Lives in the Yiddish Theatre


Israel Gradner


Certifiable dates and information about Gradnerís youth till his appearance on the Goldfaden stage are not available. The only account of his youth was given in Avraham Fiszonís "Memoirs" (printed in The New York Morning Journal).

What follows is based upon his memoir:

"In and around 1859 a young man worked for "Gersonís Clothing Factory" named Yisrolik Rosenfeld. He later called himself Israel Gradner. Why he changed his name I donít know. He was a good looking, well-dressed young man who wore a short jacket[1], boots, his hat on askew. When the Sabbath arrived, he and his friends from work would turn the town topsy-turvy. People of all ages knew him, but boys from good families, not to mention girls from Chasidic families, ran away from him."

Fiszon goes on to say that Gradner came to him to purchase some of his songs. As a result, they became good friends (almost brothers). Gradner took him all over town, where they appeared as singers.

Since, Gradner had a "unique mind," he convinced Fiszon to write a song that could become a great sensation. This was a song about Jewish military conscripts who were kidnapped from Jewish homes to serve in the Tsarís army for twenty-five years. This song was about a Chasid who, to this point, had never served in the army. Suddenly he was conscripted by the military. Gradner gave

this song the title "Chaim Yishaya Tom Cat" (according to Goldfaden, this was really Velvl Zbarzherís 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 1876.)

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 Raynesís 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.

A year-and-a-half later Gradner appears in a small theatre in Odessa, together with Moshe Finkel and Aaron Tanner.

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 Gradner.

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. Whatís 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 kind.'

... At first they behaved respectfully towards the singers. They looked at everything as though it was artistic ,or as they referred to it 'Godís 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 wasnít 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 Gradnerís 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 Gradnerís 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 'Carusoís 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, Iíll 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 eveningís 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."

Avraham Goldfaden 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 fatherís tobacco pipe and to run away. Therefore he hardly knew any Hebrew and couldnít even sign his name. He wandered around for a long time among strangers. Finally he became a cigarette maker. From Goldfadenís biography, according to what he told me, weíll do better to hold our silence about his youth, so that it doesnít come back to haunt us and destroy peopleís 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 someoneís 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 Markís garden. Gradner was singing among other songs, Goldfadenís 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 and dramas.

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 didnít do this because he didnít 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 donít 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 couldnít 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 Gradnerís hero, who we described above. Gradner himself served as the prototype for Goldfadenís hero.

The comedy was staged in a large local theatre after the unrest dissipated. Gradner played the leading role, singing only Goldfadenís songs. He followed Goldfadenís 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 Goldfadenís "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 grandmother.

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 Mogulescoís success. Gradner asked Goldfaden not to make him a clown, but that Goldfaden should create a serious dramatic role for him too.

Goldfaden wrote 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 didnít want to listen to what I said to him."

Goldfaden then 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 Goldfadenís 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 Goldfadenís troupe in Odessa (1879). Here Gradner met with great success in the role of "The Grandmother and her Grandson," and in the "Kishufmakherin (The Witch)."

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 Shomerís 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 Shlifersteinís troupe. He returned quickly to London.

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 Theatre."

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 club.

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 Gradnerís 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 wasnít 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 moderate success.

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 his grave.


[1] Meaning he wasnít 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).

  • Jacob P. Adler -- "My Life Story," "The Theatre Journal,' N.Y., 3, 1901.

  • Jacob P. Adler -- 40 Years on the Stage, "Di varhayt," N.Y., 12 May 1917.

  • Reuben Weissman -- "Yiddish Theatre" (Editor E. Tenenholtz), N.Y., 1923, pp. 4-5.

  • Jacob P. Adler -- "My Life," "Di naye varhayt," N.Y., 21, 25 March, 23 April 1925.

  • Abraham Fiszon -- (Memoirs) "Morning Journal," 1924-1925.

  • N. Auslander -- Av. Finkel -- "A. Goldfaden," Minsk, pp. 27-35, 41.

  • Sholem Perlmutter -- Der onfang fun yidishn teater, "Yidisshe velt," Philadelphia, 13 April, 6-28 May, 1 June, 5 July, 1928.

  • Zalmen Zylbercweig -- "Hintern forhang," Vilna, 1928, pp. 29-54, 99-113.






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Adapted from the original Yiddish text found within the  "Lexicon of the Yiddish Theatre" by Zalmen Zylbercweig, Volume 1, page 508.

Translation courtesy of Paul Azaroff.

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