Yiddish Theatre Forum [YTF]
Joel Berkowitz, Editor 
Contents of Vol. 03.005
9 April 2004

Book review:

S.J. Harendorf, _The King of Lampedusa_ [_Der kenig fun lampeduse_], edited
and translated by Heather Valencia.  London: Jewish Music Institute and
International Forum for Yiddish Culture, 2003.

Leib Malach, _Remolding_ [_Ibergus_ (excerpts)].  In _Yiddish South of the
Border_, edited by Alan Astro.  Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press,

(Joel Berkowitz)

At first glance, these plays have little in common.  The comic fluff that
fills much of Sh. Y. Harendorf's _Kenig fun lampeduse_, a smash hit in
London's East End in the 1940s, is lighter than air, with a plot revolving
around a true wartime incident involving a Jewish RAF pilot's emergency
landing on a small but strategically important island in the Mediterranean.
Believing him to be at the forefront of a larger English assault, the
Italians surrendered, and when Sidney Cohen returned to the British base in
Malta with official surrender papers, his comrades dubbed him "The King of

Half a world away, in both geography and tone, is Leib Malach's _Ibergus_.
Set in Rio de Janeiro, Malach's drama revolves around the dilemma of a
Jewish prostitute who marries one of her clients (a wealthy Gentile who is
also a prominent politician), and then struggles both to find a place in
polite society and to maintain harmony with her pious brother and mother,
literally just off the boat from Eastern Europe.

For all their differences, both plays belong to a long line of Yiddish plays
known at least as much for the circumstances under which they were performed
as for what transpires on the stage. Harendorf, a former actor working in
the early 1940s as London correspondent for the New York Yiddish daily
_Morgn zhurnal_, turned the story of Sidney Cohen into a comedy poking fun
at 'allrightniks' and other nonsense bred by class distinctions, and infused
with Zionist longings.  The rehearsals for Harendorf's play, which was
turned into a musical by Meier Tzelniker and his company at the Grand Palais
Theatre, were later described by Yudl Goldberg, who played the title role:

 ...hot bay di repetitsyes nisht gehersht der gevuntshener distsiplin.
 Ayeder aktyor un aktrise hobn epes tsugeshtayert fun zeyer eygenem
 repertuar: ver mit a vits, ver mit a glaykhvertl, a stsenkele, a komishn
 aynfal, a lidl; vayl di pyese hot nit gehat keyn lirik un ver volt zikh dos
 gevagt tsu shpiln in vaytshepl yidish teater far 'amkho' on a 'song' (a
 lidl)?  Beshas dem repetirn di pyese zaynen tsugekumen l'erekh tsvantsik,
 draysik vitsn, velkhe zaynen nit geven in dem origineln tekst.  Di komishe
 situatsyes fun der handlung hobn gegebn a gelegnhayt oyf tsu shafn vitsn un
 baraykhern di dozike pyese mit materyal geshept baym vaytshepler yidishn un
 nit-yidishn 'amkho', vos hot azoy arum arayngebrakht in der pyese kolorit,
 otem un menakhem-mendlshn shvuung.

 [...the rehearsals lacked the desired discipline. Each actor added
 something from his or her repertoire: this one a joke, that one a bon mot,
 a little scene, a comic idea, a song; for the play had not lyrics, and who
 would have dared to perform for the ordinary folks at the Yiddish theatre
 in Whitechapel without a song? During rehearsals, some twenty or thirty
 jokes were added that had not been in the original text.  The plots' comic
 situations represented an opportunity to enrich the play with material
 taken from the ordinary Jewish and non-Jewish people of Whitechapel,
 thereby adding local color, life, and Menachem-Mendelesque zest.] [1]

A tepid initial response to _Lampeduse_ led the troupe to take the play off
the marquee, but Harendorf lobbied for another chance, and convinced a
colleague at an English-language newspaper to write a favorable review.  The
East End crowd returned in greater force after it saw how the play was
esteemed by the 'umes ha'oylem' [Gentiles], and Harendorf's play went on to
enjoy a run of unprecedented longevity in the East End, which came to a
close only when German bombings closed down the theatres.

