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Lear, the 'Landsman'

January 24, 2008 By:
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The Jewish King Lear. It sounds like the basis for a skit on the old Sid Caesar television program of the early 1950s. Or, perhaps, the subject of one of the extended riffs my old Yiddish-speaking relatives used to perform at Bar Mitzvahs or other social gatherings, translating Shakespeare -- most often Hamlet's "To Be or Not to Be" soliloquy into Yiddish -- or similarly transforming something out of Gilbert and Sullivan, and thereby sending the old folks into stitches. The humor was lost on us crass younger types who didn't understand Yiddish, but mostly, we were puzzled why translating high-end poetry into this so-called "jargon" would elicit so much laughter.

But the phrase does not refer to a Yiddish-tinged comedy skit, whether from the vintage-TV era or some ancient family celebration. Rather, there was a play by that name, which was first performed on the New York stage in 1892, the work of Russian-Jewish writer Jacob Gordin. The Jewish King Lear, which entertained patrons of the Yiddish theater on New York's Lower East Side for decades, has recently appeared for the first time in English, thanks to Yale University Press and the intrepid scholarship of the late Ruth Gay. She translated the play, and contributed essays and notes to the volume, with assistance from Sophie Glazer (she is Gay's daughter from her first marriage to sociologist Nathan Glazer, and has contributed work to the Forward, Commentary and The American Scholar).

'A Comedy in Four Acts'

Gordin's play was not a Yiddish version of Shakespeare, but a work about a late 19th-century Jewish businessman who decides, like Lear, to divide his fortune among his three daughters. The work is very much about the process of assimilation and cultural change (Gordin thought that more Enlightenment thinking among the Jews could only ensure their betterment), and while it addressed these serious themes, it was meant, in the end, to be "a comedy in four acts."

If nothing else, this book should be looked upon as a tribute to the work and memory of Ruth Gay. The wife of longtime Yale University scholar Peter Gay, she did not write a great deal, but what she wrote was, like the many works of her esteemed second husband, of the highest quality. Anyone with any interest in Jewish history should quickly find copies of her The Jews of Germany: A Historical Portrait that covers the period from the expulsion from ancient Israel to the rise of Hitler; Unfinished People: Eastern European Jews Encounter America, in which she considers Jewish immigration from the angle of her own childhood experiences in the Bronx; and Safe Among the Germans: Liberated Jews After World War II, which examines the experiences of survivors of the Holocaust who returned to live in Germany.

One of the most fascinating things about the current project is that the original text of Gordin's play was probably never even produced. The Jewish King Lear -- what Gay calls the "beloved and profoundly influential staple of the Yiddish stage" -- was actually "a hybrid production." Gordin's text was purchased by actor-manager Jacob Adler, one of the giants of Yiddish theater, who then revised the play extensively.

Writes Gay: "Adler's charismatic presence in the title role virtually guaranteed its success, and his revisions demonstrated his keen eye for what worked on stage. Adler stripped away a problematic final scene, with a provocative background of Christian music; he tactfully eliminated Gordin's attack on musical interludes; he toned down the defiance, piled on the pathos, and created a lasting hit." The Jewish King Lear was a staple of Adler's repertoire for 30 years, but it was a somewhat adulterated version of the original.

Gordin's text was set in 1890, in Vilna, in the house of Dovidl Moysheles, a successful merchant. The play opens on a lavish Purim celebration where the businessman is entertaining his large family, including his two married daughters, Etele and Gitele, and his unmarried daughter, Taybele. Also among the celebrants, invited by Taybele, is her tutor, Yaffe, an enlightened German Jew who, Gay points out in her introduction, is the author's stand-in.

As Purim gifts, rather than the more traditional sweets, Dovidl gives his daughters expensive diamonds. The two older children accept their gifts with lots of flattery for their father, but Taybele refuses the jewelry, saying she has no need for such adornments.

Dovidl then announces that he plans to spend his remaining years in Israel, praying and studying, and that he has entrusted the administration of his fortune to his eldest son-in-law. His wife, his servant (who is like the fool character in Lear) and Taybele fear the worst. The youngest child verbalizes her misgivings, angering Dovidl, who sends her away. Yaffe then rises and says: "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! May God protect you from such an end as that to which King Lear came. May you be healthy and happy."

Dovidl refuses to listen, instead believing the flattering words of his older children and their husbands, only to learn, in the end, the lesson embedded in Yaffe's warning. He returns from Israel penniless, since his son-law has stopped his remittances, and he's reduced to living like an unwelcome guest in his own grand house. His daughter withholds food, starving Dovidl and his wife. The elderly man's sight begins to fail, and he eventually leaves his house, along with his servant, to go begging around the world. Only the love of his youngest child, who has become a physician, restores his health, and sets everything aright as the curtain descends on the fourth and final act.

Gay points out the significant differences between the Gordin and Adler versions. One of the "most remarkable," she says, comes in the first act, "where Gordin created an opportunity to lecture his audience severely on their debased taste for the musical interludes that customarily interrupted a serious [Yiddish] drama. Gordin had long been accused of writing 'dry' plays, without intervals of song and dance, and in The Jewish King Lear he addressed his criticism head-on by arranging for the arrival of Purim players at the end of the first act. They put on a traditional Purim play with song and dance to the immense enthusiasm of Dovidl and the rest of the guests. At the end, Dovidl turns to Yaffe and invites him to share in his delight. But, speaking in the voice of Gordin, Yaffe denounces the whole performance for its crudeness. In [Adler's] stage version this scene was never played; instead, the guests at the feast sing as a chorus, and Yaffe, the exotic outsider, is invited to sing a song from his own tradition."

The other additions -- for example, the use of Adler's young daughter in the Purim scene, blessing Dovidl and melting the hearts of the audience -- were generally melodramatic, bombastic, bordering on bathos -- and possibly even all three -- yet still highly effective as stage business, notes Gay.

But, according to the translator, even though this play is more than 100 years old, it still retains "a double force."

"On the one hand, it evokes the living passions of the period," the translator noted, "secularism versus religion, the place of women in traditional Jewish society. But even as it appeared, what was still a source of struggle in the Old Country had already been realized in the new. The audience of the Yiddish theater was full of Taybeles. They were not doctors or scientists; they were hard-working independent women who could -- and did -- buy their own diamond earrings. Today the play survives not only in its antiquarian charm but also because its central themes -- the relationship between parents and children and the more philosophical issues of secularism versus religion -- are still alive and making headlines."

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