The Mendele Review: Yiddish Literature and Language
             (A Companion to MENDELE)
             Yiddish Theater Forum [YTF]
Contents of Vol. 06.012 TMR and Vol. 01.003 YTF
12 December 2002

1) Letter from the Editor:  Goldfaden and Yiddish Theatre Studies (Joel
2) Letters to the Editor
    a. Yiddish Theatre in Montreal (Itzik Block)
    b. Goldfaden in London (David Mazower)
3) Dissertation abstract:  "The Botched Kiss:  Avraham Goldfaden and the
    Literary Origins of the Yiddish Theatre" (Alyssa Quint)
4) Goldfaden's 'Shabes, yontev, un rosh khoydesh' (Seth Wolitz)

Date: 12 December 2002
From: Joel Berkowitz 
Subject: Letter from the Editor: Goldfaden and Yiddish Theatre Studies

Given the ubiquity of the name "Goldfaden" in the annals of the Yiddish
theatre, it should come as little surprise that the third issue of the
Yiddish Theater Forum should revolve around the study of his work;
indeed, his words and music loom so large over the field that some
readers might be asking, "What took you so long?"

The phrase "Father of the Yiddish Theatre" has become so readily
attached to Avrom Goldfaden's name that one could be excused for
concluding that the epithet was in fact his surname or his profession.
Goldfaden's plays, which he began writing for publication in the late
1860s and for production in the 1870s, helped lay the foundation for the
professional Yiddish repertoire, and the best of them -- including the
farces _Shmendrik_ (1877) and _Di tsvey Kuni-leml_ (1880), the operetta
_Di kishefmakherin_ (ca. 1879), and the biblical or historical
spectacles _Shulamis_ (1880) and _Bar Kokhba_ (1883)--were constantly
performed wherever Yiddish plays were staged, and reinvented in
different times and places to meet changing social, political, and
aesthetic conditions.

The prolific playwright, composer, and poet has attracted his fair share
of scholarly attention as well, though so far this body of work
paradoxically puts disproportionate stress on Goldfaden while not nearly
telling the full story of his contribution.  On the one hand, scholars
of Goldfaden's plays and music have yet to unravel the complex
influences between him and rival playwrights like Joseph Lateiner and
Moyshe Hurwitz.  On the other hand, much of what has been published on
Goldfaden to date consists of fragments, or of works toward a study of
Goldfaden, rather than being the studies themselves.  Those seeking to
make a meal of Goldfaden studies thus leave the table feeling stuffed
rather than satisfied, but certain key works are worth consulting.  T
hese include the important collections _Goldfaden-bukh_ (1926) and
_Hundert yor Goldfaden_ (1940), both edited by Jacob Shatzky, and
published on the occasions of the fiftieth anniversary of professional
Yiddish theatre and the hundredth anniversary of Go ldfaden's birth,
respectively.  The closest anyone has come to a monograph on Goldfaden's
life and work are the Soviet scholars Nokhem Oyslender and Uri Finkel,
with their fascinating, but still provisional, _A.  Goldfaden:
materyaln far a biografye_ (1926 ). [See the Goldfaden issue of _TMR_ =
vol 2.014]

Most of the important studies of Goldfaden were produced from the 1920s
to the 1940s by critics and historians active in the leading Yiddish
cultural centers:  e.g.  Finkel, Oyslender, Yekhezkel Dobrushin in
Moscow; Nakhmen Meisel in Warsaw; and Zalmen Zylbercweig, Jacob Mestel,
and Jacob Shatzky in New York.  There is now a new cohort turning its
attention to Goldfaden (as well as to numerous other aspects of the
Yiddish theatre), two of whom are represented in this issue.  Alyssa
Quint, who recently completed her Ph.D. at Harvard, and who gives an
abstract of her doctoral dissertation on Goldfaden here; and Seth
Wolitz, of the University of Texas at Austin, who has in recent years
applied his broad understanding of western literature, theatre, and
music to the study of Goldfaden.  His analysis below of one of
Golfdaden's greatest songs offers a taste of Wolitz's approach to the

These new studies of Goldfaden provide an indication of the new
direction of Yiddish theatre scholarship.  Both Quint and Wolitz take
seriously Goldfaden's artistic talents, whether at crafting a drama,
composing a song, or putting music and lyrics together to form one
synthetic whole.  Both of these scholars understand the historical and
literary context out of which Goldfaden emerged, and to which he
contributed so substantially.  And both understand his pivotal position
as a commentator on the Jewish issues of his day--and by extension, the
opportunity for us to broaden and deepen our understanding of those
issues through the prism of the Yiddish theatre.

