A Tale of Two Museums
Ester Rachel Kaminska Theater Museum Collection

Dramatic Yiddish Theater in America (1890-1910): Jacob Gordin and Jacob Adler

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A studio photograph of Jacob Gordin (right) with the Yiddish writer Kalman Marmor.
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An engraving of Jacob Adler as The Jewish King Lear by the playwright Jacob Gordin.


Dramatic Yiddish Theater in America (1890-1910): Jacob Gordin and Jacob Adler


Jacob Gordin (1853-1909) forged a new path for Yiddish theater by introducing realism in place of Hurwitz and Lateiner's crowd-pleasing operettas. Among the more popular of Gordin's dramas were his literary adaptations like The Jewish King Lear, about a rich Jewish merchant (instead of a king) and about the corrosive effects of capitalism on the family. And in Gordin's interpretation of the Shakespeare classic, the elderly tyrant, exiled from his family, returns, chastened and triumphant, and the love between parents and children transcends the divisive power of money and greed.

Jacob Adler (1855-1926) was a pioneer of the modern Yiddish theater in its earliest days in the Russian Empire. Although he was not a  practiced singer, he played leading men, emphasizing and developing his talent for acting. When the Russian government banned public Yiddish performance, Adler left the empire to pursue or create opportunities to perform in Yiddish. He lived in London for a period of time, and then moved to New York City. Here, Adler rose to be an important entrepreneurial force in commercial theater, and an advocate of better Yiddish drama or, as he put it, emese kunst, true art. The cornerstone of this was his relationship with the playwright Jacob Gordin whose early works walked a thin line between art and commerce. They introduced realism to the Yiddish stage by stripping Yiddish performance of its music and oversized stories and fanfare. Of course, audiences came to learn that Gordin's work featured salacious plots that were just as much of a draw.

Adler and Gordin continued to work together into the twentieth century, but, with the exception of his drama True Power (Emese kraft, 1904), the plays he wrote for the Grand Theater all fell through and closed within a few weeks (some even within a few days). Fortunately for Adler, the Gordin classics from the 1890s remained popular and hence figured prominently on the bill.


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“Dramatic Yiddish Theater in America (1890-1910): Jacob Gordin and Jacob Adler,” YIVO Online Exhibitions, accessed March 1, 2024, https://ataleoftwomuseums.yivo.org/items/show/2916.
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