Two decades earlier, Leib Malach--a talented writer of plays, fiction, and
reportage whose work deserves greater attention--wrote _Ibergus_ to expose
the ills of prostitution in the Jewish community in Buenos Aires.
Ironically, what happened next illustrated just how strong a grip the trade
had on the Yiddish theatres.  Theatre critic Jacob Botoshansky approached
Adolpho Mide, owner of the Teatro Israelita, who agreed to produce the play
but apparently had a change of heart before long.  In the words of
Botoshansky, whose introduction to the published version of _Ibergus_ is
included in full in Astro's anthology, 'Shortly before the first performance
[...] the theatre owner canceled it, explaining that he could not risk
offending the white-slave traders.' (90) That decision set off a firestorm,
best described by historian Edward Bristow:

 Botoshansky was so infuriated that he threatened to start a press campaign
 which would reveal that the Argentine Yiddish theatre was afraid of
 criticising nobody but white-slave traffickers.  Mide threatened to shoot
 Botoshansky, who in reply, carried out his campaign in _Di Presse_, the
 socialist journal which he was then editing.  Feelings ran very high indeed
 and the entire Yiddish press was drawn into the controversy.  In July _Di
 Presse_ hired the biggest theatre available for Botoshansky's own
 production of _Ibergus_ and a new acting troupe performed the drama before
 more than 2,000 people.  Finally, the paper insisted that the two regular
 Yiddish theatres display signs reading 'unclean ones forbidden.'  This was
 done for a year, in what was a famous if not quite permanent victory for
 the forces of decency. [2]

Both works reappeared in various incarnations.  According to Zalmen
Zylbercweig, after its initial 1926 run in Argentina, _Ibergus_ opened at
the Prospect Theatre in the Bronx, New York, under the title _Gasn-froyen_.
Celia Adler, who played the leading role, moved downtown to the Irving Place
Theatre in lower Manhattan a few weeks later, where she co-starred with her
half-sister Stella Adler, while the play continued to run in the Bronx with
Rosa Goldberg.  Celia Adler later toured the United States, Argentina, and
Europe with Malach's play, this time with the title _Der geler shotn_.  In
1928, the play also enjoyed success in Poland under the title _Hertser tsu

Heather Valencia discusses the textual history of _Der kenig fun lampeduse_
in her excellent introduction to the play.  It was never before published in
its entirety, though Act I was published in Avrom-Nokhem Stencl's _Vaytshepl
lebt_ (1951).  Valencia unearthed two complete Yiddish version, two complete
English versions by Harendorf, excerpts in Yiddish and English, an
adaptation for BBC Radio, and one other adaptation.  Valencia chose to work
with Harendorf's longer 1944 script, but indicates which sections were cut
in performance.

Whatever these works happen to have in common in terms of theatre history,
their contents are as different as fleyshiks and milkhiks, and the
translations in question here come in very different packages.  Heather
Valencia's translation, which I will return to below, is accompanied by the
full Yiddish text, in both alef-beys and transliteration. Alan Astro, by
contrast, offers just a taste of _Ibergus_.  Several scenes from the play
appear in Astro's anthology of English translations of Latin American
Yiddish writing, a recent addition to the impressive Jewish Latin America
series from the University of New Mexico Press. _Ibergus_ is the only work
of drama included in Astro's anthology, the bulk of which consists of short
fiction, along with reportage, memoirs, and poems (one of which is
accompanied by a sketch by Diego Rivera).