By coincidence, a query this month also seeks information on Goldfaden:
in this case, David Mazower seeks to retrace the artist's footsteps in
Britain.  Any success he has in doing so will help piece together
another as yet uncompleted angle of Goldfaden's life, which was perhaps
even more markedly peripatetic than those of the average "blondzhender

Date: 2 November 2002
From: a. Irwin (Itzik) Block 
Subject:  Yiddish Theatre in Montreal

Dear friends,

Please do not forget about our thriving Yiddish theater here, the Dora
Wasserman theater of the Saidye Bronfman Centre in Montreal.  I have
been in three plays in the past five years:  _The Apprenticeship of
Duddy Kravitz_, in Yiddish and some English, based on the screenplay of
the movie by Mordecai Richler; _The Great Houdini_, in Yiddish and based
on Melville Shavelson's script for the movie with Tony Curtis; and the
_Drayi Groshn Opere_, a translation of the Brecht classic by Michael
Wex.  I missed our production of _The Dybbuk_ and _S'iz Shver Tsu Zayn a
Yid_.  New York is not the world, yet.

zay gezunt,
Irwin (Itzik) Block
Date: 1 November 2002
From: b. David Mazower 
Subject: Goldfaden in London

I am currently researching Abraham Goldfaden's visits to Britain -- he
visited London and toured the provinces on at least four occasions
between 1889 and 1902.  I would be very grateful to hear from any YTF
members who have come across references to Whitechapel/London/England
in Goldfaden's memoirs and correspondence, or know of any such
references in any of his plays.

Date: 12 December 2002
From: Alyssa Quint 

Subject:  Dissertation abstract:  "The Botched Kiss:  Avraham Goldfaden
and the Literary Origins of the Yiddish Theatre"

Although an impressive body of scholarship has illuminated aspects of
the early Yiddish theatre (1876-1883) and the career of its founder
Avraham Goldfaden (1840-1909), there have been few sustained inquiries
into the literary quality of his work.  Scholars have been quick to
dismiss Goldfaden's plays and musical operettas as belonging to the
"lowbrow" class of early modern Yiddish culture, itself a category that
scholars have tended to define only vaguely and inconsistently.
Moreover, contradictions still suffuse the great deal we have learned
about the events leading up to Goldfaden's establishment of the Yiddish
theatre.  Did his founding of the theatre originate in Jewish
traditional performance that, by 1876, had become the most important
form of Jewish entertainment whether at a shtetl wedding or in the more
secular domain of the city tavern?  Or was Goldfaden's destiny as the
father of the Yiddish theatre sealed when he was first attracted to
writing modern Yiddish drama almost a decade earlier?  More precisely,
how did these elements come to coalesce in his artistic efforts?

This dissertation demonstrates that Goldfaden's work is, in fact, of
high literary merit and its second half is devoted to close readings of
his major plays in an attempt to reveal their sophistication and
complexity.  It also lays out his literary pedigree in earlier Yiddish
playwrights such as Israel Aksenfeld and Shlomo Ettinger, who had such a
perceptible influence on Goldfaden's dramatic writings -- an influence
that earlier scholars have been quick to point out but have never
explored.  Part I develops two aspects of Goldfaden's early literary
context with the intention of more clearly defining just what audience,
in fact, he contemplated when he began his Yiddish literary career.
Although scholars have assumed that modern Yiddish literature during
this its early and formative era was pitched to a mass audience, it is
my contention that a variegated Yiddish audience existed and that a
distinctly Europeanized Yiddish-reading audience -- one that knew
multiple languages and were acquainted with European literary convention
-- had a vital impact on what Goldfaden and his Yiddish-writing
colleagues wrote.  I argue that it is this coterie audience that
determined the high level of Goldfaden's writing that even characterizes
many of his works he wrote for the popular stage.  Thus, "The Botched
Kiss" of the title of this dissertation alludes to the incongruity that
existed between so many of the early Yiddish writers -- from S.Y.
Abramovitsh to the contributors of the Yiddish periodical _Kol mevaser_
-- who failed to reach a mass audience that they believed they were
reaching.  Chapter Three lays out how, in fact, Goldfaden eventually
reached a broad audience by way of the stage.

