Forging a hero for a Jewish stage: Goldfadn's Bar Kokhba.
When Abraham Goldfadn's "musical melodrama," Bar Kokhba, reached the boards on May 5, 1883 in Odessa, the Jewish world in Russia faced the consequences of the assassination of Alexander II in 188l, the May Laws of 1882, and the series of pogroms which had coursed throughout Southern Russia for the previous two years. (1) The mood of the Regime had changed from cautious progress to atavistic reaction. Tensions in the Empire were real. By the Ukase of September 14, 1883 barring Yiddish theater in Russia, Goldfadn's troupe and theatrical undertakings were dashed. Bar Kokhba, it was asserted, was the cause of the Ukase. Enemies of Yiddish theater, the Orthodox and the Jewish elite of St. Petersburg supposedly argued that this play inspired sedition. (2) As of this moment, there is no documentary evidence of who the denunciators, if any, were or of their putative interpretation of the play.
Abraham Goldfadn's theater rapidly evolved in the seventies from a comic/satiric theater of contemporary Jewish folk types to a theater of national expression in the early eighties. Following Mitteleuropa Enlightenment doctrines absorbed by the Haskala and witnessed on Gentile stages, Goldfadn sought to use the theater as a mode of expressing a Jewish national vision of itself, its history and historical recuperation, and as a model for the new secular culture. Theater was more than entertainment; it had a noble didactic purpose. The contemporary realities no doubt helped this evolution. Ansky in his Memoirs remarks that Goldfadn took to heart the murmurings of the Petersburg Jewish intelligentsia which encouraged a quality theater "and took to writing nationalist dramas on historical themes." (3) Although unprovable, Ansky's remark reflects Goldfadn's theatrical evolution. Certainly Bar Kokhba became, in the words of Zilbertsvayg, "one of the key plays of Yiddish theater throughout the world." (4)
Bar Kokhba serves as a template in esthetic form (through plot, character, theme and allegory) to assert Jewish self-consciousness by providing a theatrical catharsis and an ideological intent. The play has been continuously performed--and alas, transformed [farbessert!]. This play, then, marks a passage in Goldfadn's treatment of character for, putting aside folk types, he fuses his creative imagination with borrowed theatrical models of nobility in this historical play to project a Jewish cultural national ideal. These figures of both noblesse and nobility are reinscribed as a vision of a people in their homeland as opposed to the decentered figures of Exile. The historical play restores the Jewish past and provides on stage a powerful "place of memory" [lieu de memoire].
The Soviet critics of the thirties such as Bilov and Velednitski (1940) naturally prefer Goldfadn's folksy types: "The nationalist circles have falsified our appreciation of Goldfadn's works, by placing on top his historical dramas, the artistically weaker plays of Goldfadn, over his really best works." (5) Paola Bertolone's study and translation of Goldfadn into Italian (1993) considers the Kishefmakherin [The Witch] as his masterpiece with its folklore-based Jewish creative fantasy. (6) Shmuel Rozhansky, who published Goldfadn in the eighteenth volume of his Musterverk series in 1963, chose what he thought were the best works: the historical dramas of Shulames and Bar Kokhba. (7) Taste and ideology do play their roles, and we are in a period less taken with aristocratic historical heroes than with proletarian and folk matter. The Bar Kokhba play, however, reveals Goldfadn as a solid craftsman who manipulates his dramatic resources on a level that his earlier efforts cannot match. By moving the popular conte mporary imaginary into the biblical and post-biblical arenas, he forces the audience to participate in the recuperation of their history and to dare to imagine the consequences of what they have witnessed. They need no longer be mere passive witnesses.
Goldfadn's troupe had performed in Moscow (1881) and in St. Petersburg (1881 and 1882), and this encounter with a more Westernized and demanding audience--many were Gentiles--convinced Goldfadn that there was an audience prepared to accept a new level of theatrical performance. Change of subject matter and even of plotting signified moving from successful typologies to idealized historical figures and settings in the well-made play structure derived from European neo-classical conventions. It emphasized a clear linear pattern reflecting the historical matter and the desired higher tone of the re-invented past. By maintaining theatricality, the full spectacle of a gestural chorus, soft musical accompaniments [the real melodrame effect], and sudden musical interventions of song and fanfares, dances, etc., the dramatist became an impresario of a Jewish musical theater. The songs, like number opera sequences, are integrated into the dramatic action to elucidate, focalize, and induce an emotional surge when requir ed.