Astro has chosen two scenes from Act I of the play, followed by a short
exchange from Act II and the last line, with notes connecting some of the
missing pieces.  We first meet Rosa (or Reyzl) in the brothel in Rio de
Janeiro where she works, where a bookish admirer nicknamed Blondie tries to
convince her to go with him to North America, where no one will know her
past, and she will be free of the limitations placed on her by the pietistic
hypocrites in the community.  Rosa chooses a different route out of the
brothel, however.  She marries Dr. Silva, a Christian mulatto who is her
customer--and also a government minister.  Ultimately, though, in
part-Ibsenesque, part-Aschian fashion, her past catches up with her.  When
she brings her mother and brother to Rio from Eastern Europe, it does not
take long for her brother to realize not only that Dr. Silva is not an
Italian Jew, as Rosa claimed, but that she associates with a crowd that
belies the seemingly respectable life she now leads.  Rosa is in fact unable
to cut off all contact with the people she used to associate with, and this
failure ultimately causes her to be shunned by the ladies who lunch--and who
decide, to a large degree, who gets to be included in respectable society.
Malach ultimately follows the route Jacob Gordin so often took in his dramas
of social problems: with the protagonist, all but crushed by the pressure of
the competing forces tearing at her, suffering violent spasms as the final
curtain falls.  The final stage direction reads, 'Ire spazmen vern shneler
vi kaylekhdike duners voltn aroysgekayklt fun an oyfgerisn harts.' [4] Astro
renders this as, 'Her spasms become more rapid, like rolls of thunder
issuing forth from a heart ripped open.' (98)  I share his uncertainty as to
whether Rosa dies in the end.

Astro's translation reads well, which only reinforces my wish that he had
included more of the play in his anthology.  I am well aware of the
budgetary constraints of academic publishers that place a limit on the
length of books, however, and if Astro had to choose between including a few
scenes of _Ibergus_ or none of it, I would certainly prefer the latter. But
given how little of Malach's text is included, Astro's readers would have
benefited from a full plot synopsis, not just the editorial note filling in
some of the details between Act II and the end.

Fortunately for Valencia, she has not had to make such choices.  Her edition
of _Lampeduse_ packs into a slim paperback volume the annotated Yiddish
text, a transliteration on facing pages, and the English translation in a
separate section.  These texts are accompanied by a colorful forward by Anna
Tzelniker, who appeared in the original production and whose father Meir
directed it; eight illustrations; the editor's annotations on linguistic,
cultural, and historical matters that need glosses; and her introduction,
which does a fine job of orienting readers to the play's background,
ideology, textual history, and extraordinary reception.  In the following
passage, for example, Valencia assesses _Lampeduse_'s combination of
'entertainment and escapism' with its 'clear agenda':

The play is set and was first performed in a period which was difficult for
recent immigrants in terms of their national identity and role in British
society.  They were often viewed with suspicion by the British as outsiders
and foreigners, as untrustworthy aliens, and even the well established
London Jewish community was always aware of antisemitism and did not feel
fully accepted in British society.  Harendorf uses the incident on which the
play hangs to show Jews not as outsiders but as playing a role at the heart
of the common endeavour.  Through the figures of Lily and Sam he insists on
the patriotic duty of Jews to fight for freedom as members of British
society.  At the same time he reinforces in the audience their sense of
Jewish identity and community, by his affirmation of the values of honest
working-class Whitechapel.  The third, and for Harendorf most important
aspect is the ideal of an independent Jewish state.  He stresses this when
he describes the genesis of the play in his theatrical memoirs,[5]
suggesting that the impetus for the Lampedusa Zionist fantasy came from the
ordinary people themselves.  (x)

With the exception of the odd moment of overly literal wording, Valencia's
translation manages to be faithful to the Yiddish without being overly
slavish to it.  She sensibly takes greater liberties with the lyrics, which
were written in rhymed couplets, as in the show's opening below:

 Amol iz geven a mayse, a mayse iz geven amol, fun a gro-zilbernem foygl,
 geboyt fun shtol. In zayn guf un moyekh zaynen faran mashinen, un eyner fun
 di RAF zitst in drinen. Er dreyt a redl, kvetsht a knepl, un der foygl
 heybt oyf zayn kepl. Er derheybt zikh fun der erd, zayne fligl tseshpreyt,
 un er lozt zikh in zayn shlikhes veltn vayt...