Such an inquiry is the historical backdrop to another "botched kiss"
that surfaces as a leitmotif that Goldfaden deploys in organizing his
dramatic world and upon which I elaborate by way of a series of close
readings in the second and final part of my dissertation.  I determine
that the motif of the "botched kiss" that recurs in his earliest works
encapsulates Goldfaden's refashioning of the conventional new comedy
that more accurately accounted for the subtleties of Eastern European
Jewish culture.  Goldfaden's ambivalence with or suspicion of modernity
or what he terms _veltlekhkayt_ ('worldliness') in his plays, and what
he perceived as its incompatibility with traditional Jewish culture, fed
his imaginative world.  The botched kiss that occurs between a maskilic
male and shtetl female (that appears in _Di mume sosye_ and _Di bobe
mitn eynikl_) stands in sharp contrast to the kiss of the typical
western comedy, crowned as it is with a kiss of wholesomeness and
promise between its young hero and heroine.  In accounting for such a
contrast, I consider Goldfaden's view of the subject matter with which
he was so deeply fascinated:  the Eastern European Jewish family in all
its aspects and its implications for the future of the Jewish people.
Readings of Goldfaden's _Di kishefmakherin_, _Shulamis_, and _Bar
kokhva_ suggest how the playwright sought to work out the dead end with
which the model of the comedy presented him.

Date: 12 December 2002
From: Seth L. Wolitz
Subject: "Shabes, yontev, un rosh-khoydesh"

In respect of Yiddish drama, Goldfadn constantly argues that the
greatest problem is building an audience ex nihilo.  He is explicit that
he would have liked to write and perform dramas equal to the great world
plays, but across his short autobiographical writings he repeats that
when you start at zero, you cannot go to one hundred immediately.  And
so he was forced to write musical dramas when his heart was in poetic
tragedies.  He considered himself first and foremost a poet, and perhaps
he was not entirely wrong!  The best of his songs reveal lyrics that
are _yidishlekh_ ['traditionally Jewish'] to the tips of their fingers,
like reading Shteynbarg.(1)

There is more to Goldfadn than meets the eye.  His cranky old-fashioned
melodramas with their music and exaggerations have petered out to the
memory of songs, just like Gilbert and Sullivan.  But what Englishman
doesn't identify with the words of the songs with refrains like "for he
is an Englishman!"?  The operetta or musical genre was the format par
excellence with which to join the West while instilling and valorising
one's _eygns_ ['one's own'].

To illustrate the point, it is worth examining the following song in Act
3 of _Shulamis_, the first stanza of which reads as follows:

Shabes, yontif un rosh-khoydesh
Daven ikh mir aleyn far zikh;
Ikh hob mir aleyn mayn oren koydesh,
Es bet nit keyner in im -- nor ikh!

[Sabbath, holiday and New Moon Festival,
I pray all by myself for myself alone:
I have within me my own Holy Ark,
And no one else prays within it but myself.]

The song is remarkable for it turns into a savage mockery of prayer
without action.  The first verse above is yidishlekh, its first line the
containment and suspension of what might be called "a Yiddish
worldview."  "Shabes, yontif un rosh-khoydesh..."  The beauty is not
just in the powerful evocation of holidays which carry their emotional
freight, but in the sound system.  There, in the sound system of the
first verse, Goldfadn's poetic talent and technique can best be

The line contains at least one variety of the five basic vowel sounds
in the Yiddish sound system:  a-sha; e-desh, -bes; i-tif'; o-yon,
-rosh; and u-un.  Look, too, at the consonantal system.  The opening
_shin_ is repeated at the end of the line with an echoing _shin_.  The
phoneme carries the aura of the _menukhe_ ['rest'] of _shabes_ and the
aura of the sacral across the verse with the three _shin_s integrated in
their lexemes.  The final verse of  the song also concludes with three
_shin_s, giving  the song a circular sound unity and parallelism.  The
first verse -- on the surface a tetrameter of four trochees (_sha_,
_yon_, _un_, _khoy_) -- is reinforced rhythmically by the first two
trochees which hit on the syllables of _sha-_ and _yon-_, bringing
them up front dramatically by the trochee's very force of first
accentuation [/-] . But then, I believe,  the _un_ in "UN rosh," which
is normally trochaic in the tetrametric line, is really a secondary
accent and should be interpreted as a pyrrhic, two un stressed syllables
[maintaining the tetrameter] or a virtual anapaest [--/] "un rosh
KHOY-desh," with the last syllables -- "KHOY-desh" -- sounding as a
repeated trochee.

