LEON KOBRIN (March 15, 1872-March 31, 1946)
The author of stories, novels, and dramas, he was born in Vitebsk. His father was a shop owner. Until age twelve he attended religious elementary school and studied Russian privately. In his youth he began reading Russian literature. In 1892 he emigrated to the United States. He worked in sweatshops in New York, Philadelphia, and Hoboken, and he later sold newspapers in New York. After publishing several stories, he became a regular contributor to Arbayter tsaytung (Workers’ newspaper) and Abend-blatt (Evening newspaper), and he devoted himself entirely to literary activities. Kobrin’s first literary work was a translated story by Gleb Uspensky, which appeared in Fraye arbeter shtime (Free voice of labor). In Filadelfyer shtodt-tsaytung (Philadelphia city newspaper) in 1894, he published essays of literary criticism, among others one of the first critical pieces on Morris Rozenfeld. That same year he published there his first story, “A merder oys libe” (A murderer for love). He composed stories, novellas, novels, and plays about Jewish life in Europe, but mostly about Jewish-American life. He wrote that “I more easily succeeded in work with stories drawn from life familiar to me than with stories of local life. Writing of Jewish life in Russia, I have always had before me a definite, well worked out type with a definite world view…. Writing about Jewish life here, I always have had before me lost souls, unsettled characters, a life of chaos.” With time both the new immigrants and Kobrin himself took root in their new country—and with the same skill and artistry, he wrote about Jewish life in the United States and became one of the most American writers in Yiddish literature. He was not only a creator but also a pioneer and foundational figure in Yiddish literature in the New World, and with his dramas he was also a builder of American Yiddish theater. He was one of “the most original writers of the realist school in the style of Chekhov.” He persevered throughout in this realism, being under the influence of the Russian realists and partially as well under such writers as de Maupassant. Kobrin created a gallery of figures from the most primitive to the most developed. He painted images of rough, chaotic life in the first years of mass immigration and of later times. He wrote about love, family conflicts, class struggles, and the like, but he emphasized as well the most intimate life of these figures, their deeper feelings and contradictions. There is in Kobrin’s stories and novellas much drama, and it is no wonder that he would also turn to writing plays. “Kobrin has a powerful ability to describe,” noted B. Gorin, “an eye and an ear for the bright colors and hues of the basic sentiments and passions, a primitive, healthy appetite for body and flesh, a love for crude scenes and lots of temperament—and all of these features befit a writer for the Yiddish stage.” Kobrin’s dramas were frequently staged in Yiddish theaters. His first play Mina [or Minne] (Minnah), with a portion added by Yankev Gordin, was produced in New York in 1899, and a full array of dramas ensued until 1931. He also wrote (in Tog [Day]) journalistic treatments of fiction, such as “Groyse perzenlekhkeytn un zeyere romanen” (Great personalities and their novels)—Shelley, Byron, Longfellow, and the like. At the end of his life, he switched from Tog to Morgn-frayhayt (Morning freedom). There he published the novel Dos lebn fun a froy (The life of a woman), as well as Mayne fuftsik yor in amerike (My fifty years in America). At that point he was working with IKUF (Jewish Cultural Association) and writing for Idishe kultur (Jewish culture).
Kobrin’s first collection in book form was entitled Yankl boyle, fun dem idishen fisher-leben in rusland, un andere dertseylungen (Yankl Boyle, from the life of a Jewish fisherman in Russia, and other stories) (New York, 1898), 111 pp. “This book,” wrote Zalmen Reyzen, “caught people’s interest for the freshness of its theme, its healthy realism, and it also made Kobrin’s name known in Russia and Poland.” Other books include: Ertseylungen (Stories) (New York, 1903), 200 pp., second edition (New York, 1909), 225 pp. (with the addition of three stories); Ertseylungen (Vilna, 1907), 36 pp.; Gezamelte shriften (Collected writings) (New York, 1910), 924 pp.; Ore di bord, roman oys dem leben fun idishe imigrantn vos hoben oygeboyt a naye shtot in amerika (Ore the beard, a novel drawn from the life of Jewish immigrants who built a new city in America) (New York, 1918), 279 pp., new edition (Warsaw, 1929) and under the title In goldenem shtrom (In a golden current) (Warsaw, 1936), 2 volumes; Fun a litvishen shtetl bizn tenement hoyz, dertseylungen (From a Lithuanian town to a tenement house, stories) (New York, 1918), 350 pp.; Di ervakhung, roman (The awakening, a novel) (New York, 1920), 366 pp.; Af vilde vegn, roman oys dem leben in der groyser shtot (On wild roads, a novel drawn from life in the big city) (New York, 1925), 350 pp.; Di naye odem un khave, a roman fun der hayntiker tsayt (The new Adam and Eve, a novel of our times) (Warsaw, 1929), 384 pp.; In roytn shtrom (In the red current) (Warsaw, 1931), 370 pp.; On