||Jacob Gordin (1853–1909) was a playwright and journalist. In his stormy 18 years in America, Gordin wrote more than 100 plays for the Yiddish stage, most of which have been forgotten. Yet he must be reckoned the most important formative influence, after Goldfaden, in the history of the modern Yiddish theater.
Born in Mirgorod, Ukraine, Gordin was writing for the Russian press at the age of 17. Though tutored in secular subjects at home, he was essentially self-educated. He tried his hand at business but failed and became in turn a farm laborer, a stevedore, and an actor in a Russian itinerant troupe, all the while writing for the Russian press. He finally settled in Yelizavetgrad (present-day Kirovograd) as a teacher in the local "russified" Jewish school.
Gordin's first political ideal was nurtured in a circle devoted to Ukrainian independence. Later, influenced by Tolstoy and by the dissident Stundists (a non-Orthodox Christian Evangelical sect in Russia), as well as by Russian populist and Jewish enlightenment currents, he founded his own sect, the Dukhovno-Bibliyskoye Bratstvo ("The Spiritual Biblical Brotherhood"), in 1880. He and his followers rejected post-biblical Judaism, claimed the Bible as the source for their rationalist ethics, repudiated commerce, and saw in agriculture the sole healthy and virtuous occupation. Gordin's obsession with occupational reform led him to write an article which grossly offended the Jewish community. Soon after the April 1881 pogroms, he published in the Russian press an open letter "To My Jewish Brethren" in which he argued that Jewish usury, love of money, and middleman occupations were to blame for Russian anti-Semitism. The "Brotherhood" was ineffectual: its efforts to build a communal colony failed. In 1891, the czarist police decided to disband the group, and Gordin, forewarned, fled to America.
Shortly after arriving in New York, which was to become his permanent home, Gordin applied to the Baron de Hirsch Fund for aid in establishing a communal farm; he was refused. Family obligations, a pregnant wife and eight (eventually 14) children to support, made Gordin turn to journalism; he soon became a Yiddish journalist, and, by a further leap, a Yiddish playwright. Prior to his arrival in America, at the age of 38, Gordin had never written in Yiddish nor ever written a play.
His first play Sibirya (1891), though an apprentice piece, reveals many of those qualities for which Gordin was to earn the title "Reformer of the Yiddish Stage." The Yiddish theater, as Gordin found it, was one of vulgar burlesque and of absurd and garish "historical operettas." in Sibirya, as in all of Gordin's plays, the characters speak good colloquial Yiddish rather than the affected germanized Yiddish favored by the bombastic style of the day. Gordin disciplined his ad-libbing comic actors and banned, or at least modified, the rhymed-couplet song-and-dance routine. He built suspense into his plays and made spectacle secondary to dramatic action. Sibirya, however, also heralds Gordin's characteristic tendentiousness, stereotyping, moralizing, and excessive pathos. Yet the gentile judge in Sibirya is presented as a human being rather than as a caricature, something of an innovation, and indicative of the way in which Gordin's earnest view of the theater as school and temple yielded aesthetic fruit. But Gordin's melodramatic plays never ceased to be vehicles for his social gospel; he valued his art mainly for what it might teach.
Gordin's first great popular success Der Yidisher Kenig Lir (1892) made his reputation, as well as that of Jacob P.Adler who was in the leading role. Henceforth, Gordin was to write many plays for virtuosi—the lead roles in Mirele Efros (1898) and Di Shekhite (1899) were created for Keni Liptsin, and those in Sappho (1899) and Kreutzer Sonata (1902) for Bertha Kalish. Great actors respected Gordin and he in turn wrote great roles for them.
Gordin's use of borrowed plots was to become typical, and despite his open avowal of his sources, he was plagued with accusations of plagiarism. He adopted plots from Hugo, Hauptmann, Schiller, Gogol, Gorki, Sudermann, Grillparzer, Ibsen, Lessing, Gutzkow, Ostrovski, and others. From Shakespeare he took the skeletal plot of King Lear for his Yidisher Kenig Lir—the title itself acknowledging the debt. The latter is essentially a Jewish play, a didactic melodrama which probes the problem of conflict between generations. The impulse behind its female analogue, Mirele Efros, came from Gordin's own Lear play rather than from Shakespeare. The world of Mirele Efros is a Jewish world, yet the play was performed successfully in nine languages. Gordin was frequently attacked for introducing alien matter into the Yiddish theater; some critics denied he was a Jewish writer at all.
Among the other popular Gordin plays may be mentioned Got, Mensh un Tayvl (1900), Di Shvue (1900), and Khasye di Yesoyme (1903). Only about a fourth of his plays have been printed, some in pirated editions; many exist in manuscript or have been lost. Gordin also wrote a score of one-act plays, largely to encourage amateur performers, and serious essays on the theater. He wrote widely for the press, but his stories and sketches are invariably marred by socialist moralizing.
Gordin came to love Yiddish but denied it the status of "national tongue." He viewed with pessimism the future of the American Yiddish theater whose temporary decline he lived to witness. His dying words were "finita la commedia." A quarter of a million Jews attended his funeral in New York City.
Gordin's works have not been well edited. The four basic collections are Yankev Gordin's Ertseylungen (1908); Ale Shriftn (4 vols., 1910); Yankev Gordins Dramen (2 vols., 1911); Yankev Gordins Eynakters (1917).