A massive change in dramatic spatial conception was at stake here because of the new temporal concerns of historical time. The Eastern European Jews were being challenged, thanks to the Haskala, to relocate themselves in secular history. They were being requested to turn from the sacral history and regard it as a metahistory in order to enter the realities of the historical facts of Western Civilization in its harsh clear linearities. The early plays reduplicated the known parameters of the world view of the audience. Each stage scene was a fragment of the whole. Goldfadn appears to dare the audience to follow him into the past as a retrievable one which required the audience to accept his imaginative re-creation. This was not a return to Purimshpil biblical representations frozen in a non-retrievable past where the space was either sacral or outside the normal realm of the contemporary understanding. Even if that evoked space were beloved, it remained essentially outside of time. Rather, the passage to histo rical past began on the similar territory of aggadic matter, the historical tales in the Talmud and associated religious literature. But Goldfadn placed events not outside of time but within the linear flow of time.
Shulames (1880) proved so successful because Goldfadn evoked cultural wholeness for the first time on the stage of an Israelite past. This past consisted of a normative nation with rulers and peasants, traditions and sovereignty bathed in the Talmudic legends and projecting upon Shulames, for example, the feminine ideal of Judaism on stage. Goldfadn created a Jewish Gesamtkunstwerk integrating plot, verse, music, and dance with larger forces on stage and pageantry. He sought the theatricality and melodrama of nineteenth-century opera.
Goldfadn's stage passed from being a mere physical representation to a larger semiotic signifying system. His first plays presented typologies, but his newer later plays created personages set in historical circumstances, especially in the Land of Israel, which carried provocative resonances of the wholeness of a restored homeland. Goldfadn eschewed cleverly the biblical Israel which was historically ungrounded for his audience and already too sacral and linked to Purimshpil matter and religious associations. The vision Goldfadn sought to project was of normalized Israel functioning as a whole and grounded in an historical period. The post-biblical era served his purpose. Shulames and even more Bar Kokhba provide those images of historicity, wholeness, and a national peoplehood. The stage itself becomes the signifier of a retrieved Israel. The stage becomes the plateau upon which a people in a marginal condition can thrust out an idealized vision of itself, reconceptualizing its past and guardedly hinting at its future. The historical play could be depiction, but its lesson or didacticism might be more prescriptive. The stage as a physical presence becomes an alternative secular site--outside of the synagogue. It expresses dreams, exhaltations, spiritual wants, and socio-cultural needs of an emerging secular old people in their renascence. The stage becomes a secular mizbeakh or altar for the performance of Jewish spiritual needs as necessarily the theater becomes the Temple. The esthetic act dares to usurp, compete, or run parallel with the atrophied religious structures governing the mentality of the Jewish people. Is it any wonder that the Orthodox could share with the assimilationists an opposition to Yiddish theater?
In the case of Bar Kokhba, this consciously historical play based on events in Jewish history forces recognition on the stage of the retrievable past. Its recreation is not a fragment from the surrounding life nor a moment of time in an eternal folkloric present, as the stage functions in the early plays. Rather, it is the infusion of a determined temporality and spatial definitiveness set in the historical past of Israel, secularized and functioning in the normative world system, and recognized as such on the stage. This concentration of linear time and particular place, the Uprising of the Jews against Rome in Israel, forces the audience to experience secular history as both a given and also the end result of a sequence of choices. The receptor is invited to question the decisions made by the hero and question the consequences and even to open the question of rectification.