a heym, roman fun der tsayt fun birger-krig in sovet-rusland (Homeless, a novel from the era of the civil war in Soviet Russia) (Kovno, 1936), 308 pp.; Fir moderne froyen, noveln (Four modern women, novellas) (New York, 1939), 290 pp.; Farlorener nign, roman un zeks dertseylungen (Lost melody, a novel and six stories) (New York, 1948), 320 pp. His memoirs include: Erinerungen fun a yidishn dramaturg, a fertl yorhundert yidish teater in amerike (Experiences of a Yiddish playwright, a quarter century of Yiddish theater in America) (New York, 1925), 2 volumes, second edition (Vilna, 1926), 344 pp.; Mayne fuftsik yor in amerike (Buenos Aires, 1955), 406 pp., and its sequel (New York, 1966), 288 pp. He published an essay on Chaim Zhitlovsky in this book, and he also brought out a pamphlet entitled Fun daytshmerish tsu yidish in amerike (From overly Germanized Yiddish to Yiddish [proper] in America) (New York, 1911), 30 pp. His dramas include: Der groyser id (The great Jew) (New York, 1911), 111 pp.; Yankl boyle (in addition to above-mentioned edition) (New York, 1913), 82 pp., (New York, 1916-1917), and under the title Der dorfs-yung (The village youth) (New York, 1920), 72 pp.; Riversayd-drayv (Riverside Drive) (New York, 1942), 77 pp.; Dramatishe shriftn (Dramatic writings), with an essay on the author by Yoyel Entin (New York, 1952), 418 pp. This last work includes: Yankl boyle, Der goldener shtrom, Di nekst-dorike (The lady next door), Dem doctors vayber (The doctor’s wives), Der eybiker fayer (The eternal fire), and Kobrin’s story “Eyner fun zey” (One of them). His work is represented in: Hyman Bass, ed., Di yidishe drame fun 20stn yorhundert (Yiddish drama of the twentieth century) (New York, 1977); and I. Goldberg, Undzer dramaturgye, leyenbukh in der yidisher drame (Our playwriting, textbook in Yiddish drama) (New York: IKUF, 1961). A number of his plays were never published in book form, but appeared in journals: Mine, in Di naye tsayt (The new times) (New York, October-November 1898); Der tsayt-gayst (The spirit of the times), in Der tsayt-gayst (New York, January 12, 1906 and January 19, 1906); Der fayer marsh (The fire march), in Der tsayt-gayst (New York, March 2, 1906); Der profesor (The professor), in Der tsayt-gayst (April 6, 1906); Der natur-mensh (The nature man), in Idisher kemfer (Jewish fighter) (New York, starting issue no. 29, 1906); Der sod fun leben (The secret of life), in Tsukunft (Future) (New York, February 1917); Geretet (Saved), in Minikes sukes-blat (Minikes’s Sukkot sheet) (New York, 1917); Iber yamen groyse (Over great seas), in Yidishe kultur (New York, issues 7-12, 1942 and 1-2, 1943). His translations (with his wife Paulina) would include: Mikhail Artsybashev, Sanin (Sanin) (New York, 1909), 217 pp.; Ivan Turgenev, Frihling-shtromen (Torrents of spring [original: Veshniye vody]) (New York, 1909), 185 pp.; Anton Chekhov, Geklibene shriftn (Selected writings), 4 volumes (New York, 1910); Turgenev, Geklibene shriftn, 4 volumes (New York, 1911); Guy de Maupassant, Gezamelte verk (Collected works), 15 volumes (New York, 1913-1919), reprint edition (Warsaw: Kultur-lige, 1926-1928). He also translated Felix Hollaender’s novel Der tentser (The dancer [original: Tänzer]). His Di goyishe shnur (The Gentile daughter-in-law) and Dos leben fun a yung froy (The life of a young woman) appeared in Tog (New York, 1923, 1924); and Di libes fun a keyzerin (The loves of an empress) also appeared in Tog (New York, 1925). Some of Kobrin’s writings have been translated into English, primarily in periodicals. These include: A Lithuanian Village; The Black Sheep; The Secret of Life; and A Letter from America; among others. He died in New York.
Sources: Zalmen Reyzen, Leksikon, vol. 3; Zalmen Zilbertsvayg, Leksikon fun yidishn teater (Handbook of the Yiddish theater), vol. 4 (New York, 1963); B. Gorin, Geshikhte fun yidishn teater (History of Yiddish theater), vol. 2 (New York, 1923), pp. 127-41; Dovid Pinski, Di idishe drame (The Yiddish drama) (New York, 1909); N. Bukhvald, Teater (Theater) (New York, 1943), see index; Shmuel Niger, Dertseylers un romanistn (Storytellers and novelists) (New York: Tsiko, 1946), pp. 217-71; N. Mayzil, in Kobrin’s Mayne fuftsik yor (New York, 1946), pp. 9-27; B. Rivkin, Grunt-tendentsn fun der yidisher literatur in amerike (Basic tendencies in Yiddish literature in America) (New York, 1948), pp. 91-99; Yoyel Entin, in Kobrin’s Dramatishe shriftn (New York, 1952), pp. XI-XXXVII; Y. Mestl, 70 yor teater-repertuar (Seventy years of theater repertoire) (New York, 1954); A. Mukdoni, in Tsukunft (New York) (July-August 1955); Ber Borokhov, Shprakh-forshung in literatur-geshikhte (Language study in literary history) (Tel Aviv, 1966), pp. 283-94; Nathan Kobrin, in Mayne fuftsik yor, pp. 281-88; Elye (Elias) Shulman, in Di yidishe drame fun 20stn yorhundert (Yiddish drama of the twentieth century), ed. Hyman Bass (New York, 1977), pp. 378-88; Leo Wiener, The History of Yiddish Literature (New York, 1972); I. Goldberg, The Drama of Transition (Cincinnati, 1972), pp. 336, 368-73. 420; N. Sandrow, Vagabond Stars (New York, 1977), see index; H. Zohn, The Yiddish Theatre (Las Cruces, New Mexico, 1977), see index.
Elye (Elias) Shulman