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Papers of Abraham Goldfaden (1840-1908)

Identifier: RG 219

Scope and Content Note

The major portion of the Abraham Goldfaden Collection consists of original papers of Abraham Goldfaden relating to his career in the Yiddish theater, including manuscripts of plays, poems and articles, correspondence with members of the Yiddish theater, some copied in a notebook, newspaper clippings, playbills, and front pages of published plays. The materials were gathered by the historian Jacob Shatzky in connection with his work on the history of Yiddish theater. Shatzky wrote and edited a number of theater publications for the YIVO in the 1920s and 1930s, including Goldfaden-bukh (Goldfaden Book), Hundert Yor Goldfaden (One Hundred Years of Goldfaden) and Arkhiv far der Geshikhte fun Yidishn Teater un Drame (Archive of the History of Yiddish Theater and Drama), and he used many of the materials in this collection for his work. In addition to original documents from Goldfaden, there are also items either about Goldfaden or copies of Goldfaden’s writings and correspondence written out by Shatzky. Because of the artificial manner in which the record group was formed, it was decided to register it in the YIVO Archives as a “collection” rather than as “personal papers.” A majority of this collection is in Yiddish. The materials date from 1872-1956. The collection is 2.5 linear feet in five manuscript boxes.


  • Creation: 1872-1956

Language of Materials

The collection is in Yiddish, with some German, French, English, Hebrew, Russian, Polish and Spanish.

Access Restrictions

The collection is open to the public. Permission to publish part or parts of the collection must be obtained in writing from the YIVO Archives.

Use Restrictions

There may be some restrictions on the use of the collection. For more information, contact:

YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, Center for Jewish History, 15 West 16th Street, New York, NY 10011


Biographical Note

Abraham Goldfaden was born in Starokonstantinov, Volhynia (Ukraine) on July 12, 1840 to Khayim Lipe, a watchmaker and a follower of the Haskalah, and Khane Rivke Goldenfodem. He received a Hebrew education from the Kazyoner Jewish school, which was government-run, as well as learning Russian, German and secular subjects. As a child, he is purported to have imitated the performances of wedding jesters and Brody singers so well and to such a degree that he acquired the nickname Avromele Badkhen, "Abie the Jester." In 1857 he entered the Rabbinical Seminary in Zhitomir in order to avoid conscription into the tsarist army, where he studied to become a teacher. Here he studied with Abraham Ber Gottlober, who introduced him to Yiddish literature. While in the seminary he was encouraged to compose Hebrew lyrics, and his first Hebrew poem was published in 1862 in Hamelits (The Advocate). His first Yiddish published poems appeared in Kol Mevasser (Voice of the Messenger) in 1863, the same year that he played the title role in Shloyme Ettinger’s Serkele. A volume of Hebrew writings, Tsitsim u’Frakhim (Blossoms and Flowers), was published in 1865. Soon after, he began writing and publishing Hebrew and Yiddish songs, including Dos Yidele (The Little Jew), in 1866 and Di Yidene (The Jewish Woman), a collection of poems, and Tzvey Shkheynes (Two Female Neighbors) and Di Mume Sosye (Aunt Sosya), comedic plays, in 1869.

In 1868 Goldfaden moved to Odessa. His cousin Joseph Kisselman, a pianist, helped him set his poetry to music. He married Perele (Pauline) Verbl, daughter of the maskilic poet Eliyohu-Mordkhe Verbl, that same year. He taught in Jewish Crown schools in Simferopol and Odessa in the years 1867-1875, continuing to write all the while. In 1875 Goldfaden left Russia, first traveling to Munich, where he originally planned to study for a doctorate, then to Lemberg (Lvov), where he and Yitskhok Linetski started a newspaper, Yisrolik. The paper was banned in Russia in February 1876.

Goldfaden traveled to Czernowitz (Chernivtsi) in 1876, where he published Dos Bukoviner Israelitishe Folksblat (The Bukovina Jewish Folks Journal). Here he came into contact with the Broder singers, who were singing and acting out Yiddish songs in Romania, including some of Goldfaden’s own. He performed some songs and short sketches at Shimon Mark’s wine garden in Iasi, Romania, although he was quite poorly received. It was at that point that he conceived of the idea of combining songs and impersonations with dramatic dialogue and plot, an idea that culminated with the staging of Di Rekrutn (The Recruits) in October 1876 in Botosani, near Iasi. The play, about the difficulties of a recruit in the army, was in part inspired by the recruiting tactics of press gangs for the Russo-Turkish War. This is generally accepted as the first performance of a professional Yiddish theater. He traveled to Galatz (Galati), Romania, where, encouraged by enormous acclaim, he put together a group of performers, including wandering minstrels and cantors’ assistants, including Zelig Mogulesco, Leyzer Zukerman and Moyshe Zilberman, and perhaps the first Yiddish actress, Sara Segel (Sophia Goldstein-Karp), and toured Romania and Russia putting on his own plays and short theater pieces, based on the Russian and German theater models. He wrote the plays and the songs that the troupe performed, directed and instructed the actors on the mechanics of how to act and designed the scenery. He was an all-around theatrical impresario. His goal was to present a theater that was accessible to the Yiddish-speaking public, based, however loosely, upon their own lives yet also to elevate his audience to an appreciation of more sophisticated theater. His earlier plays were generally operettas and light comedies, but his later plays took on more serious, and often historical subjects, including Doctor Almasada, Shulamis and Bar Kokhba, about the revolt of 132-136 CE, written after the wave of pogroms that followed in the wake of the 1881 assassination of Czar Alexander II.

On the invitation of Jacob P. Adler in 1879, Goldfaden and his company traveled to Odessa, where they were greatly successful, before being banned by the censor. After his appeal of the ban, he received permission to perform throughout the Russian Pale of Settlement, which he continued to do for several years and even started another company with his brother Naftali in Kishinev (Chisinau). His success gave rise to many other theatrical enterprises, including a rival company set up by Israel Grodner, who had originally been in Goldfaden’s company but had left in the wake of Mogulesco’s success. Yiddish theater expanded at a rapid rate until 1883, when the Russian government banned all performances in Yiddish.

Goldfaden continued to write and publish poems for the next few years until 1885, when he and a troupe traveled to Warsaw, where they were allowed to perform in German, and where Goldfaden was involved with Zionist circles. The troupe was, briefly, very successful in Warsaw, particularly with the historical plays such as Shulamis (1880) and Bar Kokhba (1887). Goldfaden went on to Lodz and then to New York and the American “provinces” in 1887, where he was less successful theatrically, although he did whatever he could to make money, continuing to write new material, briefly publishing a twice-weekly newspaper, Di Nyu-Yorker Ilustrirte Tsaytung (The New York Illustrated Newspaper), from October 1887-July 1888, and founding a drama society and school, “Lira.” He also gave poetry readings and speeches, even arranging benefit performances for his own benefit. Goldfaden soon returned to Europe, where he produced and directed his established plays, primarily in London, Paris, Lemberg, and Vienna, as well as continuing to write new ones, including Meshiakhs Tsaytn (Messianic Times) that gave a less-than-optimistic view of Jewish life in America. He was in Romania from 1892-1896 with a new company as the director of the Jigniţa theater, but he continued to struggle to make a living, particularly as his plays were often performed without his consent, from which he received no royalties. He was the Paris delegate to the World Zionist Congress in London in 1900, where he was warmly welcomed and in the same year, the Yiddish world celebrated his 60th birthday. This included many warmly-written newspaper articles by the likes of Nahum Sokolow, Reuben Asher Braudes, Reuben Brainin, and others, as well as a great celebration in London, where a fund was established to support him and his wife for a year. Goldfaden then resumed writing his autobiography.

Upon the invitation of his brother, Goldfaden returned to the United States in 1903. Although he was too sick to undertake very much, he periodically published articles in Di Yidishe Gazeten (The Jewish Gazette). He was warmly welcomed by the young Zionists of the Theodor Herzl Club and in 1906, they put on his one-act Hebrew play, David b’Milkhamah (David in the War), the first Hebrew-language play to be performed in America. Goldfaden’s last play, Ben Ami, oder Der Zun fun Zayn Folk (Ben Ami, or The Son of His People), loosely based upon George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda, was produced by Boris Thomashefsky at the People’s Theatre on December 25, 1907, and was quite successful. Goldfaden died in New York on January 9, 1908, having written over 60 plays, among the most successful of which were Shmendrik (1877), Der Fanatik, oder Di Tsvey Kuni Lemels (The Fanatic, or The Two Kuni Lemels) (1880), Shulamis (1880), Doctor Almasada (1882), Bar Kokhba (1887), and Ben Ami (1907). The New York Times referred to him as "the Yiddish Shakespeare" as well as "a poet and a prophet." Between 75,000-100,000 people are said to have attended his funeral procession from the People's Theater in the Bowery to Washington Cemetery in Brooklyn.


2.5 Linear Feet


This collection contains manuscripts of some of the earliest Yiddish plays, correspondence between playwright, poet, and director Abraham Goldfaden, the father of Yiddish theater, and various actors and writers, as well as some family correspondence, newspaper clippings on Goldfaden and his impact on Yiddish theater, articles by Goldfaden on a variety of topics, and various other theater materials, such as title pages of plays, programs and song sheets. The collection illustrates Goldfaden’s great and ongoing influence on Yiddish theater.


The collection is arranged in series, according to type of material. Some folders contain a variety of materials, particularly when those items are fragmentary and untitled, although there are also folders with multiple titled materials. The correspondence is filed by correspondent’s name according to the Yiddish alphabet. There are many letters from Goldfaden to others, which Shatzky received from various sources. There are fewer folders listed in the English finding aid than in the Yiddish finding aid, although all of the materials appear to have been maintained. The folder organization follows that of the English finding aid. The collection is divided into the following series.

  1. Series I: Plays and Other Writings for the Stage, 1879-1906, undated
  2. Series II: Correspondence, 1894-1907, undated
  3. Series III: Theater Materials, 1872-1929, undated
  4. Series IV: Articles by Goldfaden, 1905-1906, 1927, undated
  5. Series V: Articles about Goldfaden, 1903-1908, 1926-1956, undated
  6. Series VI: Biographical and Bibliographical Materials, 1900-1908, undated

Acquisition Information

The collection was donated to the YIVO Archives by Jacob Shatzky in 1946.

Related Material

Other materials by and about Goldfaden and his plays, including correspondence, can be found in the archival collections: Sholem Perlmutter RG 289, Play Collection RG 114, Maurice Schwartz RG 498, David Hirsch RG 1225, Esther-Rachel Kaminska Theater Museum RG 8, Music (Vilna Archives) RG 7, Gabriel Zarzhevsky RG 407, Music RG 112, Molly Picon RG 738, Yom-Tov Spilman RG 397, Morris Feder and Eliezer and Rose Zhelazo RG 803, and the Folksbiene Theater RG 512, among others. There are also biographies of Goldfaden by Jacob Shatzky, Nahum Auslaender, Nachman Meisel, Zalmen Zylbercweig, and many others, books about him and his plays, his place in Yiddish theater, manuscripts of his plays, and many other materials.

Separated Material

There is no information about materials that are associated by provenance to the described materials that have been physically separated or removed.

Processing information

The collection was arranged in 1979 by Eleanor Mlotek with the assistance of a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Originally, the inventory was written in Yiddish. Additional processing was completed in May 2011.

Guide to the Abraham Goldfaden (1840-1908) Collection 1872-1956 RG 219
Processed by David Rogow and Eleanor Mlotek with the assistance of a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Additional processing by Rachel S. Harrison as part of the Leon Levy Archival Processing Initiative, made possible by the Leon Levy Foundation.
Language of description
Script of description
Language of description note
Description is in English.

Repository Details

Part of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research Repository

15 West 16th Street
New York NY 10011 United States