this song the title
"Chaim Yishaya Tom Cat" (according to Goldfaden,
this was really Velvl Zbarzher’s song "The
Jewish Soldier.") Both Gradner and Fiszon used
to sing this and other songs traveling from one
town to another.
Since Gradner was
well known among his fellow tailors, he had
friends in every nearby town, and they visited
most the guys that he worked with. They were
enamored with him and became the organizers and
the main supporters of his evening performances.
Fiszon goes on to
tell us that Goldfaden saw them in Zhitomir,
where he gave them the lyrics to the song "Di
bobe mitn eynikel (The Grandmother and her
Grandson)," which was written in the form of a
dialogue (Goldfaden never mention to us that he
saw Gradner earlier in the town of Iasi in
According to Fiszon:
"Gradner had a plan to produce 'Di bobe mitn
eynikel,' as a sad theatrical piece. He even
test several girls who might be taught to
perform it. But no father wanted to grant
permission for such an undertaking."
According to Fiszon,
Gradner played "Di bobe mitn eynikel" in Kiev,
but since he was legally not allowed to perform
in a theatre, he played in Noah Raynes’s granary
without permission. The police arrested him
along with his troupe. Later, Gradner played the
same play with a very great success in Cherkasy.
Here he met a girl, Aneta, with whom he decided
to perform, shortly after that they were
married. Not too long after, she ran away from
him. Having lost the effort and desire to
perform, he abandoned the troupe.
later Gradner appears in a small theatre in
Odessa, together with Moshe Finkel and Aaron
Fiszon tell us that
Gradner was now sporting a beard, and whenever
he performed "Di bobe mitn eynikel" he pasted
his beard close to his face with some sort of
glue that he could remove after each
performance. Gradner also announced at this time
that his family name was not Rosenfeld but
Reuben Weisman tells
us in his article "How Old is the Yiddish
Theatre?" ('Yiddish Theatre,' New York, 1923)
that many of the Yiddish theatre singers in 1873
in Odessa were embarrassed by the
"Brodersingers" Kafka, Aaron Tanner and Israel
Gradner (aka 'Srulik Papirosnik'). The last one
named had a very fine tenor voice. His
'movements and expressions' (in theatrical
words) were those of a professional actor, who
had never before been seen by Jews. What’s more,
the fact that he sang a Chasidic song, with all
the proper 'movements and expressions,' appealed
to the audience in that small theatre. Some were
known to have gasped. They were the 'stars.' At
that time the 'star system' had just started to
be instituted: Every leading singer had an
accompanist. The job of the accompanist was:
1) To announce what
song they were about to sing.
2) To sing the refrain to the song.
3) To help sing along with, and to snap his
fingers along with the happier music.
4) To pass the plate after the song ended.
The audience that
came to these shows was not the 'sophisticated
... At first they
behaved respectfully towards the singers. They
looked at everything as though it was artistic
,or as they referred to it 'God’s genre.'
However, later they became very comfortable,
even coarse -- above all they admired 'The
good-hearted king' ... referring to 'Srulik'
Israel. Gradner, however, was really bothered by
their behavior. He felt that this lowered his
self-esteem. He began to think up a plan of how
to escape that basement swamp. On a certain
night, a Chasidic young man appeared out of
nowhere, wearing a long caftan with long side
curls. In a loud voice he started to complain to
the accompanist, asking him why he wasn’t
religiously observant, and why he was clean
shaven. At first the audience did not know what
was going on and remained sitting as if they had
been turned to stone. Only after the young man
started to sing the song 'Chasid mitn daytch'
(The Chasid with the Reform Jew), that they
recognized Gradner’s voice and an uproar took
place: Bravo! Hoorah! A real comedy! Everyone
started to shout -- a true actor. This event in
the cellar put into Gradner’s mind a fully
developed plan to give concerts based upon these
songs. In 1873, for the first time (?) in Jewish
history a performance was given on a real stage
(in 'Caruso’s Salon' on Rishyelevska Street),
with real scenery and costumes. This was a
Yiddish concert given by Yiddish actors in the
Yiddish language. The program at that time was
made up of the following songs, divided into two
groups: 'Dos Rendl' (The Coin), a song by
Avraham Goldfaden sung by Gradner, with a choir
of six men from the Great Synagogue in Odessa.
All seven were 'dressed' in black frocks, white
pressed shirts, with white bow ties and 'shapaklaks'
(?) in their hands. They sang 'Dos lid fun
matzeve shleger" (The song of the Tombstone
Carver), sung by Gradner and his accompanist. At
that moment the stage was converted into a
Chasidic prayer house. Gradner with his
accompanist and choir dressed as Chasidim, were
all arguing and everyone was yelling. 'Your
rebbe is not like others, but my rebbe is famous
and a great wonder maker, a hero and awesome.'