The Bar Kokhba play enters the Goldfadn corpus as the first successful play representing a Jewish figure of historical fact and memory. (There is a Yehuda Makabe play of 1882 performed in Petersburg, but given that it was never published by Goldfadn, who was very conscious of what he allowed in print, it can only serve as an experiment before the masterpiece.) The timing of the presentation could not have been more haphazard, nor the choice of the figure, nor the events and their implications. The historical figure of Bar Kokhba survived in Jewish rabbinic and folk memory for many reasons. He is both the False Messiah and the military hero. On Tisha B'Av, not only are the razed Temples commemorated but also the fall of Betar, where Bar Kokhba died and the Israelite state and presence came to a bitter end. Bar Kokhba emblemizes the concerns of Jewish messianic doctrines and the need of repentance. It also presents the image of the giber or hero who gave Israel for one last time three years of sovereignty until the 1880s. Traditional Jewish literature may have faulted him for sins and shortcomings--the two-thousand-year exile does begin with his failure--but he and his rebellion have always turned into a source of future hope. (8) Goldfadn's choice of an ancient Jewish military hero at a time of pogroms and physical suffering shrewdly fitted his intentions to create a national drama. It invoked history and permitted surreptitiously a comparison between the past and the present, the drawing of a new consciousness and a sense that Jewry could yet once again hold its head up high.
Goldfadn had a serious problem: how to create a convincing Jewish hero who was noble and human, worthy of admiration but walking about with an Achilles' heel. We must appreciate that Israel-in-Exile had no aristocracy for over two thousand years and no Jewish giber or military hero. Where could a Jewish dramatist turn for help when the home culture had no dramatic tradition and indeed despised it as foreign? Where was there a Jewish aristocratic model? To configure such an heroic presence, Goldfadn had to turn to the models outside of his shtetl experience and make use of Western models. Oyslender, Finkel and Sandrow and other critics have culled Goldfadn's announced readings and theatrical experiences and have found a plethora of theatrical influences and heroic character formulations. Certainly the melodrame form, its conventions, its structure of events and fusion of politics and love plots stem from European theatrical culture. But I am in agreement with Alyssa Quint that Goldfadn's basic matter and plot argument derive from Kalman Schulman's popular Harisot Betar (1858). (9) Nevertheless, he shaped it entirely into European theatrical formulae and perspective. Bar Kokhba is constructed as a Western hero in Judaic garb.
Goldfadn is, after all, a man of theater and belonged to his age. He saw the successes of the European comedies, vaudevilles, and melodramas derived from Eugene Scribe's stylish well-made plays and libretti, which dominated European theater and opera from mid-century on. The formulae were almost foolproof: intense situations in every act with coups de theatre and a clear overriding single plot derived ultimately from neo-classical French tragedy, particularly Pierre Corneille. This plot presented conflict about and within the hero caught between duty to nation and the pressures of a personal love commitment. The formula was adapted as it moved eastward to nationalist concerns in which the national hero faced overwhelming conflicting commitments. He ultimately triumphs for himself, the nation, and the renewed people or dies nobly embodying the ideals of the peoplehood to serve as an historical template. In the Trauerspiel, Uriel Acosta of Gutzkow (1846), a five-act play in verse which Goldfadn adapted and perf ormed on January 26, 1883, in the Maryinsky Theater, the Scribean formula with an intense Jewish setting provides an example of what Goldfadn sought to accomplish.
But Goldfadn makes explicit what he is doing in Bar Kokhba: he is presenting a muzikalishe melodrame which should orient us further towards the generic model from which he derives the hero and plotting. Rather than the endless pursuit of the Purimshpil as the real source of his theater which satisfies nationalist urgings, or even Ostrovsky and Goethe among others (to which he himself alludes in his late autobiography), one has only to notice that Goldfadn spent most of his life in the Ukraine. The local Ukrainian theaters were busy producing, besides the Russian works, Ukrainian musical comedies, national operettas, and operas performed by traveling troupes just like Goldfadn's. These Ukrainian works such as Sokalsky's Mazeppa (1858-9), Gulak-Artemovsky's Zaporezhets za Dunayem (1863) (even performed in the same Maryinsky theater in Petersburg), Vakhnayanin's Kupalo (1870), and Sokalsky's Siege of Dubno (1878), etc., use the Scribean formula with a national hero and highly dramatic situations. They derive the ir plots from Ukrainian history--in victory or defeat--and their literary classics. The musical numbers alternate with the spoken word, and the dialogue and music display the Italian Romantic tradition with Ukrainian colorings in harmony and melodic structure derived from folk tunes. This format parallels what occurs in Goldfadn's muzikalishe melodrame. The Ukrainians are not original in the formal structure of character and plot construction, but derived their models from Polish and Russian models. They came from German Singspiel and French melodrame and even Grand Opera Romantic nationalist schools: the inheritance of the French librettists Scribe, Meilhac, and Halevy, in which each national group depicts, in its own musical style, its national hero and its national victories and tragic defeats.
