Lives in the Yiddish Theatre


Ba'al Makhshoves
(Dr. Isidor [Israel] Eliashev)


Born in Kovno (Kaunas, Lithuania) to parents who owned a textile manufacturing business, he attended a religious school (kheder) until age ten when he enrolled in a Musar movement Yeshiva in Grobina, Courland (Latvia). There he also studied secular subjects, German, geography, and mathematics.  He participated in protests against the Mashgiach (ritual animal slaughterer supervisors) from the Yeshiva and more specifically protests against the Sabbath desecration laws. Because of this action, he and his brother were forced to flee Grobina. Now he had to study under his father’s care, with a series of local private tutors, but not at the same level as the Yeshivas. Finally, he tore himself away from his father and joined the secular world around him and continued his studies at secular universities, ending up in medical school in Switzerland and later in Heidelberg and Berlin, Germany where he again became active in the student groups.

In Heidelberg he became fluent in German both in reading and conversation. He followed all the fashionable and modern publications in literature, theatre, and music. In 1897, he launched  half fictional accounts, partly based on facts, in the Yiddish newspaper in Romania and then followed them up in German and Russian periodicals. In 1899 he published in the magazine ‘The Yid’ an article about Morris

Rosenfeld (poet, author, and statesman). This was followed within a few years with literary criticisms in ‘The Yid’, ‘The Yiddish Family’, ‘The Total Righteous Man’, and later in ‘The Thoughtful Thinker’.  This last publication explains his self given title, with which he distinguished himself from all other thinkers as the most admired authoritarian critic.
Around 1899 he settled in Warsaw.  In 1905 he took his state license exam in Russia to give him the right to practice medicine. He also considered sidelining his medical training to engage in his real love of literature and criticism. In 1906 he spent time in Vilna and practiced medicine first in Kovno and later Riga. He returned to Warsaw in 1912; and after the outbreak of World War One, he was mobilized into the military medical corps. Later he lived in Moscow, St.Petersburg, Kiev, and then Minsk. In 1920 he returned to Kovno and then back to Berlin in 1921. Because of deteriorating health, he forced himself to spend time in a health spa in various locations in Germany and Italy. His illness became more uncontrolled, and he returned to Kovno and died there in 1924.

His funeral took place in Kovno. and his eulogy was given by the local Jewish community. The entire Jewish community turned out for his funeral.

He had a decided effect on the Yiddish theatre and often wrote about dramatists, actors, and current productions. In his ‘Collected Writings’, (Vilna 1910, First Volume) can be found specific articles about David Pinski as a dramatist, and an article about Sholem Asch’s ‘Messiah Times’ (Second Volume pp.95-100).  A longer article ‘The Yiddish Theatre’ and another article about Yushkevich (Semen), as a dramatist (third vol.pp71-78), entitled ‘To The Yiddish Theatre Questions’ were published.  He also had some articles in various periodicals about Jacob Gordon as a dramatist.
Furthermore, he was one of the activists along with Peretz to create a Yiddish artists theatre in Russia; and later he was also one of the first to initiate the creation of the Yiddish art theatre in Moscow, later called the Kamer or The State Theatre in Moscow.

Characteristic of the Ba'al Makhshoves in his ‘Ani Mamin’ is his writing about the Yiddish theatre in the following passages in his article: “each time when one reads about Yiddish theatre one reads, for no particular reason, no evaluation of the audience’s appreciation for the performance; though it is for the audience, that the play is created.  By Jews, as by all other cultured people, theatres were available for the public. The large masses of people loved mostly the shund (trashy) theatre and looked for such productions from which they were satisfied.  A smaller group of theatre goers wanted another type of melodrama, a better folks ‘shtick’, which the audiences found appealing, as in Jacob Gordon’s style of play and others of this type of genre.  Again in an audience of higher intellect, peoples’ tastes require a more inner need for good, skilled drama, possessing a present day and contemporary grand theme. Yet these Yiddish intellectuals did not have their own theatres and were forced to satisfy their eagerness for this type of drama by seeing other plays in other peoples’ theatres in other languages, although well acted and well performed. I was happy with the present Yiddish theatre; even if I could not begin to understand the complaints of many of the writers, who demanded that there should absolutely be a Yiddish theatre in Warsaw and New York, just as there is ‘The German Theatre’ in Berlin or the ‘Odeon Theatre’ in Paris.  I found that, as to regarding the theatre question, the masses, not waiting for advice from the intellectuals, wanted to create a Yiddish theatre; they demanded its creation; and it was done.  Hey, they bemoaned, we don’t have a theatre, how should we satisfy our intellectual curiosity? It was the lack of persuasion by Jewish intellectuals that stood in the way of such productions. Not concerned, that this will necessitate a higher intellectual repertoire then the Gordon’s audiences were used to; the performers must have the most skilled and dramatic abilities. But through this, the well educated audiences will demand more satisfaction from the performances and actors; and that although in reference to the Yiddish language, which has a paucity of descriptive words, perhaps poorer than the poorest peddler; it will have to upgrade its descriptive language.

In a second article he writes “by Jews, meanwhile, this is only a one class-society to create a theatre to satisfy all.  All the rest of the classes in other societies satisfy their taste and theatre expectations with strange language, unfamiliar to many, but accepted”.

The Jewish society had to work out different forms of entertainment for different groups of society.  In the dramatic arts for the intellectuals, although the bourgeoisie take no major part in society, their influence will be felt because of their societal reach. Special ones will be a part of our intellectuals, those who only masquerade as intellectuals, but in their naïve way they want to function on this level of society, but lack the intellectual capacity to know about psychological analysis of the theatre. 






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Adapted from the original Yiddish text found within the  "Lexicon of the Yiddish Theatre" by Zalmen Zylbercweig, Volume 1, page 189.

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