Suddenly Gradner began asking everyone: 'Who is
your rebbe?' Apparently it turned out that
everyone was a follower of the same Chasidic
rebbe. 'If so, I’ll tell you the wonders about
our rebbe, the righteous man' (said Gradner).
The music began to play and Gradner sang the
song 'Der rebbe' (The Rabbi), with Chasidic body
movement. Everyone applauded; they hugged one
another and danced Chasidic freilachs (happy
dances). The audience simply went out of its
mind with enthusiasm. What followed were also
unequaled. The second part of the evening’s
entertainment comprised of some serious and some
comic songs -- with its own scenic backdrops and
costumes. After this performance Gradner staged
a few more concerts. However, he once again went
away to Iasi, Romania where he now no longer
sang in little venues, but on a real stage owned
by Shimon Mark; The Summer Garden."
tells us in his autobiography ("The Beginning of
the Yiddish Theatre" by Sholem Perlmutter):
"Israel Gradner was born in Lithuania. This fact
is known all over that Litvaks by nature have a
talent for Talmudic extrapolations. Especially
they possess sharp Talmudic heads, since their
basic education is from their yeshivas
(seminaries). Our actor is not different from
his countrymen. According to what he himself
told me, when he was a child he never went
higher than the cheder (Jewish elementary
school). At that time, he had enough sense to
steal his father’s tobacco pipe and to run away.
Therefore he hardly knew any Hebrew and couldn’t
even sign his name. He wandered around for a
long time among strangers. Finally he became a
cigarette maker. From Goldfaden’s biography,
according to what he told me, we’ll do better to
hold our silence about his youth, so that it
doesn’t come back to haunt us and destroy
people’s appetite for his talent. When I knew
Gradner he possessed a fine baritone voice and a
talent for dance. His profession was to travel
around singing his songs as was the custom in
those days. Israel Gradner, apart from his
artistic talent, also possessed an
entrepreneurial spirit. He had the energy and
the courage to create, as do all Litvaks. Over
time when other singers traveled around to the
small towns and sang in a someone’s house, in a
kitchen or a tavern, Israel Gradner appeared in
the bigger cities finding a locale such as a
cabaret stage. He set up numbered benches and
printing small posters that carried a short
description: "Israel Gradner sings the best
songs by the most beloved folksong writers:
Eliyakum Zunser, Velvl Zbarzher, I.J. Linetzky
and his own. With every song he appears in full
costume. At the end of each song, even the
serious ones, he finds it necessary to dance.
When the song demanded two people, as for
example, 'Der Erev Yom Kippur (The Evening of
the Day of Atonement).' when a Chasid sang a
verse to the Reform Jew, and the Reform Jew sang
back to the Chasid, both were competing as to
who was the better Jew. Gradner used to hire a
child and teach him the verses of the 'Reform
Jew.' He himself sang as the Chasid (because
this was a comic role). They stood on the stage,
and as they sang, one explained to the other
that the correct way to practice Judaism was
his. The ever-practical Gradner saw for a long
time that the most serious songs put the
audience to sleep. In order to enliven the
audience, the Chasid and the Reform Jew could
not insult or insult one another with ugly
curses, or with whatever came into their mouths.
Afterwards, the Chasid and the German Jew, must
applaud one another -- Bravo! So the Chasid and
the Reform Jew apologized to one another and
finished with a merry dance. The Reform Jew
danced a Chasidic dance, and the Chasid danced a
Kamarinsky -- The audience was now charmed and
happy. Many similar skits had names such as: 'Der
tabak-makher (The Tobacco Maker),' 'Dos odesser
vaybl (The Odessa Wife),' 'Der alte tate (The
Old Father).' etc."
A little later,
Goldfaden wrote about Gradner: "Israel Gradner
has a fine talent: He occupies a healthy but not
untrained baritone voice. He is endowed by
nature with great talent. His manners and
mimicry are still unrestrained but enjoyable. He
needs controlled development and methodology."
In 1876, when
Goldfaden came to Iasi, he met Gradner in Shimon
Mark’s garden. Gradner was singing among other
songs, Goldfaden’s songs. Goldfaden failed on
that stage. Goldfaden decided to start writing
historical plays. He wanted to build up a new
audience. When Gradner came to him for new
songs, Goldfaden suggested writing not only
songs for him, but real-life theatrical pieces
About his event,
Yitskhok Libresco said (as he stood behind the
curtain of Zalman Zylberczweig's theatre): "We
both immediately sent for Gradner and told him
of our plans to perform in a theatre. Gradner
agreed and said the Romanian actors who used to
come to hear him, often kissed him and begged
him to create a theatre similar to those of the
non-Jews. He didn’t do this because he didn’t
have material to perform. Gradner immediately
brought a whole bunch of those same guys. It was
at this time that Gradner shaved his moustache."