I argue that the Ukrainians--their theater including the Russified elite--are in situ and more likely to have served as direct models to Goldfadn than the other more prestigious cultures. And I do not rule out the evident influence of Rumanian theater at the beginning (since we know that Shmendrik is adapted from the Rumanian into the Yiddish!). Let us not forget that in the provincial cities of the Pale of Settlement, one could venture into a Gentile theater if one bought an entrance ticket. Furthermore, the Ukrainian nationalist renaissance parallels the Jewish one and in terms of production was at least ten years ahead. (The Czech Renaissance proffers a further small-people cultural recuperation that was far more advanced than that of the Jews in 1883.) The Ukase of 1876 which forbade the further development of Ukrainian culture in Tsarist Russia came seven years before the Ukase against Yiddish theater, no doubt for the same reasons.
We can therefore recognize that Goldfadn follows a line of growing national esthetic conscious creativity, moving from the comedic scenes of the contemporary folk, as in the Kishefmakherin and Shmendrik (with unbelievable parallels to Smetana's Bartered Bride), to seeking out of folk roots in the past of which Shulames provides an excellent model, to the historical play of a national act of bravura and tragedy, Bar Kokhba. Goldfadn chose his character/hero only after he determined the setting and time and the national ideal he sought to project within the historical reality culled from Harisot Betar and the religious texts alluding to the hero. Bar Kokhba emerges as the heroic figure in the muzikalishe melodrame whom Goldfadn created to project the nationalist ideals: bravura, courage, action, and Judaic resolve in response to insult. The messianic fervor is deleted except to entitle him as Melekh Moshiah [King Messiah!] at the enthronement and as a sneer from his enemies. This agenda suggests why there is a missing figure in the play which would never be absent in the normative recounting of the Bar Kokhba history: Rabbi Akiba. His absence vitiates the metaphysical aspects which Goldfadn did not want, for he sought a normative hero in the Western model as the ideal. Nor did Goldfadn need the appealing figure of Akiba when there was already enough rabbinic hostility to his secular theater and ways. The Rabbis, for the most part, were the accommodationists in Goldfadn's day. The dramatist uses one as antagonist, Rabbi Eleazer Hamodai, in the melodrama. He appears in history and in the play and is slain by Bar Kokhba mistakenly as a traitor. Goldfadn's hero as placed in the Western tradition parallels William Tell of Rossini or Michael the Brave, a Rumanian national opera hero, projecting daring, national pride, and righting the wrongs of the oppressor.
For Goldfadn, theater permitted the impossible: The representation of the ancient hero, Bar Kokhba, configured with the putative ideals of the ancient culture, but actually reflective of the contemporary ideals of the dramatist. Goldfadn's theater performed the same functions as in the surrounding emerging cultures seeking new cultural space through the exercise of their national identity. This theater stage served with even more intensity as the living surrogate of the comprehensive territory, not just a fragment of the ideal. Goldfadn's theater incorporated the Blut und Boden articulated in the old/new heroic figure of Bar Kokhba. He functions as a Gentile hero figure made Jewish in his setting. The traditional messianic elements are played down in order to place in relief his devotion to Dina and the nation. He is the passionate doomed Romantic hero incorporating the elan of his culture. Even his beloved reflects the noblesse required of a nineteenth-century heroine projected two thousand years into the pa st. The hero becomes the standard bearer of the cultural transformation of which the theater serves as the mediation space. The hero restores pride in the recuperated past and through reenactment permits the trauma of the historical defeat to be overcome. The performance forces the audience to face the meaning of the events as well as to provide a transparent allegorical parallel to the present 1883 condition of Jewry in Russia. It brings about the rebirth of consciousness of a people now anchored in modem history with a heroic figure and vision.
