AVROM (ABRAHAM) GOLDFADEN (July 24, 1840-January 9, 1908)
His prior family name was Goldenfodim. He was born in Starokonstantinov, Volhynia region, Russia. He was the son of R. Khayim Lipe Goldenfodim, a watchmaker and a follower of the Jewish Enlightenment who from time to time would publish correspondence pieces in the Hebrew press, and Khane-Rivke (Hannah-Rebecca). He studied in religious primary school, with a Talmud teacher, and secular subject matter with a private tutor: Russian, German, and Tanakh with a German translation. He was a diligent student. At age ten or eleven, he could cite entire chapters of the Hebrew Bible by heart. In 1850 he composed his first Hebrew poem, “Pidyon habakhur” (Redemption of the first born). In order to make sure that he not get snatched up into the Russian military for a twenty-five year period of service (as a Cantonist), his parents sent him to Romania, and in order that he earn a living there, his father taught him watchmaking. An order, that students in “Jewish Crown Schools” not be taken as Cantonists, ended this plan, and in 1855 Goldfaden began to study in a Crown School. One of his teachers was Avrom Ber Gotlober, who interested his pupil in Yiddish. Goldfaden graduated from this school with distinction in 1857. On October 14, 1857 he entered the rabbinical seminary in Zhitomir. His teachers were Kh. Z. Slonimski, L. Ts. Tsvayfel, and A. B. Gotlober. There he befriended Yitskhok Yoyel Linetski. In 1862 he began to publish poems in Hamelits (The advocate), and in 1863 he published his first poems in Yiddish in Kol mevaser (Herald), edited by A. Tsederboym, in Odessa. In 1863 he also began his theatrical career—with other rabbinical students, he mastered Dr. Shloyme Etinger’s Serkele, in which he performed and excelled in the central role. In 1865, using the name Avrom Ben Khayim Lipe, Goldfaden brought out his short volume of Hebrew poetry, Tsitsim uferaḥim (Blossoms and flowers), in Zhitomir (a second expanded edition appeared with the publisher Yosef Fisher, Cracow, 1897). While a student in the rabbinical academy, he wrote songs and adapted music to them. They quickly became popular, and people were singing them in Zhitomir and in the neighboring towns. On August 19, 1866 he graduated from rabbinical school with high marks, especially in Tanakh and Hebrew, Mishnah and Talmud, Jewish law and Chaldean, as well as in Russian language and literature, and he was honored with the title: “Teacher of the Jewish Religious School of the First Level, with all rights and privileges that apply to this title.”
In 1866 his first book of Yiddish poems appeared in print in Zhitomir, Dos yudeli (The little Jew), “poems in ordinary Yiddish” (reprinted in Lemberg, 1898, 104 pp.; Warsaw: Yankev Lidski, 1903, 108 pp.; Lemberg: Hirsh Shlog, 1906, 93 pp.; Warsaw: N. A. Yakobi, 1891, 108 pp.). Over the years 1867-1875, he taught in religious schools in Simferopol and in Odessa. At one point he was a cashier in a hat business. Later he was the sole owner of a business in women’s hats. He did not, however, succeed in business and gave it up.
In 1868, Goldfaden moved to Odessa, supported by his wealthy uncle Yidl Kiselman. His cousin, Yoysef Kiselman, a pianist, helped him adapt melodies to his poems. It was there that he became acquainted with the daughter of the Hebrew poet Eliyahu Mordechai Verbel and married her.
In 1869 he published an anthology Di yudene (The Jewess), “various poems and theatrical pieces in ordinary Yiddish” (Odessa), 29 pp. Aside from seven poems, there were in this collection Goldfaden’s first dramatic creations: Tsvey shkheynes (Two women neighbors) and Di mume sosye (Aunt Sosye) in five acts (a second edition appeared in Odessa in 1872). In 1875 he left Odessa and moved to Munich with the goal of studying and receiving a doctoral degree. But in that same year, he discontinued his studies and left for Galicia to devote himself to Yiddish literature. In Lemberg (Lvov, Lviv) he campaigned among the young folk that they should cease studying Talmud and halakha (Jewish religious law) and turn their attention to secular scholarship. There he met up with his childhood friend, Y. Y. Linetski. Together they published the weekly newspaper Yisroelik (initially with the title Der alter yisroelik [The old Yisroelik]), which commenced publication on July 23, 1875. Because of the Tsarist regime’s ban, they could only distribute the newspaper in Russia, and on December 2, 1876 they were forced to cease publication. Goldfaden left for Warsaw to find a publisher for a new poetry collection, but he was unsuccessful, and after a short sojourn he left there for Romania. In Czernowitz he published Dos bukoviner izraelitishe folksblat (The Bukovina Jewish people’s newspaper), which after several months ceased appearing.