 [Once upon a time, so begins the tale I tell, A silver-haired bird made of
 steel flew so well Its brain was an engine, its body was too, And an RAF
 pilot sat inside it and flew. He twiddles a knob with a look brave and
 bold, And the bird lifts its head, oy! a joy to behold! With wings
 extended, it soars from the ground, And flies on its way, on a mission it's
 bound...] (xxv)

The most notable omission from Valencia's volume is the music
itself--particularly ironic in a text published by the Jewish Music
Institute.  At times we do not even get the lyrics; on occasion we are told
that characters sing a song without being given any details.  Perhaps it is
not always possible to provide such information, but at least some of the
time it is. In his fascinating account of the production, Yudl Goldberg
praised Meier Tzelniker for writing the lyrics and music for 'a gorgeous
ensemble finale to Act I, and added:

 Er hot oykh in dem tsveytn akt gezungen mit mesikes un kheyn a parodye oyf
 Avrom Reyzens 'may ko mashme lon' un oykh tsu dem hot er aleyn zikh
 geshribn di lirik. Ikh hob in dem tsveytn akt gezungen a lid, velkhes ikh
 hob nokh gedenkt fun mayne kinderyorn heyoys es hot zikh fulshtendik
 tsugepast tsum inhalt fun der pyese: 'Aheym, briderlekh, aheym.' [...]
 Shoyn beys di repetitsyes iz dos lid gevorn der laytmotiv fun der pyese.[6]

 [In Act II, he also sang with sweetness and charm a parody of Avrom
 Reisen's 'May ko mashme lon,' for which he wrote the lyrics as well.  I
 sang a song in Act II that I still remembered from my childhood, and it
 completely suited the contents of the play: 'Aheym, briderlekh, aheym.'
 [...] During the rehearsals, it came to serve as the play's leitmotif.]

Pursuing such details would enhance our sense of both the basis for the
play's enthusiastic reception and the process of putting together a work of
entertainment in the popular Yiddish theatre.

That brings us back to one final similarity between the two translations
discussed here, for both bring to an English readership examples of Yiddish
drama that have hitherto been either completely or nearly absent in English
translation.  As far as I am aware, Astro's is the first example of Yiddish
drama from Latin America to appear in English, and Valencia's is an almost
unheard-of example of Yiddish musical comedy to appear in English.[7]
However much we cherish our Asches and Anskys, our Hirschbeins and Pinskis,
efforts like the ones described here are crucial to exposing a wider
readership to the generic and geographic variety that made up the Yiddish

--------------- Notes

[1] Yulian Gold, "Sh. Y. Harendorfs 'Der kinig fun lampeduze,' di letste
shlager-pyese funem yidishn teater in england," in _Studies in the Cultural
Life of the Jews in England_, Folklore Research Center Studies, vol. v, ed.
Dov Noy and Issachar Ben-Ami (Jerusalem, 1975), Hebrew/Yiddish section, 56.

[2] Edward J. Bristow, _Prostitution and Prejudice: The Jewish Fight Against
White Slavery, 1870-1939_ (New York, 1983), 315.

[3] Zalmen Zylbercweig, _Leksikon fun yidishn teater_ (Warsaw, 1934),

[4] Leib Malach, _Ibergus_ (Buenos Aires, 1926), 76.

[5] S. Y. Harendorf, _Teater karavanen_ (London, 1955).  See pp. 211-29 for
a description of the circumstances surrounding _Der kenig fun lampeduse_.

[6] Gold, 55.

