The Yiddish King Lear

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Poster for an 1898 production of The Yiddish King Lear starring Jacob Adler.
Jacob Gordin, the writer of The Yiddish King Lear

The Yiddish King Lear (Yiddish: דער ייִדישער קעניג לירDer Yidisher Kenig Lir, also known as The Jewish King Lear) was an 1892 play by Jacob Gordin, and is generally seen as ushering in the first great era of Yiddish theater in the Yiddish Theater District, in which serious drama gained prominence over operetta.

Gordin, a respected intellectual and Yiddish-language novelist, had been recruited by Jacob Adler in an effort to create a more serious repertoire for Yiddish theater, comparable to what he knew from Russian theater. His first two plays, Siberia and Two Worlds had failed commercially, although Siberia was later successfully revived.

The play is not a translation of William Shakespeare's King Lear, but the title is an acknowledgement of the roots of the plot. Gordin's play is set in Vilna (Vilnius, Lithuania), in 1890.[1] It begins at the Purim feast given by David Moishele, a wealthy Russian Jewish merchant – a personification of what Adler referred to as the "Grand Jew", surrounded by family, friends, servants: in effect, a monarch in his court. As he divides his empire, the story of Shakespeare's Lear is recounted to him as a warning by the virtuous daughter who denied his authority by becoming a student in St. Petersburg.[2] He is destined to follow in the same path to ruin and madness; unlike Shakespeare's Lear (but quite like the way Lear was often staged from the English Restoration well into the 19th century), there is a relatively happy ending, with differences set right and David Moishele living to forgive and be reconciled with his children.

The husbands of the daughters among whom David Moishele divides his "kingdom" are, respectively a Hasid, an Orthodox Jewish businessman, and an apikoyres, or secular Jew.[3]

The title role became a pillar of Adler's image and career. Theater Magazine wrote of Adler's performance in a 1901 revival of The Yiddish King Lear, "No finer acting has ever been seen in New York than Adler's gradual transition from the high estate of the Hebrew father distributing his bounty in the opening scenes to the quavering blind beggar of later developments." Even after he was nearly paralyzed by a stroke in 1920, Adler managed to play Act I of The Yiddish King Lear on several occasions as part of a benefit performance, since his character remained seated throughout this act; he played the role for the last time in 1924, two years before his death.[4]

The Yiddish King Lear (1934)

The play was made into a 1934 Yiddish-language film with a new score by veteran Yiddish theatre composer Joseph Brody. The play continues to be revived often, and there have been several recent English-language translations and adaptations.[5][6] In 2018, David Serero performs the play in his own English adaptation, featuring Yiddish songs of the era, at the Orensanz Foundation in New York and records the first cast album recording of the play [7]


  1. ^ Gay, Ruth; Glazer, Sophie (2007). "Introduction", in Jacob Gordin, The Jewish King Lear: A Comedy in America. Translated by Ruth Gay. New Haven: Yale University Press. ISBN 9780300108750. p. ix.
  2. ^ "The Yiddish King Lear, USA, 1935" (catalog entry). National Center for Jewish Film. Archived from the original on May 10, 2013. Retrieved 2017-12-20.
  3. ^ Segall, Rebecca (March 19, 2002). "Theater: Hasid on the Aisle". The Village Voice. Retrieved 2017-12-20. Print edition March 20-26, 2002.
  4. ^ Gay & Glazer (2007), "Introduction", p. xv.
  5. ^ "Grants: New Jewish Theater Projects, 2004-2005 Season Recipients: 'The Jewish King Lear' by Allan Havis, The San Diego Repertory Theater, San Diego, CA". National Foundation for Jewish Culture. Archived from the original on March 14, 2007. Retrieved 2017-12-20.
  6. ^
  7. ^ "The Yiddish King Lear by Jacob Gordin, starring David Serero as Lear, to be performed in New York on". 11 December 2017.
  • Adler, Jacob, A Life on the Stage: A Memoir, translated and with commentary by Lulla Rosenfeld, Knopf, New York, 1999, ISBN 0-679-41351-0. 323–324, 376.
  • Berkowitz, Joel. Shakespeare on the American Yiddish Stage. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press,

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