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Finding the Jewish Shakespeare: The Life and Legacy of Jacob Gordin

An illuminating genealogical quest, and an inside look at the life and times of a fabled cultural figure in Yiddish theater. In this revelatory biography, Beth Kaplan sets out to explore the true character and creative achievements of her great-grandfather Jacob Gordin, playwright extraordinaire and icon of the Yiddish stage.

Shedding new light on Gordin and his world, Kaplan describes his meteoric rise among Jewish New York’s literati, the birth of such masterworks as Mirele Efros and The Jewish King Lear, and his deadly feud with Abraham Cahan, powerful editor of the Jewish Daily Forward.

Writing in a graceful and engaging style, she recaptures the Golden Age and colorful actors of the Yiddish theater, 1891-1910, and the dynamic cultural life of the Lower East Side, where Gordin was revered. Most significantly she discovers the emotional truth about the man himself, a tireless reformer who left a vital legacy to the theater and Jewish life worldwide, but an aftermath of loss and estrangement to many of his eleven children.

More than a life story, Kaplan takes readers on a stirring search for lost heritage and resolves a family mystery. She provides a goldmine for theater history buffs: there is no other full-scale biography of Gordin in any language.

Excerpt: Introduction

For many years, I knew my grandmother’s famous father only as a majestic bronze bust, glowering in her hall. During his lifetime, Jacob Gordin was an important and beloved playwright, his plays performed wherever Yiddish speakers lived. That I knew. But to me he was obscure and distant, a stern head on the horizon. We did not talk about him.

Every July we left our home in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and flew or sailed to broiling New York City, my father’s birthplace, to visit my Kaplan grandparents. Before we even got off the elevator at their Upper West Side apartment, I could smell my grandma’s welcome: borscht, kulebiaka, piroshkis. She’d been cooking for days, convinced my shiksa mother was starving us to death.

The apartment door flew open, and there was stumpy Nettie Gordin Kaplan in a shapeless print dress and old lady black shoes. Behind her loomed the dark, glinting bust of her father, who was known in my family, to some with a smirk and to others with reverence, as the Shakespeare of the Jews.

Praise from readers

“This is a witty, shrewd and elegant book which tells a story of vital importance: how an impoverished, beleaguered immigrant culture finds agency by understanding itself through art. Kaplan details the life of a marvelous playwright, whose career makes a great story about making theater.”
TONY KUSHNER, Pulitzer, Emmy, and Tony award-winning playwright and screenwriter
“Beth Kaplan makes an invaluable contribution with her full-length biography of Gordin, who happened to have been her great-grandfather. Her book admirably combines scholarly research, critical analysis, loving tribute, and personal memoir.”
MATT NESVISKY, Jerusalem Report
“A remarkably thorough and insightful biography. With this wonderful and meticulously researched book, Kaplan has done much to revitalize Gordin’s memory.”
BILL GLADSTONE, Canadian Jewish News

Finding the Jewish Shakespeare: The Life and Legacy of Jacob Gordin by Beth Kaplan available here