Goldfaden wrote a
play that he referred to as a "sort of nuisance,
a sort of absurdity, a butter churn. I don’t
even recall what the real name was, which
Gradner used when he performed together with his
accompanist Shakhar Goldstein. Then Gradner came
up with a new piece, "Die Chasideh (The Chasidic
Woman)," in two acts by Goldfaden. Afterwards he
went to Botoshani (a city in Romania). There,
however, we couldn’t perform because the
Romanian government had started to recruit
soldiers. This caused a terrible turmoil in
Iasi. Gradner, Goldstein and Goldfaden were
hiding in an attic. Goldfaden rehearsed a new
piece with them that he had recently written, "Di
rekruiten (The Recruits)."
In this play the
leading man bears the name "Chaim Shaya." This
character was based upon Gradner’s hero, who we
described above. Gradner himself served as the
prototype for Goldfaden’s hero.
The comedy was
staged in a large local theatre after the unrest
dissipated. Gradner played the leading role,
singing only Goldfaden’s songs. He followed
Goldfaden’s suggestion, but he was also able to
add much of his own text.
From Botoshani the
troupe traveled to Galatz where they played in a
large theatre and had a very big following. They
also staged "The Intrigue," "Dvasha di
spletnitze (Dvasha the Gossip)," in which
Gradner played the role of "Yosef." Then the
troupe traveled to Braila (a city in Romania),
where they staged Goldfaden’s "Bobe mitn eynikel
(Grandmother and Grandson)," where Gradner
played the role of the grandmother. Gradner was
very well received in this role, and the
impression he made was so great, that many years
later when the Yiddish theatre had begun to hire
woman actors, men continued to play the role of
The troupe then
moved on to Bucharest, and because Goldfaden had
created a new persona in his new comedy "Shmendrik,"
which he gave to Mogulesco, Gradner felt
somewhat insulted seeing Mogulesco’s success.
Gradner asked Goldfaden not to make him a clown,
but that Goldfaden should create a serious
dramatic role for him too.
about this incident: "He was responsible for
falling into depression. I knew very well that
Gradner had not even a tiny bit of talent to
play a dramatic role. Throughout his life he
never even saw a European artist on the stage.
Since he knew no foreign languages, only a bit
of Yiddish, he therefore had no opportunity to
even read a dramatic work. His request for a
dramatic role was accompanied by the only means
he had, which was to scream loudly on the stage,
to stamp his feet, to beat his head like the
kulaks (rich Russian landowners). I even
explained to him, the art of recitation, from
the point of view of graceful speech, natural
stance, and solid space. To his mind this
appeared too sleepy. He didn’t want to listen to
what I said to him."
translated, "Di viste inzl (The Deserted
Island)," by Kotzebue, in which Gradner played a
European who was deserted on an island. Here too
he performed in the shadow of Mogulesco, who had
acted in this play earlier. Gradner left the
troupe and organized his own troupe (with Rosa
Friedman) in Iasi, where he played Goldfaden’s
plays. The undertaking was financed by Shenker
and Morris Roth. Gradner almost immediately took
Mogulesco into his troupe. Later he also hired
Zilberman and Shachar Goldstein. At the same
time he turned to Yosef Latayner as his
dramatist. After this he again joined Goldfaden.
Gradner traveled all over Romania with his
troupe, and in the summer of 1878 he united with
"Prof." Horowitz, traveling with them to play in
Bucharest. However, due to bad business deals
and squabbles between both directors, Gradner
left the troupe and traveled together with his
wife, giving concerts all over Romania. They
were not successful, so they both traveled to
Constantinople. From there they once again
joined Goldfaden’s troupe in Odessa (1879). Here
Gradner met with great success in the role of
"The Grandmother and her Grandson," and in the "Kishufmakherin
According to B.
Gorin: "Since Gradner was permeated with a
rebellious spirit, and not overly happy to have
someone standing over him, he left the troupe
once more. He received permission to act in
Nikolayev, where he came to an agreement with
Finkel, Moyshe Teich, Aba Shoengold, etc., and
put together his own troupe. Due to interruption
and a short break, he joined Shomer’s troupe.
