(1840–1908), playwright, theater director, poet, and impresario; considered the “Father of Yiddish Theater.” Avrom Goldfadn’s productions emerged during the period of the Haskalah movement in Russia and the cultural-nationalistic activities of East European minorities. The first director to create a viable Jewish national theater, Goldfadn built up an audience and initiated its members into Western aesthetics, secularism, and a modern Jewish consciousness.
“Bar Kokhba, by the celebrated author Goldfadn.” Romanian poster. Printed by Libraria Smolinsky. Advertisement for a benefit performance of a Goldfadn operetta by Group Tikvas Kanada (Hope of Canada) from Paşcani (now in Romania) to raise funds for “two hundred starving people on their way to the Land of Israel,” 1900. (YIVO)
Born in Starokonstantinov, Ukraine, Goldfadn received an education that combined traditional and secular subjects. In 1855, he enrolled at the modern Jewish Crown school to avoid being drafted, and in 1857, he entered the state-sponsored Zhitomir Rabbinical Seminary, where Avraham Ber Gottlober introduced him to Yiddish literature. In 1862, Goldfadn published Hebrew poems in Ha-Melits and performed the leading (female) role in a student production of Shloyme Ettinger’s Serkele. In 1863, he published his first Yiddish poems in Kol mevaser. He matriculated in 1866 and for nearly a decade taught in the Jewish Crown schools.
Goldfadn’s first plays, Tsvey shkheynes (Two Lady Neighbors) and Di mume Sosye (Aunt Sosye), appeared together with his verse in Di yudene (1869). In 1875, he traveled to Lemberg, where he published a short-lived newspaper and saw many European classical plays, operettas, and operas performed, all of which influenced his later work. In 1876, he moved to Iaşi, Romania, where he met the Broder Singers, who had been performing his songs. Goldfadn’s songs and sketches, performed in Shimon Mark’s wine garden in Iaşi, signaled the beginning of modern professional Yiddish theater.
By 1877, Goldfadn had organized the first Yiddish theater troupe, basing his plays on European theater models drawn from singspiels, vaudevilles, operas, and operettas. His most creative period (1877–1883) revealed his protean abilities as dramatist, director, composer, scenic designer, acting instructor, and impresario. He recruited meshoyrerim (cantorial assistants) as singing actors and hired women as well. In 1877, his troupe toured Romania with his new plays Di rekrutn (The Recruits) and Di bobe mitn eynikl (The Grandmother with the Grandchild). In Bucharest, his comedy Shmendrik became his first classic, with the name of its eponymous hero, a naive fool of a yeshiva student, entering Yiddish parlance (the third act amazes with its skillful integration of plot reversal, chorus, and detailed depiction of a Jewish wedding).
Goldfadn’s stagecraft achieved a successful aestheticization of Jewish life and custom. By fusing dramatic tension, spectacle, and yidishkayt (Jewishness), he created a theater accessible to East European Jews. His successes were such that rival Yiddish troupes, led by Yoysef Lateiner and Moyshe Hurvits, plagiarized Goldfadn’s scenarios.
In 1878, Goldfadn staged one of his most popular operettas, Di kishef-makherin (The Witch). Its two celebrated characters, Bobe Yakhne, the witch (a procuress), and Hotsmakh, a flimflam man, reflected contemporary shtetl types. The work treats the darker side of shtetl life, centered around the theme of romantic love, and adds an exotic Turkish setting.
In 1879, Goldfadn’s troupe performed in Odessa and toured southern Russia. By 1880, it had stopped in Moscow, Saint Petersburg, Minsk, and Berdichev. His operetta Der fanatik oder beyde Kuni-Lemls (The Fanatic or the Two Kuni-Lemls) drew upon the contemporary conflict between inflexible religiosity and secular modernity. Love and modern education win out in Goldfadn’s maskilic hands. The spurned Kuni-Leml became a generic Yiddish term for an uncouth and silly traditionalist.
Program for Avrom Goldfadn's operetta Shulamis, printed on silk, Kovno, Russian Empire (now Kaunas, Lith.), 1906. (YIVO)
Soviet Yiddish critics considered the aforementioned works—with their contemporary folk types, folk spirit, and mockery of the scheming bourgeoisie—the best examples of Goldfadn’s theater. Reviewers disliked his historical works written after 1881; these later plays reflect Goldfadn’s reactions to pogroms and intensifying nationalism. Conversely, critics in Poland and the United States prefer the latter works, particularly Shulamis (1881) and Bar Kokhba (1883).
In 1881, Goldfadn switched from comedy to melodrama and tragedy, choosing subjects mainly from the postbiblical world. Some critics see the influence of purim-shpils (Purim plays) in his work, but most see Goldfadn following the conventions of Romantic opera libretti. His key works in verse use iambic tetrameter with flat rhymes, and he shapes dialogic verse for dramatic flow while constructing songs in stanzas with varied rhythms. His didascalia reveal his mastery of staging.
