YIDDISH THEATRE 101 > THE YIDDISH PLAYS > THE PLAY IN HISTORY  >  JACOB GORDIN  >  THE JEWISH KING LEAR                                                 


(Der yidisher kenig lier)
by Jacob Gordin

This famous play was first staged in October-November 1892 in NYC's Union Theatre.
The synopsis below is from a benefit performance at the Grand Theatre, April 11, 1904.
The photographs below are of the cast members from the 1904 production.


Jacob P. Adler,
who plays
David Meisheles

Sarah Adler,
who plays Teibele, the daughter of David and Chanale

Samuel Greenberg,
 who plays Moses, a Chasid and son-in-law of David Meisheles

David Levenson, who plays Jaffe,
a teacher


Act 1.

The scene is laid in Wilna, Western Russia, in the house of a very rich merchant, one David Meisheles.

It is the Festival of Purim. David’s wife and trusted servant Shamai are setting the table for the Suda (Purim Dinner). A teacher named Jaffe comes to give a lesson to the youngest daughter Teibele. He was once a Jeshiba-Bachur [yeshiva student] (Talmudic Student); now he is an Epikoros, and attends the Rabbinical Seminary at Wilna. The old mother informs him that it is the Feast of Purim, whereupon her daughter requests that he be invited to the Suda. Her mother consents, on the condition that he refrain from behaving like an unorthodox Epikoros at the table; for she was afraid of the old man, Shamai, who has no liking for the “Educated Epikorsim,” passes humorous remarks. Chanele is awaiting her husband who is soon to arrive. Meanwhile she sends Shamai for her two daughters, their husbands and children. They soon arrive.

The older of the sons-in-law belongs to the sect “Mithagdim,” a cold man, well versed in Talmudic Law, but a calculating egotist. The other is a “Chasid,” of hot temper, unlettered, but with fine impulses, and very enthusiastic. At the table a quarrel soon ensues between the two couples, but they are suddenly checked by the words of Shamai, “Reb David is coming.”

The old man is good-humored, and is pleased to see Jaffe, the Epikoros. He asks him to put on his had and drinks with him “L’Chayem” [sp] to each other’s health).

The old man proceeds to give rich Purim gifts to his two older daughters, who accept them with demonstrations of deep appreciation. To the youngest daughter he gives a diamond brooch valued at 800 rubles. She thanks him with quiet dignity, but adds that she sees no use in such finery. “Men who are fond of diamonds,” says she, “are like savages who are attracted by glittering pieces of glass.” The old man becomes furious, and throws her gift aside impulsively; but when the others start to insult Teibele, he takes her part, saying, “People favored by God and nature have no need for ornaments.”

After the Suda, the old man suddenly announces his intention of retiring from business and departing for Jerusalem immediately after Passover to spend his last days in the study of the Law and the service of God. His wife is astonished at this sudden announcement, and is hurt that he did not take counsel with her, but Reb David declares he need not take counsel with anyone, but at his command she must be ready to depart with him. His fortune of 310,000 rubles he turns over to his children, expressing the hope that they will live together in peace and harmony and continue to be filial to him. He is anxious to hear the opinion of his children concerning this resolution. All thank him, but Teibele predicts that he will regret the step. Her brutal frankness excites the old man, who orders her immediately out of the house.

Jaffe, the teacher, tells David the story of Shakespeare’s “King Lear,” and compares Teibele to Cordelia. He expresses the hope that David’s may not be the fate of Shakespeare’s unfortunate King.

The old man laughs at him with contempt, promises to take his trusted servant Shamai to Palestine with him, and bids all to make merry.


Act II.

The same house.—One year after.

The older son-in-law, Jesel Charef, and his wife, Etelle, are masters of the house. David Meiseles, his wife and Shamai have returned from the Holy Land. He was disappointed with the life of the Jews there. His independent nature revolted against the institution of the Chalukah. The older daughter orders her mother harshly to rock the baby to sleep, and to inspect the linen and the old clothes to see if they need mending. The old mother, with pathetic resignation, rocks the child, weeps and dozes away. Soon David Meisheles comes from the Beth Hamidrash (Synagogue). He is very hungry. No one is thoughtful enough to give him food. His wife declares that everything is under lock and key.

Teibele enters and informs her old father that she intends to go to St. Petersburg to study medicine. He objects to this, for he does not like the idea of her becoming too independent and unlike other Jewish daughters. When she asks for money from Josele, her brother-in-law, he consents to give her twenty-five rubles a month, on condition that she should agree legally to give up her share in the fortune. David Meisheles does not interfere with this arrangement, because, in his opinion, the money is now her own, and she can do with it what she pleases. Moses, the younger son-in-law, comes home drunk from the Synagogue. The Chasid is very much dissatisfied with his brother-in-law, the Mithnagid, because he appropriated the entire fortune to himself, and expresses his protest by frequently getting drunk. He insults the old man with vulgar remarks, and Shamai take him out of the room.

