YIDDISH THEATRE 101 > THE YIDDISH PLAYS > THE PLAY IN HISTORY  >  KIDDUSH HASHEM                                                 

, by Sholem Asch

"Kiddush Hashem" is a historical drama in three acts and seventeen scenes, first performed by Maurice Schwartz's Yiddish Art Theatre troupe on 14 September 1928 at the Yiddish Art Theatre at 114 East 14th Street, near Union Square in New York City.

The stage version was created by and directed by Maurice Schwartz. Its incidental music was composed by Joseph Achron.


photo: From "Kiddush Hashem" by Sholom Asch.
Courtesy of the New York Public Library.

by Maximilian Hurwitz

The present play is a dramatization of Sholom Asch's powerful historical novel of the same name. The novel, which its subtitle describes as "an epic of 1648," deals with one of the most tragic moments in the tragic annals of the Jew, namely, the uprising of the Ukrainian masses, under the leadership of the Cossack hetman Bogdan Chmielnicki (pronounced Chmelnitzki), against their cruel overlords, the Polish feudal nobles and landowners. The latter oppressed their Ukrainian serfs not only materially, but spiritually as well, in an effort to coerce them to forsake the Greek Orthodox Church and join the Church of Rome, which was also the official Church of the Polish kingdom. With this in view, the Greek Orthodox churches were kept under lock and key, and when the Ukrainians wished to worship in them, they had to pay a special tax before the doors were opened for them. And the Jews, who then constituted the only middle class in Poland, and who supported themselves largely by farming or leasing villages and estates from the nobility and gentry, were forced to act as the agents of the Polish feudal lords even in the matter of collecting the church tax from the Ukrainians, thereby drawing upon themselves the odium of the oppressed that justly rested upon the Poles. As a result, when the Ukrainians under Chmielnicki, aided by the Tatar forces of the Khan of Crimea, took up arms against Poland, the Jews, as usual, were the chief victims, and in the course of the decade (1648-1658) that the insurrection lasted, from three hundred thousand to half a million Jews are said to have perished. In more than one instance the Jews, though unskilled in the arts of war, put up a heroic resistance and fought like lions at bay; but the superior numbers of the foe, aided and abetted by treachery on the part of the Poles such as is described in the present play, resulted in their defeat at the hands of Chmielnicki's hordes, who thereupon slaughtered old and young and committed other deeds of horror and shame. It is of these atrocities that a Jewish chronicle of those days says: "We are ashamed to write down all that the Cossacks and Tatars did unto the Jews, lest we disgrace the species man who is created in the image of God."

Kiddush Hashem is a Hebrew phrase meaning, literally, the sanctification of the Holy Name, but is commonly employed to signify martyrdom borne for the sake of the Jewish religion. Though Judaism, as is nicely brought out in the play, frowns upon all heroics and needless exposure to danger, it regards dying for kiddush hashem as the holiest act a Jew is capable of.

This Yiddish Art Theatre troupe members who were included in the cast of "Kiddush Hashem" are as follows:

Miriam Elias, Louis Weisberg, Yechiel Goldsmith, Hirsh Seidman, Joseph Greenberg, Liza Silbert, Maurice Schwartz, Bina Abramowitz, Ben Zvi Baratoff, Dorothy Baron, Edis Phillips, Daisy De Meyer, Abraham Boretsky, Michael Rosenberg, Victor Pecker, Gershon Rubin, N. B. Samuiloff, Lazar Freed, Morris Strassberg, Morris Silberkasten, Boris Weiner, Sonia Gurskaya, Rose Ellenberg, Celia Adler, Isaak (Isa) Greenberg, Abraham Kubansky, G. Michael, Ben Zion Katz, Anna Teitelbaum, Elisha Mintz, S. Gladstein, I. Roug(h)berg, W. Boris, S. Weinstein, Max Rosenthal, Jeanette Semel, Pincus Sherman, Anatole Winogradoff, Michael Gibson, M. Lerer and M. Mayer. The Jewish Band--Sholem Aleichem Ensemble: P. Feigin, G. Schwiler, M. Gelbard, B. Zwilling, H. Rothperl, M. Poznansky.