Goldfadn’s tableaux grew in importance for spectacle and teased emotional meanings from historical settings. Shulamis, in four acts and fifteen tableaux, depicts the love of a country girl and a wayward scion from Jerusalem. The story follows operatic conventions, including a third act mad scene and final marriage tableau at the Great Temple in Jerusalem. Placing the era of First-Temple Israel onstage allowed him to fuse culture with nationalism in a manner similar to Verdi’s opera Nabucco. The work also underscored a new theme—for Jews—of romantic love linked to social responsibility. Music dominates the work, with 25 pieces that include marches, choruses, dances, and songs.
The music in Goldfadn’s productions was often the work of his partner and foil Zelig Mogulescu, who, unlike Goldfadn, could read and write a music score. The sources of this music included the operas of Donizetti, Bellini, and especially Verdi. Local operetta traditions may also have served as sources, as well as synagogue hymns, Hasidic melodies, klezmer music, and Slavic folk songs. Goldfadn integrated songs to intensify the dramatic moment, define the mood, delineate character, and heighten lyric passion, often embedding biting social satire in the final stanzas. Songs such as “Dos Pastekhl” (The Shepherd) and “Shabes, yontef un roshkhoydesh” (Sabbath, Festival, and New Moon) became folklorized in his lifetime. “Rozhinkes mit mandlen” (Raisins and Almonds), his most famous song, has long been dissociated from its original context (it first appeared in Shulamis) and stands today as a sentimental trope for the whole of Yiddish culture.
Ani Litan (right) and another actor in a scene from a VYKT (Warsaw Yiddish Art Theater) performance of Shulamis by Avrom Goldfadn, Lwów, 1937–1938. Photograph by J. Melner. (YIVO)
Goldfadn followed Shulamis with Dr. Almasado, a historical operetta set in medieval Palermo, whose Jewish community is threatened with expulsion yet is saved by a kindly doctor. The work is a veiled commentary on the Russian Jewish condition of 1881. Bar Kokhba, which premiered early in 1883, displays Goldfadn’s greatest talents. The play’s eponymous messianic tragic hero nobly confronts Rome but fails to liberate Israel. Grand operatic scenes alternate with intimate ones, from Roman court to Jewish campsite, public confrontation to private love scene. Settings such as Tish‘ah be-Av in a synagogue, the fall of Betar, and the final tableau depicting Romans slaughtering Jews play on both the national past and recent pogroms.
In 1883, a new tsarist policy undermined Yiddish theater in Russia and put an end to Goldfadn’s most creative period. Over the following quarter century, he wandered across Europe and America. In 1885–1887 he was in Warsaw, where he published editions of his best works. He then moved to New York City, where he remained for two years. Despite the staging of such new biblical works as Akhashveyresh (Ahasuerus) and Akeydes Yitskhok (The Sacrifice of Isaac), with which he sought to regain his former popularity, he failed to establish himself.
Goldfadn ultimately settled in Lemberg, where he served as director of a Yiddish theater in 1894–1895, producing Meshiekh’s tsaytn (In the Messiah’s Time) and other lesser plays. In 1900, he served as a delegate to the World Zionist Congress in Paris. In 1903 he returned to America, where he lived in poverty. He wrote one last play, Ben ami, based upon George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda. When he died in New York City, more than 100,000 people attended his funeral. His musical plays—and especially his songs—remain hallmarks of Yiddish culture.
Paola Bertolone, L’esilio del teatro: Goldfaden e il moderno teatro yiddish (Rome, 1993); Yekhezkel Dobrushin, “Goldfadn der dramaturg,” in Teater-bukh, pp. 9–20 (Kiev, 1927); Goldfaden bukh (New York, 1926); Avrom Goldfadn, “Autobiografie,” in Goldfadens otobiografishe materialn, ed. Jacob Shatzky, vol. 1, pp. 40–68 (Vilna, 1930), see also Goldfadn’s original “Autobiograhie” in Der Amerikaner ([New York] 29 March 1907); Avrom Goldfadn, Geklibene dramatishe verk, ed. Shloyme Bilov and A. Velednitski (Kiev, 1940); Avrom Goldfadn, Oysgeklibene shriftn: Shulamis un Bar Kokhba, ed. Samuel Rollansky (Buenos Aires, 1963); Irene Heskes, comp. and ed., The Music of Abraham Goldfaden (Cedarhurst, N.Y., 1990); Seth Wolitz, “Shulamis and Bar Kokhba: Renewed Jewish Role Models in Goldfaden and Halkin,” in Yiddish Theater: New Approaches, ed. Joel Berkowitz, pp. 87–104 (Oxford, 2003); Zalmen Zylbercweig, comp. and ed., “Goldfaden, Avrom [Goldenfodim],” in Leksikon fun yidishn teater, vol. 1, cols. 275–367 (New York, 1931).
RG 112, Music, Collection, 1846-1973; RG 114, Plays, Collection, ; RG 219, Abraham Goldfaden, Collection, 1879-1930s; RG 289, Sholem Perlmutter, Papers, 1880s-1950s; RG 397, Yom-Tov Spilman, Papers, 1893; RG 512, Folksbiene Theater, Records, 1930s-1960s; RG 738, Molly Picon, Papers, ca. 1900-1972; RG 7, Music (Vilna Archives), Collection, 1882-1940; RG 803, Morris Feder, Eliezer Zhelazo, and Rose Zhelazo, Papers, .