The construction of the play and the organization of the plotline consequently follow the well-made play, the only normative format available in the nineteenth century especially for historical treatment. Into this structure, the musical numbers are adapted following the opera structure of neo-classical and romantic opera before the Wagnerian revolution. Goldfadn takes evident pride in the organization of his melodrama with its fourteen named sections or tableaux called bilder divided into four acts and a prologue, the disguised five-act "well-made play" [piece bien faite]. His muzikalishe melodrame is a remarkable application of the crafted work following the contemporary European design conformed to from Ostrovsky in Moscow to Sardou in France.
Goldfadn carefully locates his tableaux at sites of socio-cultural and politico-theological meaning, lieux de memoire [sites of memory], so that their semiotic and discursive value are never lost on the receptor. Goldfadn cunningly places the first tableau and Prologue in an Israelite synagogue on Tisha B'Av. In this way, he ties specifically the present traditional religious practice with the same even in the ancient days and thus forces the receptor to recognize that he lives in history, the continuous history of the people of Israel. The setting permits too the transparent sense that today's socio-political condition can be compared to the events presented on the stage. By the implicit act of crossing a taboo through the esthetic representation of the synagogal ceremonies and not as actual religious practice, the playwright led the audience into a new cultural space. But the religious institution presented esthetically was also meant to raise pride in its uniqueness as a national expression and provided th e shared esthetic sense of religious awe.
In this first tableau, the dramatic debate on Tisha B' Av pits Bar Kokhba against old Eleazer, who favors accommodation with the Romans. But the setting of this debate, the synagogue, underscores the role of the synagogue as forum and thus lieu de memoire for Jewish expression. The dire consequences of war are symbolically spelled out by the commemoration ceremony of Tisha B' Av. But more important, on the level of plot, the essentially contrary positions of Bar Kokhba and Eleazer course through Jewish history to the present of 1883. Does one bend in accepting Jewish fate or is it not time to repulse the indignities of Roman oppression? By setting Jew against Jew, the divided Jewish nation reveals its contradictions and its helplessness. The tableau ends in full choral swearing of allegiance to Bar Kokhba to lead the rebellion. It conforms to the formulae of the well-made play demanding a rapid exposition of the conflict and the operatic dramatic effect of a full choral response. Every tableau and act reinfor ces the conflictual situation.
The importance of setting and mise-en-scene maximizes the semiotic significance of each scene--the crowning in Act I of Bar Kokhba on Mt. Moriah, the Israelites' holiest site with its power to evoke memory of a dominant Israel, or the image in Act 3 of Caesaria under siege, or in the final Act 4 the besieged Betar with its dramatic destruction, the suicide of Bar Kokhba, and the final massacre all too reminiscent of the latest pogrom in southern Russia. Goldfadn masterfully manipulates imagery, pageantry, gesture, lighting, music, dance, and choral movement to heighten the emotional affect. The construction of the play in fourteen tableaux sets in motion a series of memories of Jewish history which, symbolized by Bar Kokhba, elicits recognition of past and present realities. Goldfadn's secular theater and its well-made dramatic esthetics resurrect the past, performing and proffering implicit appeals to the national resurgence through its reenactment. Goldfadn has judaized the Western form by filling it with J udaic contents.
The linear plotline of Bar Kokhba follows the Scribean structure devolved from five-act neo-classicism: exposition, development, crisis, suspension, and denouement. While the political realities of the Bar Kokhba events are played out before the audience in terms of the great historical tableaux, the vehicle of the play depends on the love plot. The action revolves around the central position of Dina, Rabbi Eleazar's daughter, betrothed to Bar Kokhba. She awaits her father's final blessings and Bar Kokhba's promise of marriage only after the Roman defeat. Four men seek to control her destiny: her father, Bar Kokhba, Papus the turncoat, and Turnus Rufus the Roman Governor. All are taken by her charms, and she is the Goldfadian descendant of Shulames: a woman devoted to the man to whom she gave her pledge. Love, here, follows French neoclassical love based on mutual esteem through noble acts which dominates Corneille's dramas. Goldfadn judaizes the Cornelian ideal woman in love and associates her with the tradi tional Eyshes Khayil [woman of valor]: a woman worthy of esteem--as the heroic male should be--rather than an irresistible lust.
