineh.
The lure of the Enlightenment should not be exaggerated -- my grandparents, who left Lithuania in the 1880s, were unlikely to have recognized the names of Diderot, Locke, or Jefferson. But the vision of freedom and opportunity that drew them westward had its origins in secular rationalism. To be sure, miserable though they regarded their lives in Lithuania, they would have been reluctant to leave if they thought they were thereby obliged to abandon their religious observances. In a new land they hoped to practice their Judaism unburdened by the vicious hostility of the Russian authorities and the hatred of their neighbors. But they were not pilgrims.
When they boarded the ship taking them to America, they were not following a spiritual leader, and they were not seeking any intensification or purification of their faith. They were part of a large transnational religious community that was pulling away both from the severe piety of the most dourly orthodox of their contemporaries, the misnagdim, and from the mystical enthusiasm of the hasidim. Embattled, impoverished, and bloodied, a whole generation, deeply steeped in tradition, was preparing to embrace new forms of existence and poised to listen to voices other than those of their rabbis. And in their thousands and hundreds of thousands, this generation proved to be Jacob Gordin's audience.
Years ago, visiting my elderly mother in Florida, I met a friend of hers, much older, to whom she always referred as "Mr. Steinberg from Timmins, Ontario, " whether to distinguish him from all the other Steinbergs who wintered in St. Petersburg Beach or to call attention to his exotic origin. In fact, he had been born in Ukraine, and while we sipped tea he told me a story that would have resonated with Gordin's contemporaries. He was the second of three boys, living in a rural shtetl. Their stepmother -- a saint, he called her -- cared for them. Their father had gone off years before to America, with a promise to send for them as soon as he established himself, but they had heard nothing from him and had no idea where in the vastness of the United States or Canada he might be. Meanwhile they eked out a desperate existence in a miserable hovel with dirt floors.
One day, when he was seven or eight years old and foraging for something to eat, a Cossack rode down upon little Steinberg. "Yid, milk!" the terrifying figure implausibly shouted to him. Their cow had died, but the trembling little boy was afraid to tell him so -- Cossacks had fantasies about the hidden wealth of the Jews; and so he grabbed a pail, ran into a field where a neighbor's cow was grazing, milked it, and brought the drink to the thirsty man. And then a second, even more implausible thing happened: the Cossack gave the child a wool blanket. The boy ran back with the blanket to his stepmother and told her that he wanted her to use it to make a warm winter coat for him. She said she would make a coat, but it would naturally have to be for his older brother Yankl.
Some months later, the three brothers were out in the fields -- the eldest now proudly wearing the precious coat -- when they saw a group of Cossacks riding in their direction. Yankl managed to push his two small brothers into a drainage ditch, but he himself was spotted and caught. Cowering in the ditch, the children heard screams, and by the time they deemed it safe to emerge from their hiding place, they found that their brother was already dead. They ran to tell their stepmother, who in turn ran to tell the rabbi. Other people in the shtetl had also been attacked and killed. Jews bury their dead very quickly, but it was Friday afternoon, too late to start to dig graves before the Sabbath. The rabbi told them to find a wagon to collect the body and to be sure to scrape up all the blood they could see on the ground, for that should be properly buried with him.
The family sat up with the body, Mr. Steinberg recalled, all night. At a certain point, he turned to his stepmother and asked her the question that had welled up in him almost the moment he emerged from the ditch: could he have the coat? "I must ask the rabbi," she replied, and when she did, the rabbi inquired if there was blood on the coat. There was. Then it must be buried, he said, along with the body. "And that is why," said old Mr. Steinberg of Timmins, Ontario, still aggrieved after more than eighty years, "I have always hated rabbis."
Jacob Gordin's The Jewish King Lear opened in New York in 1892, in a production cunningly shaped by the charismatic actor-manager Jacob Adler. It was a spectacular and enduring success. And it was by no means the only apparition of Shakespeare on the Yiddish stage: Othello and The Merchant of Venice were frequently performed, and a celebrated adaptation of Hamlet, titled Der Yeshiva Bokher, was advertised as "Shakespeare's Hamlet -- translated and improved. Presented by Boris Thomashefsky."