The action of the play takes place in the Ukraine on the eve of, and during the great Cossack uprising in 1648 under the leadership of Bogdan Cznielnitzki.


photo: Mass scene from "Kiddush Hashem", 1928.
Courtesy of the New York Public Library.

Here is the rest of the synopsis for Asch's "Kiddush Hashem". The name of the actor or actress who portrayed a particular role is indicated in parentheses:



Scene 1: Mendel (Jechiel Goldsmith), a devout Jew with the courage and enterprise of a true pioneer and town builder, lives with his wife Yocheved (Bina Abramowitz) and their only child Shlomele (Hirsh Seidman), a boy of eight, in the Ukrainian town of Zlochov, which he has leased from the Polish feudal lord Pan Konitz-Polski (Ben Zvi Baratoff), at the instigation of the Catholic clergy, refuses to permit. They lead a quite and peaceful life, marred only by the lack of a Jewish community and atmosphere, and also by the inescapable presence of the drunken local Greek Orthodox priest Stephan Kvaktov (Louis Weisberg), who keeps on asking for drinks with which to silence the "devil" within him, and who obtains free liquor from Mendel partly by cajolery and partly by threats which give the first intimation of the storm brewing among the oppressed Ukrainian masses. Thus they hold this distant outpost of Judaism in the midst of an alien world, aided, strange to say, by their faithful Cossack servant maid Marusha (Liza Silbert), who, having been so long in their household, has learned the Jewish rites and prayers and teaches them to little Shlomele. Mendel, too, as behooves a dutiful Jew, makes a brave attempt to instruct his son in the Pentateuch, although he knows it hardly more than his pupil. But so solitary is their life that they sometimes forget the count of days and do not know when to observe the Sabbath. As the play begins, they are in the midst of such a perplexity. In the nick of time, however, there arrives a strolling Jewish tailor (Maurice Schwartz) -- a mysterious being, whose part in the present play is even more important than that of the Messenger in "The Dybbuk," and who typifies the Jewish conception of saintliness, kindliness, self-effacing humility, undying faith and optimism, and passive though none the less heroic resistance -- who at once solves the calendar problem for Mendel and his wife, cheers them with tidings from other Jewish communities, and prophesies that before long Zlochov will have a Jewish community and synagogue, with Mendel as its lay head or Parnas.

Scene 2: A fete at the castle of Pan Konitz-Polski, celebrated with the abandon, drunken orgies, and barbaric splendor of a Polish feudal lord. Mendel and Shlomele entertain the guests with a song. Pleased with their singing, Pan Konitz-Polski offers to grant Mendel any favor he may ask, whereupon the latter begs for permission only for a synagogue, and that too, provided Mendel with either recite the prayer to the Holy Virgin, or else play the bear. Mendel chooses the latter, whereupon he is wrapped in a bearskin and made to dance on all fours, while two servants lash him mercilessly with whips, to the huge delight of the Polish ladies and gentlemen present. But in his ecstasy Mendel forgets the agony of his bruised body and runs home crying joyfully, "A synagogue! A synagogue! With God's aid, there will be a cemetery, too!"