Her father, Eleazer, regrets the choice of Bar Kokhba as her betrothed. Eleazer's political position places him in a peace camp. He considers Bar Kokhba to be suffering from hubris by allowing himself to be crowned a Messiah. Act I makes this clear: "and in your false Messiah, I shall not believe." (10) Following the traditional love plot, Dina takes Bar Kokhba's part and represents the new generation: "behold a land waiting to rescue its oppressed brethren" and encourages his resolve. (11) And, using the power of music to focalize the intensity of the moment and concentrate the emotion and message, they sing together--a sign of unity--"the time has come to free our land/yes, yes, to free and build anew." (12) An element of bifocalism is at play between the memory of what was and the present suffering of the people. The repetitions of the oppressed and to free shape the entire work, from humiliation to restoration.
Act I also exposes the triangular love plot through the introduction of Papus as the unwanted suitor who plays the knave with his solipsistic vision. Dina's encouragement of Bar Kokhba as King Messiah underscores the new Goldfadian Jewish male hero as the "well-rounded" hero: fine warrior on the Field of Mars and attentive lover on the Field of Venus. Unmistakably Bar Kokhba is modeled on the Western vision of the heroic male situated in a Judaic setting. The use of the lovers caught in the political maelstrom dominates Act 2. The plot crisis in the Roman palace displays a very Romantic operatic vision by opening with a brindisi [drinking song]--a convention Goldfadn had perfected in the Kishefmakherin. Guided by Papus, Turnus Rufus seeks the capture of Bar Kokhba by bringing Dina and her father to the Roman court. The appearance of the two political rivals, the Roman and the Judaic, and soon-to-be love rivals may appear a typical nineteenth-century romantic theatrical convention, but it stirred the emotions as Bar Kokhba demands her release and escapes the clutches of Turnus Rufus. By fusing politics and love, we see Goldfadn operating entirely inside Western romantic conventions and situating Jewish historical events in a Western theatrical context.
Act 3 opens with the famous Dos Pastukhl song, a mise-en-abyme [a mirroring concentrate of the play] of the work which describes the fate of Israel as a shepherd prodigal son--a reclaiming of a Christian theme. This powerful song carries the allegorical historical retelling of Israel's exile as based on sin and blindness and carries the Hoveve Tsyyon [Lovers of Zion, the proto-Zionist movement in Tsarist Russia] implication of returning home to live anew. Thus the suzhet [plot] and fabula [chronological story line] work within the microcosm of the song to reinforce Jewish identity and its restoration. Dina's noble refusal in prison to yield to the enticements of both Papus and Turnus Rufus underscore her Judaic nobility. Forced to the parapets to call Bar Kokhba to surrender, Dina jumps, committing suicide, calling for Israel to fight on. She sets the example of the Jewish woman who scorns the enemy and functions as a modem committed woman. This coup de theatre appears in the classic position of a well-made p lay just before the last act.
The political closure and ensuing tragedy in Act 4 is hastened by the love plot's last twist. Papus brings the destruction of Eleazer and Bar Kokhba. He lies to Bar Kokhba that Eleazer had delivered his daughter to the Romans to sue for peace. Bar Kokhba, blinded by his lost love, in a state of hubris, orders Eleazer condemned and kills him. This is the act of hamartia [tragic error]. The anagnorisis [recognition or selfdiscovery] occurs when Bar Kokhba realizes that Papus has lied to him and he has sinned by killing Eleazer. As the final battle rages, the ghost of Eleazer becomes his nemesis: his sin dooms Betar and himself. Thus the love plot leads to and explains the suicide/repentance of Bar Kokhba, whose suicide appears as an act of both heroic nobility and morality: how a Jewish hero must die trapped by fate--better to die at one's own than passively. To the Romans, Bar Kokhba cries out, "But one thing, would I rob from thee: your overweening pride over me/Not thy arrow's shaft gouging the breast of thi s hero--but better to die from my hand alone"! (13)
Such a Jewish heroic voice in Yiddish had never before been heard. The rhymed verse elevates it even more. The hero fulfills himself by acting the leader and noble figure faced with defeat. The receptor of the play experiences the defeat, the exaltation, and the message that in action the nation will be revived. The heroic style draws on three hundred years of European aristocratic behavior elucidated on the stage and placed in a Jewish context. The absorption of the Western aristocratic ideals and the judaization presupposes the earlier labors of the Haskala. It helped open a cultural space in face of resistance to esthetics of which the theater became a new location for disseminating alternative visions of the Jewish condition.