The followers of the Jewish Enlightenment in Jassy (Iaşi), Romania, welcomed him with a great parade. They soon founded an association, “Ḥute hazahav” (Threads of gold), the Hebrew translation of “Goldenfodim,” and planned to bring out a newspaper. Goldfaden encountered there the Broder Singers who had already begun singing some of his songs. As was the fashion at that time, he appeared in performance of his poems with them in an open garden. However, because the audience at the time was still not mature enough to entertain a poet who would be reading aloud his compositions in a serious and dignified manner, it proved to be a major failure. At that point he came to the conclusion that “one had to get them [the Jewish audience] to understand one’s own life, that one had to create life dramas for them, or images taken from one’s own life, which ought reflect one’s own ignorance, one’s own blunders, and exert oneself bit by bit to improve. One should know to learn from the stage, enacting one’s own history, one’s own past.” (Nokhen Shtif, Di eltere yidishe literatur [The older Yiddish literature], Kiev, 1929). Goldfaden made contact with a few singers, wrote text and songs for them, and directed them himself, following examples that he had seen in Russian and German theaters. And, thus, he laid the foundations for the Yiddish theater. He initially produced his own productions in Shimen Mark’s garden in Jassy. Later, when autumn descended and one could no longer perform in the garden, he left to perform in Botoșani. There he had already staged an entire play, Di rekrutn (The recruits), and the theater was overflowing. From Botoșani he traveled on to Galați, performed there with an enlarged troupe, and set to painting—in a primitive manner—stage scenery. He later performed in Brăila, and in the spring of 1877 he arrived with his troupe in Bucharest. There he undertook to strengthen his troupe with new talent. He chose them from the poets and the cantors. Joining his Yiddish theater troupe were Mogulesko, Tsukerman, and Zilberman. His theater had great success among a variety of Russian-Jewish businessmen and contractors who, because of the Russo-Turkish War, were living at the time in Romania. Goldfaden wrote new plays and staged them, and others began to imitate him. Amid the “vying of scholars” arose new playwrights: Yoysef Lateyner and Moyshe Horowitz (later known as “Professor Ish-Halevi Hurvitsh”). There also arose new troupes and new theaters. One can judge how great was Goldfaden’s success in Bucharest by the fact that one author, G. Abramski (Avrom-Hagershoni Livne Kehat), published a special pamphlet in Yiddish with a Hebrew title: Bamat-yisḥak o ge-ḥizayon, salon “foma verde” (Stage play or the theater, “Foma Verde” Salon) (Romania, 1877), a treatise on Goldfaden’s theater.
After the Russo-Turkish War, there was a crisis in Goldfaden’s theater. He learned from a letter from his father-in-law that, because of the return to Russia of merchants and contractors his theatrical achievements in Romania had become widely celebrated in Odessa, and that younger people were emulating him and staging Yiddish theater in Odessa. Y. F. Adler published in an Odessa newspaper a letter in which he invited Goldfaden to come to Odessa and perform in Yiddish theater. Goldfaden pawned a ring to cover his travel expenses, and in the spring of 1879 he arrived in Odessa. Several hundred admirers welcomed him at the train. On April 7, 1879, he began performing Yiddish theater in Odessa and had a huge moral and material success, but the censor then forbid his troupe from performing. He then left for St. Petersburg to intercede with the Tsarist regime, and he received permission to perform Yiddish theater throughout the entire Russian Pale of Settlement. He then performed with his troupe in Odessa and Nikolaev. Under the management of his brother Naftali, Goldfaden organized a separate troupe in Kishinev. Later, Goldfaden’s troupe performed in Poltava, and in April 1880 they returned with him to Odessa. That same year he performed in Yelisavetgrad, Kherson, Simferopol, Kremenchuk, Poltava, Moscow, Berdichev, St. Petersburg, Minsk, Kovno, Dvinsk (Daugavpils), and other Russian cities. In the autumn of 1883, the Tsarist ban on Yiddish theater in Russia was renewed. Goldfaden’s theatrical activities stopped, his troupe fell apart, groups and individual actors dispersed west to distant lands in the hope that they would be able to perform again on the Yiddish stage, and Goldfaden himself returned to his literary activities. He published a collection of his poems, Dos fidele (The little fiddle) (Odessa, 1883), 16 pp., and he grew closer to the early Zionist movement. In 1884 he published a poetry collection entitled Yisroelik (Odessa, 24 pp.), and in 1885 he composed the poem “Shabosl” and left for Warsaw that year.