Scene 3: The news that Zlochov was to have a synagogue spread like wildfire among the Jews of Poland, and Jews from everywhere, including refugees from Posen and even Germany (then in the throes of [the] Thirty Years' War), flocked to Zlochow. Thus, in the two years that have elapsed since the events of the previous scene, a large Jewish community has sprung up in Zlochov, and under the leadership of the indefatigable Mendel, now Parnas of the congregation, a synagogue has been erected, and is about to be dedicated. Mendel has also lured away a famous rabbi, known by his pen name "Sha'ar Tzedek," (Morris Silberkasten) from a neighboring town to become the spiritual head of Zlochov's Jewry. A match has been arranged between Shlomele and the eleven-year-old Deborah (Rose Ellenberg), only child of the Sha'ar Tzedek, the marriage of minors being held to be a sure way to hasten the coming of the Messiah. Both the marriage and the dedication of the new house of worship are to be celebrated simultaneously this evening at the synagogue, and Jewish notables from far and wide have come to witness the double celebration. Among them is Reb Zechariah (M. B. Samuiloff), the haughty Parnas of Chihirin, who we learn has just caused the imprisonment of a certain Cossack, Bogdan Chmielnicki, because the later had spoken threateningly against the Polish overlords of the Ukraine. Present also is the Little Tailor, who rebukes Reb Zechariah for his overbearing and condescending ways toward the humble Parnas of Zlochov. The bewildered Shlomele is brought in and the marriage contract is drawn up. The arrival of the Polno preacher (Miriam Elias) dampens somewhat the spirits of the wedding guests at Mendel's house, but their spirits revive when the Little Tailor summons them to participate in the afternoon service.

Scene 4: While all this was going on at Mendel's house, Leah the bath attendant was busy at the rabbi's house clipping the beautiful curls on little Deborah's head, for a dutiful Jewish married woman must not wear her own hair. The little girl does not want to have her hair cut off, but her mother wins her over with some cherries.

Scene 5: At the synagogue. The Polno preacher delivers the principal address at the dedication exercises, an address full of exhortations to repentance and dark forebodings. Next a Jewish refugee tells of the martyrdom borne by the Jews of his community, from which he alone has managed to escape with the Scroll of the Law he is now holding, and he calls upon the congregation to honor the memory of those who died for kiddush hashem, whereupon the cantor chants the memorial prayer for the dead while the worshippers weep and wail. Then they proceed to the marriage ceremony. The little bridegroom is led in, but at the sight of his snickering boy companions, he breaks away from his escort and hides in the women's gallery, from which he is brought back by The Little Tailor. The little bride is thereupon escorted to the marriage canopy, where she and her spouse-elect make faces at each other and fight. Peace is finally established between the two by means of a cookie, and the nuptials are solemnized.


Scene 1: Little Shlomele and Deborah, now man and wife, are discovered fighting, as usual, but Marusha succeeds in making peace between them. A young Ukrainian serf comes in with an infant and begs Mendel to unlock the door to the Greek Orthodox church and allow the baby to be baptized, even though the father of the infant is unable to pay the church tax. Mendel yields to the father's pleas, although he knows that if this gets to be known, he, Mendel, will be flogged for it. The guzzling priest refuses to officiate at the baptismal ceremony unless Mendel supplies a bottle of wine, which the Jew does. Mendel now gets ready to start out on a long journey to Lublin, where Shlomele is to be placed in a rabbinical academy, and where he is to remain until he is ordained a rabbi. Deborah threatens to go back to her parents if Shlomele goes away, but consents to remain with Shlomele's parents when Shlomele promises upon his return to bring her a pair of golden slippers and a gold chain. Mendel takes along Hayim (Gershon Rubin), the watchman, to guard him and his son on the way, but the Little Tailor, who journeys the same way, tells him that the Keeper of Israel is a better protection.

Scene 2: Six years later. Bogdan Chmielnicki has escaped from prison, and his friends have smuggled him into the attic at Mendel's house, while Mendel is away from home, having gone to Lublin to bring back his son. Yocheved and Marusha do not even suspect who is hiding in the attic, and that plans are being laid there for an insurrection against the Polish overlords of the Ukraine. Stepan Kratkov, the guzzling priest, does his bit for the cause by sending a comely Cossack wench to help Chmielnicki while away the time.