A Jewish tragedy become the trampoline for a new determination to refuse the oppressor. The lesson of yesterday can serve the Jewish people, thanks to the mediation of theater, as a source of action for the present. The play posits a hero elaborated in the historical melodrama as alternative to the status quo.
The love plot's artificiality serves as a convenience to place the political stakes before the public in a most efficient manner. The four male protagonists and antagonists represent the various positions being played out in this political, cultural, and social drama. Dina, therefore, hypostatizes the land of Israel whose love is to the contender who fights to defend her best! Bar Kokhba appears as the only giber willing and able to do it. Her father, as a compromiser, has lost his historical perspective and remains an accommodator. Papus is merely an adventurer, and Rufus, the obvious enemy. The public therefore recognized that the fall of Betar was a known fate in the same way that the Greek audience went to see a tragedy knowing the outcome but not the means by which it is brought about.
The Jewish audience of 1883 understood that Rome was Rome in the play, but they could read the Aesopian language that the contemporary antisemitic tsarist regime [the self-styled Third Rome] was coeval to the Roman state rule. The songs carry the strongest messages, a ploy that Verdi developed by placing his operas in other climes but with clear parallels to the present. Goldfadn had just done that in the previous melodrama of Dr. Almasada oder di yidn in Palermo (1882) in which he made use of a different setting to comment on expulsions in the past and in contemporary Russia. In Bar Kokhba, Goldfadn had more at stake. He not only sought to allude to the parallels, but he wished to do this by taking on the forces within the Jewish community that remained passive.
The play begins with the great debate with Eleazer over accepting or resisting Rome, and it concludes by repeating the debate with the ghost of the wronged Rabbi who maintains that Israel's sinning brings it defeat. The theme of Israel's sinning stresses the essentialist position of the Rabbis for the previous two thousand years. Eleazer repeats throughout the play as a kine [lament] of Tisha B 'Av [ninth of Av]: "You're no longer my child/because of your sin. Because of your sin.. ./you will shine no more... (14) It is this position, which causes Jewish passivity and inability to act in its self-interest, that Goldfadn refutes. Bar Kokhba indeed has his Achilles' heel, his bluster and aggressiveness which yield to intemperance over his pain at the noble death of Dina. By killing Eleazer, falsely accused by Papus, Bar Kokhba does reveal his lack of judgment, but not the righteousness of his cause.
Eleazer is guilty, too, of wishing the destruction of Bar Kokhba and its wider reverberations. His sentiment, which is the rabbinic position, counters Jewish activism and proclaims servitude to powers that show no respect toward the Jewish people. Goldfadn, as a maskil, is not prepared to accept endless Jewish suffering for sins of the past. He shows that those powers must be met with resistance or a new solution to the exilic condition.
There is no doubt of an incipient Hovevey Tsyyon ideology hovering over this work. The battle of this play then is not against Rome, the might and victory of which is almost taken for granted. It is really against the Rabbinic and assimilationist forces which would keep the Jewish people in their bondage without protesting, using religious arguments to force acceptance of their fate due to Jewish sinning. Bar Kokhba's suicide concludes a painful historical moment of great significance, but it is not necessarily forever. Bar Kokhba dies for his hubris in the play, but this performance has redeemed the honor of Israel. [The same mentality was at play in the hopeless uprising of the Warsaw ghetto.] Goldfadn has snatched the condemned sinful False Messiah from the hands of Rabbinic interpretation and restored him as a secular redemptive force whose failings are his own. But the noble suicide redeems him! Overwhelmed by the might of Rome and the betrayal of the accommodationists--the religious obscurantists--Bar K okhba stands for modem secular Jewish dignity even in defeat, the classic tragic hero! Goldfadn's drama has effectively put "new wine in an old bottle." Goldfadn's art forged a modem Jewish hero whose new articulation on the stage triumphed over the earlier rabbinic interpretations. Goldfadn accomplished the creation of the first secular Jewish hero and model entirely though esthetic means!
