Emma Goldman’s Lost Drama Lectures

At a time when public speakers in New York could be arrested for making subversive statements, the fiery Emma Goldman at least once eluded arrest by speaking in Yiddish. “She spoke to this group of Jewish women on the Lower East Side,” a policeman reported, “and I’m sorry I couldn’t take down what she said because she spoke in Yiddish.” (The late Howard Zinn recounted this episode in his book, Artists in Time of War.) The cop’s failure to record Goldman’s speech might be considered unfortunate, especially if she happened to be talking about Yiddish drama — for while many of her other speeches were published, her lectures on that subject, delivered between 1914 and 1916, have been lost to us. 

Today, of course, Goldman is remembered less for her theater discussions than for her passionate speeches against conscription and war (“the road to universal slaughter”). Her autobiography, Living My Life, devotes only a few paragraphs to her drama lectures. Yet theater was quite important to her: In essays, public speeches, and a book, The Social Significance of the Modern Drama, Goldman introduced Americans to plays by Henrik Ibsen, August Strindberg, Gerhart Hauptmann, and Frank Wedekind, creators of what she once described as “modern drama, the strongest disseminator of radical thought.”

During a series of November, 1914 lectures at the Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter Ring hall in Chicago, Goldman spoke about a range of playwrights, including Jewish ones whose works in Yiddish portrayed pogroms and anti-Semitism. A number of letters and journals archived at the Emma Goldman Papers in Berkeley, California indicate that Goldman delivered these lectures in both English and Yiddish. Her November 8th, 1914 lecture (in Yiddish) was on plays by Sholom Asch, Jacob Gordin, and David Pinski, while other Sunday afternoon lectures that month concerned drama by Ibsen, Strindberg, Chekhov, and Shaw. In her own journal, Mother Earth, the famous anarchist reported on delivering eight Chicago lectures in Yiddish — some on drama, some on war and current events — and “with the exception of one they were splendidly attended and the spirit was great. It was such a joy to speak before people who come to learn and not to be entertained.”

A search for Goldman’s lost Yiddish drama lectures might interest some cultural activists and historians today. In a time when klezmer musicians attract large followings, classic Yiddish plays are adapted and newly translated by prominent American authors such as Tony Kushner and David Margulies, and numerous groups sponsor yidishkayt festivals and workshops, the fact that Emma Goldman had an interest in Yiddish drama and offered her radical perspective on it should be welcome news. (Kushner’s Angels in America briefly pays homage to Goldman by having Louis, a young gay Jew, announce: “My grandmother actually saw Emma Goldman speak. In Yiddish. But all Grandma could remember was that she spoke well and wore a hat.”) Without the texts of her lectures, however, we can only speculate what Goldman might have said about Yiddish drama. One play she discussed that has attracted attention anew in recent years is Sholem Asch’s God of Vengeance. The play was highly controversial, as it portrayed a lesbian love scene and life in a brothel; earlier Yiddish stagings, however, had not led to the arrest and conviction of the producer and lead actors on charges of immorality, as happened with its English-language production on Broadway in 1923.

Goldman likely would have discussed the “trafficking in women” that Asch portrayed; sheobjected to prostitution and used that phrase on several occasions. She would have shared Asch’s sympathy for abused and exploited women and his scathing depiction of religious hypocrisy on the part of the brothel owner, who wants his daughter to marry a respectable Jew. Asch’s scene in which two women tenderly embrace and care for one another, in the midst of their anguish and degradation, also indicated his acceptance of same-sex relationships, which was far in advance of most of his contemporaries but not far in advance of Emma Goldman, who took a great deal of heat for her advocacy of “free love” (unfettered and consensual) regardless of gender or sexual preference.

In 1914, Goldman spoke about another Yiddish play that was sympathetic to oppressed women,Jacob Gordin’s The Slaughter. The play was wellknown to the American journalist Hutchins Hapgood (a close friend of Goldman’s), who described it in his 1902 book, The Spirit of the Ghetto, as “the story of the symbolic murder of a fragile young girl by her parents, who force her to marry a rich man who has all the vices and whom she hates. The picture of the poor house, of the old mother and father and half-witted stepson with whom the girl is unconsciously in love, in its faithfulness to life is typical of scenes in many of these plays… The wife finally kills her husband, in a scene where realism riots into burlesque, as it frequently does on the Yiddish stage.”