[7] Published translations of Yiddish drama into English so far are
dominated by twentieth-century works that premiered in New York.  The
translated works include far more serious drama than comedy, and almost no
musicals, vaudevilles, cabaret acts, etc. A couple of plays--particularly
_Der dibek_ and _Got fun nekome_--and a handful of playwrights (Ansky, Asch,
Hirschbein, Leivick, Pinski) are disproportionately represented in English
translation.  _Der dibek_ alone has been translated and adapted numerous
times, including versions by S. Morris Engel (Los Angeles, 1974), Joachim
Neugroschel [in Neugroschel, ed., _The Dybbuk and the Yiddish Imagination: A
Haunted Reader (Syracuse, 2000); Neugroschel's translation was adapted Tony
Kushner as _A Dybbuk_, New York, 1998)], and Golda Werman [in Ansky, _The
Dybbuk and Other Writings_, ed. David G. Roskies (New York, 1992)].  Asch's
_Got fun nekome_ has been translated by Isaac Goldberg (Boston, 1918),
Joseph Landis [in Landis, ed., _The Dybbuk and Other Great Yiddish Plays_
(New York, 1966; rpt. 1972, and in abridged form as _3 Great Yiddish Plays_,
1986], and Joachim Neugroschel [in _The Pakn-Treger_ 23 (Winter 1996),
16-39], and has been adapted by Donald Margulies (New York, 2004).
Translations of other works by individual playwrights include Morris Freed,
_The Survivors: Six One-act Dramas_, trans. A. D. Mankoff (Cambridge, Mass.,
1956); Avrom Goldfaden's _Tsvey Kuni-Leml_ [as _Kuni Leml_, book by Nahma
Sandrow, lyrics by Richard Engquist, music by Raphael Crystal (New York,
1985)]; Jacob Gordin, _The Kreutzer Sonata_, adapted by Langdon Mitchell
(New York, 1907); Peretz Hirschbein, _The Haunted Inn_, trans. Isaac
Goldberg (Boston, 1921); Ari Ibn-Zahav, _Shylock and his Daughter_, adapted
by Maurice Schwartz, trans. Abraham Regelson (New York, 1947); Leon Kobrin,
_A Lithuanian Village_, trans. Isaac Goldberg (New York, 1920; rpt. 1927);
Kh. Y. Minikes, 'Among the Indians or, The Country Peddler,' trans. Mark
Slobin, in _The Drama Review_ 24 (September 1980), 17-26; I. L. Peretz, _A
Night in the Old Marketplace_, trans. Hillel Halkin, in _Prooftexts_ 12
(Jan. 1992), 1-71; David Pinski, _King David and His Wives_, trans. Isaac
Goldberg (New York, 1923); Pinski, _Ten Plays_, trans. Isaac Goldberg (New
York, 1920; rpt. 1977); Pinski, _Three Plays_, trans. Isaac Goldberg (New
York, 1918; rpt. 1975); Sholem Aleichem, _The Jackpot: A Folk-Play in Four
Acts_, trans. Kobi Weitzner and Barnett Zumoff (New York, 1989); and Sholem
Aleichem, _Heaven_, _She Must Marry a Doctor_, and _It's Hard to be a Jew_,
trans. Mark Schweid, in _Sholom Aleichem Panorama_, ed. Melech Grafstein
(London, Ont., 1948).  For other plays in anthologies, see Etta Block, ed.,
_One-Act Plays from the Yiddish_, 1st and 2nd Series (Cincinnati, 1923 and
New York, 1929); Isaac Goldberg, ed., _Six Plays of the Yiddish Theatre_,
1st and 2nd series (Boston, 1916 and 1918); Joseph Leftwich, ed., _An
Anthology of Modern Yiddish Literature_ (The Hague, 1974); David Lifson,
ed., _Epic and Folk Plays of the Yiddish Theatre_ (Rutherford, NJ, 1975);
Nahma Sandrow, ed., _God, Man, and Devil: Yiddish Plays in Translation_
(Syracuse, 1999); and Bessie White, ed., _Nine One-Act Plays from the
Yiddish_ (Boston, 1932).

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