Thanks to the intercession of Khayim Zelig Slonimski, Goldfaden received permission to perform Yiddish theater in Warsaw, but in German. He became acquainted there with Y. L. Peretz, Dinezon, and Sokolov. The Hebrew writer Yehoshua Mazaḥ befriended him, and Goldfaden entered into Warsaw Zionist circles. He also was reacquainted with Y. Y. Linetski and Elyokim Tsunzer (Zunzer). Due to legal restrictions, he had to open his theater in partnership with a Russian troupe. His repertoire was performed to great accolades. His plays with national-historical content had an especially great triumph—plays such as Shulamis (Shulamit) and Bar-kokhbe (Bar Kokhba). Thousands of Warsaw Jews filled the theaters for every performance. Initially, the assimilated press of Warsaw was opposed to the Yiddish theater, but its popularity among the audiences compelled it to change its tune. Encouraged by the success of Goldfaden’s plays in the Polish press, the Yiddish writer Yankev Bernas translated Shulamis into Polish, and the play was successfully performed on the Polish stage. Inasmuch as it seemed that the income from Goldfaden’s “Judeo-German Theater” would have to cover the deficits from the associated Russian troupe, which was enjoying no success, a conflict broke out between Goldfaden and the Russian director, a woman, and the “partnership” broke off. Goldfaden left for Lodz, remained there for a bit of time, and then as the news came to him that the United States had Yiddish theatrical troupes, that among them were a number of his former students, and that they were staging his works, in 1887 he set off for America.
In New York Goldfaden suffered severe disappointment. He received an extremely cold reception. In the New York Yiddish theatrical world, Y. Lateiner and Moyshe Horowits reigned supreme. The troupes that had been doing Yiddish theater feared Goldfaden as a competitor. He aspired to having his own theater in New York, but the resident theater people schemed against him and impeded his efforts. He nonetheless assembled a troupe and performed his repertoire, but with weak results. He left to perform in the hinterland, but found no more success there. A chain of maneuvers and intrigue was constantly being drawn around him, until he was thoroughly ejected from the theater. Once again, he then returned to taking up literature. On October 22, 1987, he began publishing his biweekly newspaper Di nyu-yorker ilustrirte tsaytung (The New York illustrated newspaper). In it he published chapters of his autobiography, and seventeen issues appeared before July 1888. He subsequently founded in New York an association “Lira” with a drama school. He traveled through the larger American Jewish communities and gave concerts. But none of this brought him any happiness, and in disappointment at the beginning of 1889 he returned to Europe. After several months spent in London and with continued unsuccessful efforts there to perform Yiddish theater, in October 1889 he moved to Paris.
In Paris, Goldfaden soon founded a troupe known as “Yidish-rusisher dramatisher klub” (Club Dramatique Israélite Russe [Russian Jewish dramatic club]). The French Jewish press received him well. Certain French newspapers also commended him. It soon became clear, however, that the Parisian Jewish community was too small for such an undertaking. The moral victory was satisfying but not materially. He had already by this point in time become ill, suffering from asthma and spitting up blood. Depressed, in October 1890 he left Paris for Lemberg. There he was well received by the Lemberg Zionist intellectuals. In 1891 his play Meshiekhs tsaytn (Messianic times) premiered there. In 1897 he once again settled in Paris. During the coming World Exposition in Paris, he planned to organize a Yiddish theater. This, however, never came to pass. He became active there in the Zionist movement. In August 1900 he served as a delegate from Paris to the Zionist Congress in London. That year, the Yiddish world celebrated his sixtieth birthday. Warm articles about him appeared in the press, by Nokhum Sokolov, Reuven-Asher Broydes, Reuven Brainin, and others. A magnificent reception was thrown for him in London, and a fund was created for him such that he and his physically weak wife would be able to support themselves for a year’s time. Goldfaden continued writing his autobiography. His brothers who were living in New York repeatedly requested that he return to the United States. After considerable hesitation, he agreed, and in 1903 he traveled—as he described it in a letter—“to die among his own.”