Set in 1890 in Vilna, The Jewish King Lear opens in the dining room of a wealthy Jewish merchant named Dovidl Moysheles. It is the evening of Purim, and the family has gathered to await the pious Dovidl's return from the study house. In addition to his wife Khane Leah, bustling about with the family servant Trytel, there are the merchant's two older daughters, Etele and Gitele, who have come with their husbands, Avrom Harif, a stringent misnaged, and Moyshe, a bibulous hasid, and their small children. There is also Dovidl's youngest daughter, the seventeen-year-old Taybele. Taybele, still living at home, is awaiting the arrival of her tutor, Herr Yaffe, whom she wishes to invite to the feast. "Why do you need that poor German Jew?" asks Taybele's mother. "He will only make fun of us." But the girl pleads, and Herr Yaffe is duly invited.
Dovidl comes in with a hearty greeting, and the Purim feast begins. It was customary to distribute sweets on the holiday, but the merchant grandly hands out gold coins to his grandchildren, diamond rings to Etele, and diamond earrings to Gitele. To Taybele, his favorite, he gives a spectacular diamond brooch. Etele and Gitele are predictably effusive in their gratitude, but Taybele is unaccountably silent. "Speak," the patriarch demands. "Why are you silent? Why don't you say why you are unsatisfied? You don't like the brooch? I will buy you a more expensive one, a more beautiful one." After much badgering of this kind, the beleaguered girl finally replies: "I don't need it and the brooch means nothing to me."
The family crisis occasioned by this unwelcome frankness is narrowly averted, while the Purim merrymaking continues; but it surges up in graver form a few minutes later, when Dovidl makes a surprise announcement: "I have made up my mind to travel to the Land of Israel and there to carry on the remaining days of my life in the study of Torah and prayer." Retiring from the world of affairs, he intends to divide his entire fortune equally among his three children, from whom he expects to receive regular remittances in Israel, and to confer the supervision of his unmarried youngest daughter on his son-in-law Harif, the misnaged. Khane Leah, who has known nothing of this plan, is understandably distressed -- "Vay iz mir!" -- but the imperious husband regards her opinion as entirely unimportant: "If I tell you to travel to the Land of Israel, you'll travel!"
The unctuous older daughters and their husbands fall all over themselves in praising the old man's plan, but once again Taybele refuses to join in the flattery. Instead she dares to doubt the sincerity of Harif, declares her indifference to money, expresses her lack of interest in getting married, and, most shocking of all, announces that she wants to go to St. Petersburg together with Herr Yaffe to study medicine. In a towering rage, the father kicks his disobedient daughter, along with her teacher, out of his house. On the threshold, Herr Yaffe turns back and addresses Reb Dovidl:
I do not know if you have heard of the world-famous writer Shakespeare. Among his works is a drama with the title King Lear. The old king, like you, divided his kingdom and also like you sent away the loving daughter who told him the truth. Oh! How dearly he paid for that! Yes, you are a Jewish King Lear!
What does it mean to be a Jewish King Lear? It evidently means that you have lots of yikhes and a prosperous business, instead of a kingdom. It means that (unlike your Christian counterpart) you have a wife who is still alive, even if she is a woman whose principal expression is "Vay iz mir." It means that you have a daughter who despises your money and wants to go to medical school. And it means that you find yourself with a prospective son-in-law who does not wear a yarmulke, makes fun of Jewish rituals, and lectures you about Shakespeare. Oy.
The predictable things happen. Israel, Dovidl discovers, is not the promised land: there is no spiritual intensity, and the inhabitants for the most part are "a bunch of sluggards, hypocrites, and parasites ... totally occupied with getting charity from coins that have been begged from Jews abroad." Back in Vilna, Etele and Gitele constantly snipe at each other, and the grasping, self- righteous, rigidly Orthodox son-in-law is at war with his drunken, coarse hasidic counterpart. The loyal family servant tears his hair out, food and drink are stingily kept under lock and key, remittances are somehow not sent to the parents in the holy land, and when the disillusioned Dovidl returns to the home he left behind, he finds a cold and parsimonious welcome. He could in principle reclaim what he has given away, but his pride instead drives him into the streets, where, bent over and by now almost completely blind, he would rather beg for his food from strangers than from his own ungrateful children.
This is the moment in Shakespeare's King Lear in which the old man begins his irreversible descent into despair and madness, and the kingdom lurches toward the tangled horrors of torture, civil war, foreign invasion, conspiracy, and murder. But Gordin has a different idea. As he conceives the drama, this is the moment in which the moral universe begins to right itself. The original audience actively willed the restoration of goodness: when Jacob Adler ad- libbed at this point an appeal for alms for the blind King Lear, the spectators, according to contemporary accounts, routinely showered the stage with coins for the ruined old man. If they could help it, this play was not going to end in tragedy.