Max Nordau’s German-language play, A Question of Honor (also known as “Dr. Cohn”), was translated into English in 1907 and discussed by Goldman in her Chicago lectures. Although now remembered primarily as a Zionist activist, Nordau in this play focuses on the antiSemitism of early 20th-century Germany. Inspired in part by the Dreyfus affair, A Question of Honor concerns Dr. Cohn’s marriage proposal, which disturbs his prospective bride’s assimilated relatives, who have renounced and often ridicule Judaism. The climactic scene, involving a duel in which Cohn dies rather than shoot his prospective brother-in-law, portrays an example of the senseless violence that Goldman often opposed in her lectures.

David Pinski’s The Family Zwie, later retitled The Last Jew, was also discussed by Goldman in Chicago. Pinski completed the play in 1904. It portrays a pogrom in an Eastern European shtetl in which a Jewish preacher, Reb Mayshe, has seen his three grandsons depart from Orthodoxy in the face of oppression. One of the three, the Bundist Reuben, advocates socialism. In response to his brother Lipman’s call for Zionism and “the independence of our people,” Reuben tells Lipman (in Isaac Goldberg’s translation): “You’re wrong… The reward of the Jewish people for its centuries of suffering — if you must have a reward! — will be the most significant, even the foremost position in the battle of humanity for its liberation… Socialism.” Leon, the third brother, poet and assimilationist, rejects “self-humiliation” in favor of “self-liberation and self-assertion.”

As grandfather of these three young men, Reb Mayshe stands almost alone in his synagogue when the pogrom begins. Unable to accept the secular change and militant resistance advocated by his grandsons, Reb Mayshe sees himself as“the last Jew.” Pinski said he wanted to show that “the old in the very moment of its dissolution is replaced by the new.” He saw the play not as “a pogrom-tragedy, but the tragedy of a sole survivor, the tragedy of a moribund religion, of a crumbling world-philosophy. Who can say that this is exclusively Jewish?” Considering the massive displacements and wars that took place later in the century, Pinski’s 1904 portrait of a persecuted minority facing extinction and “a crumbling world-philosophy” was far from “exclusively Jewish” in its concerns.

The struggles for justice and social change in which Yiddish labor activists and anarchists like Emma Goldman engaged had spokespersons in Pinski’s play. It is not difficult to imagine her reading aloud to her audience some of the exchanges between Reb Mayshe and his grandsons: With riots out on the streets, the grandfather exhorts his family to defend their synagogue. Lipman believes the battleground is elsewhere, in Palestine, and predicts the community will survive without Mayshe’s “holy pillar.” Reuben leaves to join a self-defense organization in the streets and declares: “We must be where human lives are in danger.” Goldman would have agreed, and her lecture on The Last Jew could well have concluded: “Although not an anarchist, the Yiddish playwright Pinski, like Ibsen and Gordin before him, wrote drama that can be a powerful factor in awakening the social consciousness of people who might not be reached in any other way.”

Goldman’s lectures on Yiddish drama may have gone unpublished because other pressing matters arose in 1914, particularly war and conscription. In a letter she sent to Dr. Percival Guerson soon after the Chicago lectures, she asked: “Who cares for the Drama on paper, while the Drama of the European war is sweeping everything?” She added: “My war lectures were tremendous. Last Sunday [November 15th] we had five-hundred people.” Yet her drama lectures did not neglect the explosive state of the world. Reuben, the Bundist in Pinski’s play, tells his brothers: “Vi a funk in a fas pulver, azoy hot gedarft dayn ideal verkn in di yidishe moykhes.” (“Your ideal should strike all Jewish minds like a spark in a powder keg.”) Perhaps Emma Goldman read that line to her audience in the Workmen’s Circle hall; in any case, she verbally set off her own fireworks, that month and later, by opposing a widening world war. Policemen may not have understood her Yiddish, but Emma Goldman was nevertheless arrested in 1917 for “conspiracy” against the draft, and then deported from the U.S to Russia in 1919.

(Special thanks to Candace Falk and Barry Pateman of the Emma Goldman Papers in Berkeley for their assistance.)
Jewish Currents

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