Goldfaden was already too old and too sick to undertake anything. From time to time, he published articles in the Yidishe gazeten (Jewish gazette). The Zionist youth of the Herzl Club Theater approached him. In 1906 they staged his Hebrew one-act play David bemilḥama (David at war). Under the influence of the direction of Pavel Orleniev’s Russian troupe, which at the time was performing in New York—Chirikov’s Evrei (The Jews)—he wrote Ben-ami, oder der zun fun mayn folk (Ben-ami, or the son of my people). This was to be his last play. He wanted to see the play staged, but he was unable to accomplish this goal. Hardship now so profoundly oppressed him that he wished to commit suicide.
Goldfaden wrote approximately sixty plays. In addition to being a poet, he was a lyricist and an author. On the literary-artistic value of his works, the literary critics are divided: Dr. Y. Shatski claims, though, that the “place that Goldfaden holds in the history of Yiddish theater and partially as well in the history of Yiddish literature has still not been as appreciated as it ought” (Dr. Shatsky, in Tsukunft [Future], New York, May 1940); N. B. Minkov holds steadfast that “there were few Yiddish poets who provoked such controversy” (Tsukunft, March 1947). All agree, though, that he was a great creative force, the pioneer and creator of the modern Yiddish theater, and that he exerted in his day a huge impact on the wider Jewish masses. “The center of gravity of Goldfaden’s contributions lay not in writing plays,” wrote Y. Shatsky, “but creating theater.” “One man who embodied the theater,” stressed Dr. A. Mukdoni, “was Abraham Goldfaden. He was an actor, a musician, a manager, a playwright, and a director.” (Mukdoni, “Avrom Goldfadn,” in Goldfadn-bukh [Goldfaden book], New York, 1926) B. Gorin reproached him, however, for his plays being imitations of foreign, Gentile originals. Dovid Pinski believed that “the founder of the Yiddish theater took the wedding entertainer (badkhn) to be his outlet…. What he did not want to do himself as a wedding entertainer, he did with his plays.” In 1940 Dr. Mukdoni did a revision of Goldfaden’s complete works and came to the conclusion that he “was now seeing both Goldfaden and his theater in a new light.” At that time, throughout the Jewish world people were celebrating with a certain grandeur Goldfaden’s centenary. In both Soviet Russia and the United States, important studies were published concerning the founder of the Yiddish theater. YIVO in New York brought out the volume Hundert yor goldfaden (One hundred years of Goldfaden) under the editorship of Dr. Y. Shatski (1940, 185 pp.). Goldfaden was also—through various works concerning his life and work and through translations of his works—known in the non-Jewish theatrical world. A Goldfaden volume entitled Geklibene dramatishe verk (Collected dramatic works) (Kiev, 1940), 327 pp., was published by “Melukhisher teatraler institute fun ukraine” (State theatrical institute of Ukraine).
From Goldfaden’s writings, the following have appeared in print: Tsitsim uferaḥim (a collection of various poems in Hebrew) (Zhitomir, 1964; Cracow, 1897), 54 pp.; Dos yudeli (Zhitomir, 1866; Lemberg, 1881, 1898, 1906; Warsaw, 1891, 1903), 103 pp.; Di yudene (Odessa, 1869, 1872), 92 pp.; Shulamis (Odessa, 1883; Warsaw, 1886; New York, 1893, 1902; London), 64 pp., and in a Hebrew translation by Yankev Lerner (Warsaw, 1921); Yisroelik, yudishe lider (Yisroelik, Yiddish poems) (Odessa, 1884), 24 pp.; Dr. almasado (Warsaw, 1887, 1905; New York, 1893), 62 pp.; Bar-kokhbe (Warsaw, 1887; New York, 1908; Lemberg, 1909), 80 pp.; Di beyde kuni-lemels (The two Kuni-Lemels) (Warsaw, 1887; New York, 1913), 62 pp.; Di bobe mitn eynikl (The grandmother with the grandchild) (Warsaw, 1888, 1902, 1905; New York, 1893), 40 pp; Kenig akhashveyresh (King Ahashverosh) (Lemberg, 1890; New York, 1908); Di nayeste goldfadens yudishe teater-lider (The latest Yiddish theater songs of Goldfaden) (New York, 1893), 47 pp.; Di kishefmakherin (The sorceress) (New York, 1893, 1907; Warsaw, 1922), 66 pp.; Kaptsnzon un hungerman (Pauper’s son and hunger’s man) (New York, 1893; Warsaw, 1905, 1922), 44 pp.; Akeydes yitskhok (The binding of Isaac) (Cracow, 1897; Warsaw, 1929), 98 pp.; Dos tsente gebot, oder loy sakhmoyd (The tenth commandment, or thou shalt not covet) (Cracow, 1896, 1902); Yidish natsyonale gedikhte (Jewish national poetry) (Cracow, 1898), 38 pp.; Meshiekhs tsaytn (Cracow, 1899), 100 pp.; Meylits yoysher (Messenger of justice) (New York, 1900), 72 pp.; Dor hoylekh vedor bo (Generations come and go) (New York, 1905), 114 pp.; Der meshugener filozof (The crazy philosopher) (New York, 1906), 109 pp.; Dos pintele yid (The quintessential Jew) (New York, 1909), 44 pp.; Dor hapalge (The generation of Babel) (New York, 1909), 26 pp.; Der ligner, oder todres bloz (The liar, or Todros the trombonist) (Przemyśl, 1911), 60 pp.; Geklibene dramatishe verk, text preparation and preface by Sh. Bilov and A. Velednitski, a publication of the State Theatrical Institute of Ukraine (Kiev, 1940), 327 pp.