As if in answer to this charitable impulse, the next scene opens not on some naked heath but in a beautiful room in the home of the newlyweds Yaffe and Taybele. "Mazel tov," says Khane Leah, whom the young people have taken into their care. Poignantly, she does not quite know what else to say, since she understands that an abyss has opened between her world and the world of her daughter: "I no longer know, Taybele, what to wish you, since you don't reckon as happiness that which foolish and uneducated women treasure." The old woman cannot resist dreaming of the wedding that might have taken place in the days of their prosperity, a wedding with a huge crowd of guests and a klezmer band -- but Taybele, with a gentle, principled coldness she shares with Shakespeare's Cordelia, quietly reinforces her mother's recognition that things have irrevocably changed: "No, dear mother, I would never have allowed my wedding to become such a circus in town. Only foolish and uneducated people have to express their joy so publicly." The festive world of Eastern European Jewry has given way to the decorous and cultivated civility of assimilated German Jews.
Herr Yaffe is no longer the poor tutor at the table of the rich merchant. When Etele and Harif arrive as uninvited guests to wish the newlyweds a mazel tov, Yaffe demands Taybele's legacy that Harif has been withholding, a legacy with which they will build a hospital for the poor. The hypocritical misnaged and his wife try to weasel out of their obligation, but Yaffe belongs to a different world from that of his father-in-law Dovidl or his brother-in-law the hasid. Specifically, Yaffe is prepared to take the matter outside the Jewish community to the goyish sphere, where he has important contacts: "I need only say a word to my friend the Procurator and he will see to it that you are both sent to prison for a few years."
Justice, poetic and otherwise, is further served when the shivering, blind Dovidl is led into the room by his loyal servant and realizes that he is in the presence of the daughter he wronged. In the comparable moment in Shakespeare's tragedy, Lear falls to his knees and begs forgiveness; and so, too, does Dovidl. But the parallelism lasts only for a moment. King Lear drives on toward the unendurable bleakness of Cordelia's murder: "Thou'lt come no more./Never, never, never, never, never." But in The Jewish King Lear, Yaffe looks into the blind man's eyes and sees something other than despair: "He has a hypermature cataract that we can easily remove. It's not for nothing that you have two children who are doctors."
It is easy to laugh at this plot twist, which leads in a final scene to a quick, painless operation that restores Dovidl's sight. Gone is the terrible vulnerability revealed on the heath in Shakespeare: "unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor, bare, forked animal as thou art." Gone is the misogynistic sexual nausea at the thought of "the sulphurous pit, burning, scalding,/Stench, consumption." And gone is the tormenting recognition of a loss that can never be restored:
Howl, howl, howl! O, you are men
Had I your tongues and eyes,
I'd use them so
That heaven's vault should crack.
She's gone forever!
I know when one is dead, and when
She's dead as earth.
Gordin's characters inhabit the world not of Shakespeare's Lear, but of the Lear of Nahum Tate, the late seventeenth-century scribbler (and sometime poet laureate) who rewrote the tragedy to give it a happy ending. Tate's Lear, with its wedding bells for Edgar and Cordelia, is now only a historical curiosity, but it is worth remembering that for more than a century it was, by virtually universal preference, the sole version of the play performed on the English stage. For the enlightened minds of the eighteenth century -- a happier age than ours -- the monstrous, gratuitous cruelty of Shakespeare's tragedy was repellent. After all, even now, floundering about as we are in bafflement and shame at the world we have created for ourselves, we should be able to cling to pieces at least of the optimistic vision voiced by the ecstatic Dovidl, his sight restored by his daughter the doctor: "I was against Science! But look what a wonder science has performed. I thought that a woman had to be dependant on her husband. But look at what a useful person my Taybele is." A useful person. At the cost of enraging her father ("She is in my eyes worse than a convert") and exciting her brotherin-law's contempt ("To become a nihilist!"), Taybele staked a claim to a full identity: "I don't want to be like the drudges who lead useless lives, who are servants or caretakers of their husbands," she declared. "I want to be free -- to be equal to men."
