Rewriting Russia

Jacob Gordin's Yiddish Drama

Barbara J. Henry

  • Published: 2011
  • Subject Listing: Jewish Studies; Literary Studies
  • Bibliographic information: 276 pp., 4 illus., 6 x 9 in.
  • Territorial rights: World Rights
  • Contents

Jacob Gordin was the first major playwright of the "Golden Age" of New York's Yiddish theater, which was not just entertainment but also a public forum, a force for education and acculturation, and a battleground for ideologies and artistic credos. Gordin, like his audience, was a Russian émigré. His most successful and scandalous dramas - The Jewish King Lear, The Kreutzer Sonata, and Khasye the Orphan - were based on works by Lev Tolstoy and Ivan Turgenev, and reflected a profoundly Jewish means of using literature to salvage a lost land.

Gordin's life and his plays held out the tantalizing possibility that by changing the story of one's past, one could write one's own future. Through a detailed examination of Gordin's career in Russia, Barbara Henry dismantles the fictive radical background he invented for himself. In doing so, she illuminates the continuities among his Russian fiction and journalism, his work as a controversial Jewish religious reformer, and his Yiddish plays.
Barbara J. Henry is associate professor of Russian literature and Jewish studies at the University of Washington.

"Lucid and engaging this study makes an important scholarly contribution to the fields of Yiddish culture, American Jewish history, and Russian Jewish history."
-Tony Michels, author of A Fire in Their Hearts: Yiddish Socialists in New York

"A mold-breaking work of literary history as well as a brilliant analysis of literary text."
-Jeremy Dauber, author of In the Demon's Bedroom: Yiddish Literature and the Early Modern

Note on Transliteration


1. Amerika

2. In the Old Country: The Reformer

3. A Russian Writer

4. The Perils of Performance: Di kreytser sonata (1902)

5. Don't Look Back: Orphan in the Underworld (1903)

6. Homecoming


"Henry has done a service in re-kindling the conversation regarding this iconoclast by constructing a new image of Gordin based on exhaustive archival work. . . . She should be commended for breaking new ground on such a significant figure, and, hopefully, providing access for future work from a range of disciplines."
-Max Shulman, Studies in American Jewish Literature, Fall 2012

"Well researched and artfully argued, Henry's Rewriting Russia is a long-overdue book on this major figure that establishes how Jacob Gordin created a rich and important interplay between Yiddish and Russian forms that elevated the literary status of both."
-Leah Garrett, The Russian Review, June 2012

"This new and elegantly written literary history . . . provides a new model for literary history by expertly weaving together previously unexamined Tsarist-era archival records with insightful literary analysis of Gordon's major works."
-Barry Trachtenberg, H-Net Reviews, March 2012