Aside from the above, Goldfaden published poems and articles in a number of newspapers and magazines. A great many of his poems became “folksongs,” and for many years people sang them in theaters and at concerts; Jewish laborers in Warsaw sang them, as did housewives at home and singers in courtyards and at Jewish restaurants. Just how great was Godfaden’s influence on the Jewish street and in the world of Jewish composition, the words of Peretz to Alter Katsizn put it best: “They think, the fools [i.e., the critics], that my teacher was Mendele. It’s a lie. Goldfaden is my rebbe.”
Goldfaden died in New York. He had a huge, massive funeral. Tens of thousands of friends and admirers accompanied him to his eternal peace. He was buried in Washington Cemetery in New York. On his gravestone were engraved the words: “Abraham Goldfaden, the father of the Yiddish stage” and then the titles of ten of his works. In the autumn of 1957, two separate versions of Shulamis were staged at the Ohel and Do-Re-Mi Theaters in Tel Aviv.
Sources: Zalmen Reyzen, Leksikon fun der yidisher literatur un prese (Biographical dictionary of Yiddish literature and the press) (Warsaw, 1914), vol. 1; Zalmen Zilbertsvayg, Leksikon fun yidishn teater (Handbook of the Yiddish theater) (New York, 1931), vol. 1; Zilbertsvayg, Avrom goldfadn un zigmunt mogulesko (Avrom Goldfaden and Zigmunt Mogulesko) (Buenos Aires, 1936); Zilbertsvayg, Teater mozaik (Theater mosaic) (New York, 1941); Algemeyne entsiklopedye (General encyclopedia), “Yidn B” (Paris, 1940); Dovid Pinski, Dos idishe drama (Yiddish drama) (New York, 1910); A. Y. Paperna, in Pinkes (Vilna, 1913); L. Kobrin, Erinerungen fun a yidishn dramaturg (Remembrances of a Jewish playwright), 2 vols. (New York, 1925); Goldfadn-bukh (New York: Idisher teater-muzey, 1926); Y. 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Shatski (Vilna: YIVO, 1930), 536 pp.; Moyshe Shtarkman, “Materyaln far avrom goldfadns biografye” (Materials for Avrom Goldfaden’s biography), reprint from ibid. and in Pinkes 1 (1927); Elye Shulman, Geshikhte fun der yidisher literatur in amerike (History of Yiddish literature in America) (New York, 1943); Aleksander Pomerants, Tserisene keytn (Broken chains) (New York, 1943); Z. Turkov, Shmuesn vegn teater (Chats about theater) (Buenos Aires, 1950); N. Bukhvald, Teater (Theater) (New York, 1943); Y. Rumshinski, Klangen fun mayn lebn (Sounds of my life) (New York, 1944); Mayzil, Forgeyer un mittsaytler (Forerunner and contemporary) (New York, 1946); Sh. Lastik, Di yidishe literatur biz di klasiker (Jewish literature until the classics) (Warsaw, 1950); Boez Yong, Mayn lebn in teater (My life in the theater) (New York, 1950); Sh. Perlmuter, Yidishe dramaturgn un teater-kompozitorn (Yiddish playwrights and theatrical composers) (New York, 1952); Y. 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