Tuesday, 7 February 2017


YOYSEF (JOSEPH) LATEINER (December 25, 1853-February 23, 1935)
            His true family name was Finkelshteyn, born in Jassy (Iași), Romania.  His father was a tailor, an immigrant from Russia, and his mother was born in Romania.  He studied in religious primary schools and the yeshiva of Rabbi Yekhiel-Mikhl in Jassy.  He was to become a rabbi, but he was early on entranced by the Jewish Enlightenment, studied Tanakh with Mendelssohn’s commentary, read Enlightenment literature, turned his attention toward secular education, and acquired a reputation as a “heretic.”  The writer and scholar Matisyahu-Simkhe Rabiner became acquainted with the young follower of the Jewish Enlightenment and taught him in his home Hebrew, German, and French.  Under the influence of Avrom Goldfaden’s theater, there was awakened in Lateiner an interest in the stage, and following a specimen of Goldfaden’s operetta “Di bobe mitn eynikl” (The grandmother with the grandchild), which was staged in Jassy in 1877, he wrote (around 1879) his first theatrical piece, Di tsvey shmuel shmelkes (The two Shmuel Shmelkes), a comedy in four acts, adapted from the German play Nathan Schlemiel (Nathan the fool); Goldfaden later used Lateiner’s play for his own well-known work, Di tsvey kuni lemels (The two Kuni Lemels).[1]  For this play, Lateiner received twelve francs and tickets to the theater which he also turned into money—they sold for nine francs.  When the cofounder of the Yiddish theater, Yisroel Grodner, parted ways with Goldfaden and put together in Jassy his own troupe—with Mogulesco playing lead roles—Lateiner became the prompter and wrote for the troupe the theatrical piece Lumpatsius vagabundus, which he translated from Romanian, and Di libe fun yerushlayim (Love from Jerusalem), an adaptation of Mapu’s Ahavat tsiyon (Love of Zion), which according to its contents was close to Goldfaden’s Shulamis.  In order that he not be a competitor, Goldfaden brought him into his troupe, but because Goldfaden refused to stage his plays, Lateiner left the troupe.  After the Russo-Turkish peace, when Goldfaden took his theater company to Odessa and played with great success, the troupe of Lateiner and Mogulesco also left for Odessa, and staged there, in addition to Di tsvey shmuel shmelkes, also Yente di pipernoterin (Yente the monster) and Der dibek (The dybbuk).  Because of the ban on Yiddish theater in Tsarist Russia, these troupes set out wandering throughout the world, and with one such wandering troupe, in 1883 Lateiner went through London and made his way to the United States, settled in New York, stitched pants for a time in a sweatshop, but soon became involved with the Yiddish theater and became the first professional writer for the Yiddish theater in the New World.  His first works in America were Ester un homen (Esther and Haman) and Yoysef un zayne brider (Joseph and his brother) (1885).  Shortly after this, in 1886, he wrote a play about life in America, entitled Di emigratsye nokh amerike (Emigration to America), but it had no success.  At that time there loomed a competitor for Lateiner, the playwright from another troupe in New York, Moyshe Hurvits.  Yiddish theaters performed with considerable material success, constantly requiring new plays to put on, and Lateiner in his hunt with Hurvits for new material pieced together plays from other languages.  Many times he merely changed the title of the work, gave the Gentile heroes Jewish names, and inserted comical bits, songs, and couplets.  Lateiner wrote over eighty such plays.  “Lateiner did not have the talent,” wrote B. Gorin, “to portray characters, and he was not blessed with an eye that could look into a person’s heart….  He was no more than a craftsman for the stage, and he understood how to craft a play.”  Lists of Lateiner’s plays can be found in Bernard Gorin’s Di geshikhte fun yidishn teater (The history of the Yiddish theater), Zalmen Reyzen’s Leksikon, and mainly in volume 2 of Zalmen Tilbertsvayg’s Lekskon fun yidishn teater, where one may find a full listing of his writings from the beginning of his career through 1930.  A number of his plays were adapted by actors, directors, and playwrights, and even more perversely, because of Lateiner’s popularity, they placed his name on their theatrical works.  Many of his plays were staged for years, aside from in the United States, in Yiddish theaters in various countries of Europe, mostly by wandering troupes.  The most popular of his plays were: Khinke pinke (Khinke Pinke), Dos yidishe harts (The Jewish heart), Sore sheyndl (Fair Sarah), Khurbn-yerushlayim (The ruins of Jerusalem), Yoysef in egyptn (Joseph in Egypt), Shlyomke un rikl (Slyomke and Rikl), Aliles-dam (Blood libel), Ishe roe (Wicked woman), Dovids fidele (David’s fiddle), Al nahares bovl (By the rivers of Babylon), Di seyder-nakht (The seder night), and Der man untern tish (The man under the table).  These works were also performed by dozens of drama circles in the towns of Poland between the two world wars.  In the last year of his life, the once so famous Joseph Lateiner was ejected from the establishment of a modern, artistic theatrical repertoire in Yiddish.  His plays were performed only on a few occasions.  Virtually forgotten, he died in poverty with his relatives in New York.  The Theatrical Alliance handled the arrangements for this funeral.

Sources: Zalmen Reyzen, Leksikon, vol. 2 (with a bibliography); Zalmen Zilbertsvayg, Leksikon fun yidishn teater (Handbook of the Yiddish theater), vol. 2 (New York, 1934), with a bibliography; Bernard Gorin, Di geshikhte fun yidishn teater (The history of the Yiddish theater), vol. 2 (New York, 1918), pp. 73ff; L. Kobrin, Erinerungen fun a yidishn dramaturg (Remembrances of a Jewish playwright), vol. 1 (New York, 1925); Y. Entin, in Tog (New York) (June 18, 1932); N. B. Linder, in Tog (February 24, 1935); P. Vyernik, in Morgn-zhurnal (New York) (February 25, 1935); Dr. A. Mukdoni, in Morgn-zhurnal (March 1, 1935); Mukdoni, Yorbukh fun amopteyl fun yivo (Annual from the American branch of YIVO), vol. 1 (New York, 1938); Mukdoni, In varshe un in lodzh (In Warsaw and in Lodz), vol. 2 (Buenos Aires, 1955); Algemeyne entsiklopedye (General encyclopedia), “Yidn 2” (Paris, 1940); Sh. Perlmuter, in Tog (February 28, 1935); Perlmuter, Yidishe dramaturgn un teater-kompozitorn (Yiddish playwrights and theatrical composers) (New York, 1952), pp. 61-65; Y. Mestl, 70 yor teater-repertuar (Seventy years of theater repertoire) (New York, 1954); The Jewish Encyclopedia, vol. 7; The Universal Jewish Encyclopedia, vol. 6; S. Wininger, Grosse Jüdische National Biographie (Great Jewish national biography), vol. 3 (Czernowitz, 1931).
Zaynvl Diamant

[1] According to Ben-Tsien Ayzenshtadt, Ḥakhame yisrael beamerika (Wise men of Israel in America) (New York, 1903), Lateiner’s first play was called Der fanatizmus (Fanaticism); according to B. Gariner, his first theatrical work was Yente di pipernoterin (Yente the monster); but Lateiner himself submits in his autobiography that Di tsvey shmuel shmelkes was his first stage work.

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