Crowding into the theater after a long day's labor, the immigrant spectators -- vulcanizers and seamstresses, ragpickers and peddlers -- were applauding the passing of their own inherited world and embracing the world to come -- the world of the children who would be embarrassed by their accents, impatient with their archaic customs, and largely indifferent to their struggles. Those children, born in the New World, would still know Yiddish, since it was mamaloshn. Hospitalized as a very small child, my mother, born in Boston, baffled the Irish nurses by crying plaintively for a trinkele vasser. But a generation later, apart from a clutch of comic phrases, it would all be gone, as if it belonged to the age of the woolly mammoths and the giant sloths.
Some years ago, after I gave a lecture in Rio, an elderly man approached me and began to ask a question. "I'm sorry," I said, "I do not speak Portuguese." He continued to speak, as I reiterated my demurrals, until I realized that he wasn't speaking Portuguese at all; he was speaking Yiddish. And when, more recently, I went to Vilna and visited a synagogue, I had to converse with the congregants -- the pathetic remnant of a vanished world -- in German. Jacob Gordin himself may not have regarded the prospect of this linguistic fade-out as a particularly painful one. He originally wrote in Russian and switched to Yiddish, after he moved to New York, only in order to reach the larger immigrant public. As for the comparable fade-out of Jewish religious traditions, Gordin had himself, in his youth, called for the elimination of circumcision, the abandonment of Talmudic authority, and the dismantling of other impediments, as he saw them, to a full Jewish entry in modernity. "I advise every Jew," Herr Yaffe declares in The Jewish King Lear, "to take less pleasure in the Megillah" -- the scroll that tells the Purim story -- "and to begin to think of something that is new."
Such sentiments, at the center of an immensely popular play, help to explain a phenomenon that remains somewhat baffling even for those who themselves lived through it: how did so many people abandon so quickly, and many of them with so little rancor, ancient and theologically sanctioned taboos and practices that seemed the bedrock of identity? Why were my own parents, who kept a strictly kosher house, so comfortable when I began to eat treyf? Why, for that matter, was I not riven by conflicting feelings when I stepped for the first time into the Yale dining hall -- my Rubicon -- and put a slice of bacon on my plate? I certainly noticed that I was doing something new, but the act was not charged with guilt or pain. And if I felt very little sense even of pleasurable transgression, it was because Gordin's generation, the generation of my grandparents, had already done much of the psychic work. That work is the subject of The Jewish King Lear.
What Gordin could not have anticipated, of course, was the ruthless mass murder of Eastern European Jewry, the erasure of the language and culture not through assimilation but extermination. He should not be faulted for failing to imagine anything so monstrous. For him Germany was the beacon of science, and science was the handmaiden of enlightenment, and enlightenment was the irresistible force that would break the grip of fanaticism and dissolve the ancient hatreds.
Operating on Dovidl's cataract, Yaffe is for a moment distracted by the sound of a Mass being celebrated nearby: "That's what happens when they build a hospital near a Catholic church. It's a nuisance but to the devil with it." Taybele, assisting in the operation, welcomes the sound as therapeutic: "That singing isn't bothersome. Just the reverse. For the sick person it is surely pleasant." Jacob Adler evidently thought this moment was excessively ecumenical -he cut it from his production of the play -- but just over the horizon, unseen by Gordin and Adler alike, was an enemy far more murderous than marauding Cossacks or the perennially hostile Catholic Church.
And here The Jewish King Lear most starkly shows its limitations -- not for its optimistic faith in science, but for its inability to imagine evil. There are many things that Gordin strips away from Shakespeare's play in order to intensify the pathos and the hope that interest him, but the single most important change is his complete erasure of human depravity. Etele and Gitele are a far cry from Goneril -- "Hang him instantly" -- and Regan -- "Pluck out his eyes." Harif the misnaged is a miracle of probity compared with the loathsome Cornwall -- "Upon these eyes of thine I'll set my foot"; and the cool, jaunty, murderous opportunism of Edmund -- "Thou, nature, art my goddess" -- belongs to a different moral universe altogether. Only that moral universe -- Shakespeare's, not Gordin's -- could have looked ahead and seen Yaffe and Taybele, shoved into trucks with their children, on the way to the shallow ditch in the Ponary Hills a few miles outside Vilna.
Stephen Greenblatt, Cogan University Professor of the Humanities at Harvard, is the author of Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare.