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THE GOLD DIGGERS1, by Sholom Aleichem

(Yiddish: Di goldgreber)

"The Gold Diggers" is a comedy in four acts by Sholom Aleichem, which opened at the Yiddish Art Theatre, 12th Street and Second Avenue on 18 November 1927. It was adapted for the stage by I. D. Berkowitz, and was directed by Maurice Schwartz, with music by Herman Zaretzky.

 “The present play is a dramatization of a famous story by Sholom Aleichem (pen name of the late Sholom Rabinowitz), wherein that prince of Jewish humorists paints a marvelously lifelike picture of Jewish life in pre-war Russia. It is the story of a whole community gone mad over an old wives’ tale and finally restored to its senses by the shrewdness, nerve, and horse sense of an American Jew who opportunely comes to visit his native town. From this comedy of errors, superstition and greed, with its tragic overtones, the genius of Sholom Aleichem extracts the last drop of humor mingled with pathos. The stage version is the work of Sholom Aleichem’s gifted son-in-law, I. D. Berkowitz, himself a writer of note."1


photo: Maurice Schwartz, as Levi Mosgovoyer.

Here is the synopsis for the play. The name of the actor or actress who played a particular part is indicated in parentheses:



Itzik (Benny Mazbin), the small son of Iddel Torba (Jechiel Goldsmiith), a tight-fisted money changer and widower, finds a gold coin in the Jewish cemetery. This revives all old local legend that Napoleon, while en route to Moscow with his army, buried thirteen barrels filled with gold coins in the old Jewish cemetery. The prospect of riches sets the whole community agog. Some of the people invade the cemetery in quest of the treasure; others besiege Iddel's house and vainly plead with him to permit his boy to reveal the exact spot where the gold coin was found; while still others, the most vocal of all, entrench themselves at the home of the town's leading Jew, Levi Mosgovoyer (Maurice Schwartz), who is away on a visit to the steward Wloclawski (Abraham Teitelbaum). Levi, who knows nothing of the find which has turned the community topsy-turvy during his absence, returns to find his house invaded. He explains that he went to the steward in an effort to save the old cemetery, where his forebears and other notables are buried; for Wloclawski had told him that unless the Jewish community paid the overdue rent for the cemetery, amounting to thirteen hundred gulden, the nobleman's estate, which owned the site, would sell it to the Government, which wanted the land in order to lay railroad tracks across it. But the mob leaders, who scent a plot, do not believe. Levi and take matters in their own hands. They fetch Iddel, who has been an unsuccessful suitor for the hand of Levi's only child, the fair Esther (Berta Gerstin); and Iddel, prompted by the wily marriage broker Sholom Shadchan (Jacob Goldstein), declares his readiness to come to terms with the community about the treasure provided Levi would give him his daughter in marriage. Levi scorns the proposal. Wloclawski arrives and claims a share in the treasure on the grounds that it was found on land belonging to the nobleman's estate. He is followed by Holoveshka (Wolf Goldfaden), a renegade Jew and the town's lone policeman, who demands a share on the ground that all treasures found belong to the Government. Both claims are reluctantly granted. A woman forces her way into the house and claims the found gold coin as her own, but is treated as a lunatic and thrown out. The weight of all present is now brought to bear upon Levi to get him to consent to the match between his daughter and Iddel. In the hope that the treasure would make it possible to save the cemetery, and seeing in it the hand of God, Levi yields to their pleas, and the betrothal takes place right there and then. At this point the door is flung open and there enters Benny Ben (Lazar Freed), Levi's young and wealthy nephew from America, come to visit his native town and also to find a suitable bride, as he stated in a letter received that very day. At the sight of her handsome and dashing cousin, Esther falls into a faint.



Though this is only his second day in town, Benny is already smitten with Esther, as she is with hi, to the great annoyance of Iddel Torba, Esther's betrothed. Also, Benny's lavish gifts to all and sundry give rise to a rumor that he found a treasure in America, which he is too amused to deny.

While he and his uncle Levi are engaged in a conversation about America, Elka (Anna Appel), the woman who was thrown out as a lunatic the day before, enters and insists on telling her story which the mob did not permit her to tell yesterday.

She is the window of a goldsmith who used to buy and melt gold coins, and who upon his death bequeathed to her one of them, which together with her other money she kept in her stocking. The other day she visited her husband's grave -- this being the time of the year when people do so -- and had the cantor chant the memorial prayer over her departed spouse.

photo: Wolf Goldfaden, as Holoveska.

In stooping to draw some money from her "bank" in order to pay the cantor, she dropped the gold coin, though she did not discover her loss until the following day; and it is the finding of this coin which has given rise to all the wild rumors about the hidden gold in the cemetery. She now implores Levi to help her recover the gold coin, which represents her whole fortune. Levi accuses her of acting as the tool of Iddel Torba, who would like to throw the community off the scent and so come into sole possession of the hidden gold; but Benny sees in it the true explanation of the madness which has seized the whole town. Accordingly he decides upon a drastic method with which to cure the people of their delusion, -- as well as to break Esther's engagement to Iddel -- and engages Holoveshka and Sholom Shadchan as his accomplices. Of course, he takes Esther into the secret.


Saturday night. Laborers are making excavations near the adjoining tombs of Levi's father and the old rabbi, that being the spot which Iddel says was revealed to him in a dream. The townspeople watch these operations impatiently, while the suspicious steward bobs up every now and then. By a clever ruse Sholom Shadchan and Benny (the latter hidden behind the cemetery fence) lure the people away from the spot. Presently Sholom Shadchan returns, accompanied only by Levi. Suddenly a voice from his father's tomb informs Levi that the secret of the treasure is in the possession of his nephew, who is a saint in disguise, and that he should go home and to bed and wait till his nephew rises the next day, when the latter will reveal the secret to him. Trembling all over, Levi hastens home, whereupon Sholom Shadchan fetches Iddel. The latter is startled to hear a voice from the old rabbi's tomb enjoin him to break his engagement with Esther and to marry his true match, Elka who is a saint in disguise, and who holds the real key to the treasure. When the voice grows still, Sholom summons all the people and repeats to them what the voice from the old rabbi's tomb has said, whereupon the multitude seize Elka and carry the bewildered woman in triumph. They march off to the house of the local rabbi to inform him of the startling developments. 


After Iddel Torba publicly breaks his engagement with Esther, Benny makes known his ruse. The people, and most of all his uncle, are indignant at thus having been made fools of, and when Esther comes to his defense Levi orders her and his nephew out of the house. Unabashed, Benny proceeds to treat the multitude to a bit of American horse sense; in America, he says, we find treasures not by embarking upon a wild- goose chase, but by engaging in commerce and industry. He mollifies them further by producing a telegram from the local nobleman, wherein the latter assures him he never had intention of selling the site of the old cemetery which his ancestors had given to the Jews, and from which it appears that all this talk of selling the old cemetery was nothing but a scheme on the part of the rapacious steward to extort money from the Jewish community. Finally, Benny wins them over completely by announcing a gift of thirteen hundred gulden to the community.

1 -- Maximilian Hurwitz. Playbill for the Yiddish Art Theatre's production of "The Gold Diggers",  Introductory notes, 1927. Courtesy of YIVO.





Photograph courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York.

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