The effect is of calm, the unaccented syllables leading up to yet
another holiday, a _rosh_ not _hashone_ ['New Year'] but "khoydesh"
['New Moon'], and fusing the world and nature with the eternal of
repetition, the monthly return of the moon but as _rosh _, the first,
the head of the month, of the year, so that the last allusion is in fact
a beginning.  The irony is deliciously felt, but its effect lies in its
reversal of poetic ordering.  _Rosh_ should have been first, but it is
the least important in prec edence for Jews, since _shabes_ takes
precedence even over the _yomim neroyim_ ['High Holidays'].  So this
unexpected poetic ordering follows Jewish legal ordering, and is wholly
fused with the poetic intention.

One notes that all three substantives of the first line are of Hebrew
origin and completely yiddishized accentually.  Thus we see continuity
and change together with the distinctiveness that is Yiddish culture.
Note too that the sound system places and accentuates the KHOY, with OY
being one of the distinctive dipthongizations that carries both phonic
and morphic significances.  This speaks of the joy of the holidays and
the hint of sadness of the OY:  the child is born with joy and with
pain.  Note too that the unaccented syllables, _-bes_ (_shaBES_),
_-tif_, _rosh_, and _-desh_ lie within a very narrow range of the sound
system, being all sibilants, plosives and fricatives voiced and
unvoiced, with the last phoneme usually unvoiced.  This engenders a
softness that reinforces the aura of the images.

Meaning here is multiple recall of the happiest moments of Jewish
traditional life, the power of these days and their quintessential
Jewishness that no one else can share.  This is ours, and no one else's.
Folk and unity are what Goldfadn is emphasizing.  A nd the scansion /-
/- --/-  puts into relief that the three _shin_s are accentually varied.
They form the circle of the Jewish holiday continuity which is always to
be celebrated, so that the verse line on the level of sound is circular
(_sh_ = _sh_) and the lexical listing of holidays are both general and
particular:  of _shabes_ there are 52 in a year, _yontoyvim_
['holidays'] are many and _rosh-khoydesh_ is particular and there are 12
in a year:  in short, fusion of the general with the particular, giving
the effect of continuity and celebration, rest, and happiness.

The verse line brilliantly fuses sound system, rhythm and semantics with
the semiotic intentions to cry out _eygns_, _mesoyre_ ['tradition'],
_gedule_ ['glory']!  Is it any wonder that the perfect melody follows
the rhythmic structure so that the melodic arch reaches its highest
note on _KHOY_ and holds it for two notes' length?

That is why Goldfadn stirred our masses.  They found in his musical
plays their sense of community celebrated in a new modern way that
valorised the tradition at the same time that he was changing the
expression from sacral to secular participation.  To just enunciate
"Shabes, yontif un rosh-khoydesh" seems like an Open Sesame to all we
love and hold dear, even if we are no longer observant.  This is the
power of poetry and Goldfadn's genius:  he restores Israel via art.
This verse line is one of Goldfadn's finest moments; it is impossible
to quote a line off the top of one's head in Yiddish that is more
_yidishlekh_.  The simile "sheyn vi di lavone" ['beautiful as the moon']
is banal by comparison.  It is not possible to find a more perfect line
in Yiddish poetry, and when the song was sung in Goldfadn's drama, the
entire audience swooned and sang along, for here was our true national
anthem.  What could be more _yidishlekh_ than "Shabes, yontif un
rosh-khoydesh"?  Even in today's modern State of Israel, there is no
single term that contains the emotional pull of "Shabes, yontif un
rosh-khoydesh."  The strength of the Diaspora was built on national
allegiance to our holidays.

(1) Eliezer Shteynbarg (1880-1932):  Bessarabian-born Yiddish poet,
playwright, and fabulist.

End of The Mendele Review 07.012   /  Yiddish Theater Forum 01.003
Leonard Prager, editor                   Joel Berkowitz, editor

                    Yiddish Theater Forum

                       Honorary Board

Raphael Goldwasser, Shifra Lerer, Bernard Mendelovich, Joseph Schein

                       Advisory Council

Dror Abend-David, Jean Baumgarten, Helen Beer, Paola Bertolone, Mendy
Cahan, Jeremy Dauber, Jerold Frakes, Ben Furnish, Itsik Gottesman,
Avraham Greenbaum, Nina Hein, Barbara Henry, Dov-Ber Kerler, John Klier,
David Mazower, Laura Mincer, Edna Nahshon, Yitskhok Niborski, Leonard
Prager, Alyssa Quint, Ron Robboy, Nahma Sandrow, Vassili Schedrin,
Joseph Schein, Jutta Strauss, Jeffrey Veidlinger, Nina Warnke, Seth
Wolitz, Moshe Yassur

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