Later he once again became the leader of yet
another troupe, together with Horowitz. He
played in Western Europe and returned from there
to Russia, where he joined up with
Shliferstein’s troupe. He returned quickly to
At the start of the
eighties, when Goldfaden and Tanzman played in
Warsaw in the Eldorado for the Russian director
Lytzenka (a woman), they brought Gradner and his
wife to compete with the Tanzmans. They did not
succeed and once again returned to London.
At the start of the
1870s when Goldfaden and Tanzman were performing
in Warsaw at the Eldorado Theatre under the
Russian director, Torshe Lintzenko, Gradner and
his wife were brought to compete with Tanzman.
This did not succeed and the Gradners returned
to London. In 1883 Gradner played in Riga. At
this time the Russian Government forbid all
appearances of Yiddish theatre throughout
Russia. Gradner and his wife, together with
Adler, Michaelson, Mrs. Chizhik, Karp, Kempner,
Baum, Wachtel, et al went to London. A short
time thereafter Gradner went to Galicia where he
led a troupe (including Gradner and his wife,
Yisroel Weinblatt, Eskreiz, Leonard, Hermalin),
with the later addition of Horowitz, his
daughter Charlotte and son-in-law Caesar
Greenberg. After performing in some of the
larger Galician cities, they arrived in Vienna
where they booked the world famous "Ring
Gradner returned to London, where he performed
in a club. Shortly thereafter he went to Paris
with his wife. However, the situation there was
even worse. He turned around and went to London,
where he put together a troupe and played in a
After a fictitious report of a conflagration on
18 January 1887 in the Princess Club, Gradner
and his wife traveled to Warsaw. When they
returned they renewed (together with Leon and
Sonya Nadolsky) their performances in the clubs.
Gradner had two of his own plays: "Dos lid fun
faytl der nar (The song of Faytl the Fool)," a
comedy in three acts, presented in 1876, and "Lumpatzius
vagabondos (Lumpatzius Vagabonds)," which was
translated from Romanian and presented in 1878.
Considering the fact that Goldfaden had claimed
that Gradner was illiterate, we must understand
that both the original play and the translation
bear fictitious credits for Gradner’s name.
Fiszon tell us in his memoirs that Gradner took
the arguments in the troupe very much to heart.
He also was despondent about the ban on Yiddish
theatre in Russia.
Jacob P. Adler wrote about Gradner: "I placed
great value on Yisroelik Gradner. He was the
first folksinger I ever heard about performing
in the urban centers. He was also the first to
present both pictures and scenes of Yiddish life
on the stage."
Zelig Mogulesko tells us about Gradner in his
memoirs: "If he had been in America he would
have, as a dramatist, been on an equal par with
Adler. He was also an exceptional comedian. He
had an inborn talent, and his 'Bobbe' was a
truly great piece of artistry in which he was
the artist. He wasn’t tall but he was
good-looking, with a high forehead, dark
piercing eyes and an empathetic face. You would
immediately assume that he was either an artist
or a poet."
Gradner was -- according to Ferdinand Shtoyb --
very musical. He would buy classical music by
Hayden, Handel etc. He would use the music of
these composers to write songs for himself and
his wife. In "Shulamis" Gradner had no role, but
he was on stage acting as one of the shepherds
playing on a wooden flute, and even here he had
Shtoyb tell us that Gradner was a passionate
card player. Night and day he would sit and play
due to the fact that he was suffering from
gallstones. During Passover 1887 Gradner died in
the German Hospital in London and was buried
outside the fence in the Stratford Cemetery.
Till the present day there is no tombstone over
 Meaning he
wasn’t ultra-orthodox (They wore long coats.)
Reform Jews were also called Germans since
Reform Judaism started in Germany.
B. Gorin --
"History of Yiddish Theatre," Vol. I, pp.
147-242; Vol. 2, pp. 46-50, 150.
B. Gorin --
(List of plays).
Adler -- "My Life Story," "The Theatre
Journal,' N.Y., 3, 1901.
Adler -- 40 Years on the Stage, "Di varhayt,"
N.Y., 12 May 1917.
Weissman -- "Yiddish Theatre" (Editor E.
Tenenholtz), N.Y., 1923, pp. 4-5.
Adler -- "My Life," "Di naye varhayt," N.Y.,
21, 25 March, 23 April 1925.
Fiszon -- (Memoirs) "Morning Journal,"
-- Av. Finkel -- "A. Goldfaden," Minsk, pp.
Perlmutter -- Der onfang fun yidishn teater,
"Yidisshe velt," Philadelphia, 13 April,
6-28 May, 1 June, 5 July, 1928.
Zylbercweig -- "Hintern forhang," Vilna,
1928, pp. 29-54, 99-113.