By reconfiguring Bar Kokhba as a Jewish secular hero in a European Romantic hero's garb, Goldfadn forged a modem Jewish icon which obviated the evident historical failure. By positioning Bar Kokhba as the new image of what and how a modern Jewish giber could appear and be without his human failings, Goldfadn accomplished five objectives. 1) The historical play permitted the author to flatter the audience with a drama of Jewish heroism, while at the same time the author was helping raise a national consciousness by restoring its own historicity inside human time and space. In addition, the author led the nation to become aware of its ability to seize the freedom to act while unchaining the nation from a debilitating sacral myth of its sinful unworthiness. 2) The historical play permitted, through the use of Aesopian language of multiple allusions to comment on the coeval condition of the Jews in the present as the past events of the melodrama. 3) Goldfadn proffered covertly though the songs and symbolic settin gs a possible future with the ideological shaping of a strong Hibbat Tsyyon vision. 4) The dramatist transparently conditioned the audience into accepting a modem Jewish historical play based on European form as a normative possibility. 5) As Goldfadn forged a new Jewish hero in Bar Kokhba, he forged, with this melodrama as metonymy, the role of theater as a meaningful new cultural esthetic space for meaningful debate and experimentation in Jewish life.
(1.) Zalmen Zilbertsvayg, ed ., Leksikon fun yidisn teater, 6 vols. (New York: Hebrew Actors' Union of America, 1931), Vol. I, p. 311.
(2.) Zilbertsvayg, Leksikon, Vol. I, p. 311.
(3.) Quoted in Nakhum Oyslender & U. Finkel, A. Goldfadn, materialn far a biografie (Minsk: Institut far Vaysruslendisher Kultur, 1926), p. 26.
(4.) Zilbertsvayg, Leksikon, Vol. I, p. 311.
(5.) Sh. Bilov & A. Velednitski, Introduction, Geklibene dramatishe verk. By A. Goldfadn (Kiev: Melukhe farlag far di natsionale minderhaytn in USSR, 1940), p. 69.
(6.) Paola Bertolone, L'Esilio del teatro-Goldfaden e il moderno teatro yidish (Roma: Bolzoni, 1993).
(7.) Shmuel Rozhansky, Biografishe Shtriklm, Qysgekilbene Shriftn, By Abraham Goldfaden. (Buenos Aires: Yosef Lifshits-fond fun der literatur-gezeishaft baym YIVO, 1963), P. 14. All page references to Bar Kokhba use this edition of the play.
(8.) Richard Marks, The Image of Bar Kokhba (University Park, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993), pp. 203-208.
(9.) Alyssa Quint in her unpublished paper at the first world conference on Yiddish theater held at Yarnton Manor in Oxford in 1999 presented a persuasive case for Harisot Betar as the source of the melodrame. This paper is part of her thesis on Goldfadn which we hope will be rapidly completed, defended, and published. See as well the important comments on Schulman's text and its linking Bar Kokhba to the national consciousness in Shimon Halkin, Zramim utsurot bsifrut haivrit hekhadash (Jerusalem: Mossad Bialik, 1984), Vol. I, pp. 235-237.
(10.) Rozhansky, Oysgeklibene Shriftn, p. 121.
(11.) Rozhansky, Oysgeklibene Shriftn, P. 124.
(12.) Rozhansky, Oysgeklibene Shriftn, pp. 124-126.
(13.) Rozhansky, Qysgeklibene Shriftn, pp. 204-205.
(14.) Rozhansky, Oysgeklibene Shfriftn, pp. 121, 202-203.
Seth L. Wolitz, the Gale Chair of Jewish Studies at the University of Texas at Austin and Professor of French, Slavic and Comparative Literature for the past 21 years, received his A.B. from the University of Chicago and his Ph.D. from Yale (1965). He is a comparatist who has published widely from a critical edition of Bernart de Ventadorn's Provencal poetry to articles on Brazilian poetry and German theater. His area of speciality is the twentieth century, particularly French literature and theater [The Proustian Community] and Yiddish literature and theater. His latest volume which just appeared is The Hidden Isaac Bashevis Singer, University of Texas Press, 2002.
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|Title Annotation:||Abraham Goldfadn|
|Author:||Wolitz, Seth L.|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2002|
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