Thereupon Josele turns Teibele out of doors, and the old mother, weeping bitterly, wishes to know the reason for her daughter’s sudden ejectment. Josele, in his anger, drives her into the kitchen. Then David bursts out in rage, and denounces his mean treatment. He shows up the cruelty of his son-in-law, reminding him of the fact that he did not keep the agreement to send him the monthly allowance to Jerusalem, and now humiliates him in his own house. Josele replies, and declares that as master he can do what he chooses.

David’s old energy is once more aroused. He orders that he be addressed standing, as a sign of respect, and demands that the keys to his safe and property be returned to him. Josele is frightened and obeys. Then David calms down and declares that though the Russian laws allow him to reclaim his donated possession, his conscience would not permit him to retract his words.

His drunken son-in-law forces himself again into the room and creates a scandalous disturbance. The old man, overwhelmed by such a scene in his house, where once was a sanctuary, falls into a swoon.


Act III.

The Same house.—Five years later.

Josie declares to his wife that neither Teibele, who has completed her course in medicine at St. Petersburg, nor Moses, the Chasid, can claim any share in the property, as the same had been legally transferred to him by his brother. They go out, leaving Shamai rocking the cradle. He dreams of food and falls asleep. Teibele arrives and informs him that she is already a doctor; that Jaffe, also, has graduated from the medical school, and that he could have risen to the position of Professor in the University, if he had chosen to become a Christian. Shamai tells her how sad is the lot of her father; he has become blind. The mother was soon to bring the old man from the Synagogue. They arrive. The old woman leaves the room to beg some food for her husband. In the meantime, Shamai prepares him for the meeting with his daughter. She falls into his arms, the father and daughter weeping bitterly.

Josele and Ettele enter and express no joy over the arrival of the guest. Teibele indignantly asks why food is not given her father. She breaks open the closet and runs to call Jaffe. Josele sneeringly expresses his surprise that such a learned man as David should make such a fuss about food. He ironically adds that if God wills it no man can die of hunger. Does he not provide for the dogs? They can go without food for three days.


David thinks himself alone in the room. His sad condition provokes an outburst of deepest despondency, and leads him to reason on the evils of the world. He considers himself happy that his blindness protects him from seeing the false faces of men. His happiness would have been complete, if he were deaf, and thus spared from hearing their foul speech. A dog can live without food for three days, but Man, the Thinker, the Philosopher, must eat every seven hours!

The Chasid enters with many Chasidim. They are drunk, sing, and rush to the kitchen to devour all the food in sight. Moses came to assert his authority as master of the house. David Meisheles is ousted from his chair. When he calls for the faithful Shamai, he is ridiculed; when he asks to be taken to the door, he is led to the wall. Teibele and Jaffe enter and ask David to authorize them to protect his interests. They offer to go to the Procuror and the Governor. The old man will hear of nothing. He only calls for his faithful servant, Shamai. Jaffe and Teibele, nevertheless, go to the Procuror. David can no longer endure it, and leaves the house with Shamai to beg. Rather than live the life of shame in his own house, he prefers to die in the streets.

He is bitterly reminded of Jaffe’s early allusion to King Lear, and in despairing mockery calls out: “Give alms to the new beggar! Alms to the Jewish King Lear!”

Shamai leading, they leave the house.

Act IV.

A few months later.

It is the wedding day of Teibele and Jaffe. The joy of the occasion is clouded by the absence of their father, of whose whereabouts they know nothing. Josele and his wife come to the house uninvited. They complain that Josele’s brother is about to appropriate for himself all the property by virtue of the transfer, and ask Jaffe’s aid. Shamai, without telling David, leads him to his children. David does not know where he is. He hears weeping, and asks what the cause is. They reveal the whole truth to him. David forgives all, begs his children to live in peace, and declares that money, and even education, is of little worth. The greatest thing in the world is love; without it there can be no happiness.

Sonia Nadolsky,
who plays
the wife of David

Charles Nathanson,
who plays
Yosele Charef, one of David's

Fannie Greenberg,
who plays Gitele

Efrim Perlmutter,
who plays Shamai, servant to
David Meisheles




Synopsis taken from the theatre program for the Grand Theatre production of April 11, 1904.

Courtesy of the New York Public Library.

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