Page 133 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 40

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FAINA BURKO
Goldfaden and the Yiddish Theater
On the 75th anniversary of his death
A
b r a h a m
g o l d f a d e n
,
who styled himself “the father of the Yid­
dish theater,” was born on July 20, 1840, in Stary Constantin in
Southern Russia. Prior to undertaking a theatrical venture at the
age of thirty-six, the gifted and flamboyant Goldfaden made
quite a reputation as a poet, writing both in Hebrew and Yiddish.
His first volume of Hebrew poems,
Zizim u ’Ferahim
(Blossoms and
Flowers), appeared in 1865, while he was still studying at the
Zhitomir Rabbinical School. Although this poetic effort might
sound pretentious and artificial to a modern reader, at the time of
its publication it evoked the sincere admiration of the intellectu­
als.
A
year later with the appearance of
Dos Yidele,
Goldfaden’s
Yiddish poems and songs, he earned himself the title of folk poet
and songwriter. His lyrics, set to music and performed through­
out Eastern Europe by the wandering Jewish bards called Broder
Singers, enjoyed tremendous popularity, becoming a part of mu­
sical folklore. Thus it was with folk songs that Goldfaden first
reached the hearts of his people.
Despite his literary talent, Goldfaden had constantly to look for
a practical way to make-a living. Every endeavor of his, however,
proved a fiasco. His first job as a teacher in Simferopol paid too
little and was abandoned. The ladies’ hat business in Odessa went
bankrupt. His medical studies in Vienna did not last long. And
even his two ambitious attempts in the best tradition of Haskalah,
to publish a Jewish periodical, failed. Only in 1876, when he
grasped the possibilities hidden in the Yiddish theater, did Gold­
faden embark on a life-long career. He remained in the theater
until his death in New York in 1908.
Goldfaden’s Yiddish theater began its existence like a genius’
improvisation in a tavern in Yassy, Rumania. In the fall of 1876,
while watching the heartfelt response of the Jewish public to the
folksingers Grodner and Goldstein, Goldfaden suddenly discov­
ered his audience, his actors and his own vocation. Realizing his
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