Scene 3: Some time afterwards. A number of Jewish merchants and public men are gathered at a wayside inn, where they eat, drink and make merry. For the insurrection which has now broken out in the Ukraine is regarded by them as the war between Gog and Magog which, according to the ancient Jewish tradition, is to be the harbinger of the immediate coming of the Messiah. They also cite a verse from the Bible in support of their belief that the Redemption will take place this year, the year 1648. (Curiously, many Christians, among them the Fifth Monarchy of England, likewise fixed upon 1648 as the Messianic year.) Mendel and his son, now an ordained rabbi, arrive. On learning of the Ukrainian uprising, Mendel expresses his concern over the fate of Zlochov, but the others ridicule his anxiety at a time when the deliverance of Israel was at hand. And when the Polno preacher enters the inn and attempts to prove their Messianic hopes groundless, the ubiquitous Little Tailor rebukes him for trying to mar the joy of Jews, among whom joyful moments are so rare.

Scene 4: The victorious advance of Chmielnicki's hordes have made Pan Konitz-Polski sleepless and cause him to see an enemy in every one. He sends for Reb Zechariah, the Parnas of Chihirin, and asks him whether it is true that Chmielnicki hid at one time in the attic of Mendel's house and, if so, whether the Jews are supporting the rebel leader. And now the proud Reb Zechariah, who has never bended the knee before his Polish liege, and who had once been so condescending to the humble Mendel, prostrates himself to the ground before the nobleman and defends Mendel, vouching for his innocence. While the two are talking, word comes that Chmielnicki is nearing the town of Nemirov.

Scene 5: Jocheved and Marusha are preparing the bridal chamber for Shlomele (Joseph Greenberg) and Deborah (Celia Adler). The latter has also been away, having lived all these years with her parents. Mendel and his son arrive from Lublin. They are soon followed by Deborah, now in the full bloom of her beautiful young womanhood. Thereupon the others discreetly retire, leaving the young couple alone. Follows a scene of rare beauty. Deborah, overawed by the learning and fame of her now grown-up child husband, shyly asks whether he has kept the promise he made her when they parted. Shlomele, ravished by the beauty of his now mature child-wife, hands her the golden slippers. And for the first time since their marriage seven years before, the two become conscious of, and chastely express, their love for each other.

Scene 6: The first day of Pentecost, 1648. The Jews of Zlochov are assembled at the synagogue for the morning service, at which the newly returned Shlomele officiates. They are interrupted by the arrival of two Jews (S. Gladsetin and I. Roughberg) from the neighboring town of Karsoon, putting the entire Jewish population to the sword. The messengers alone have escaped alive and come to Zlochov to urge the Jews to flee for their lives, while there is still time. Mendel, seeing his lifework in danger of destruction, is opposed to flight and urges the Jews to remain in town and defend themselves and their possessions. A few of the stronger men of the community rally around the Parnas, but Sha'ar Tzedek, the local rabbi, counsels flight, it being a sin to incur needless risk and resistance being suicidal. When the congregation still hesitates between these two contrary counsels, the rabbi seizes two Scrolls of the Law from the Ark and begins to march toward the door, at the same time crying, "Fellow Jews, save the holy Scrolls." Thereupon all leave except Mendel and his family. Marusha rushes in and implores her master to save himself and his family, but Mendel still refuses to leave. Thereupon The Little Tailor sets the synagogue on fire, saying that human lives are more precious than sticks and stones, and that God wants us to save our strength for a worthier and higher purpose.


Scene 1: The second day of Pentecost. The Jews of Zlochov and neighboring points have taken shelter in a fortress which, together with a few hundred Polish soldiers under Pan Kashnitzki (S. Weinstein), they valiantly defend against the besieging Cossacks. Many of them are dressed in their funeral shrouds, ready for death, yet fighting unto the very end. Marusha is admitted into the fortress and implores her master once more to save himself and to let her save Deborah by disguising her as an old Cossack woman. Again Mendel hesitates, when suddenly The Little Tailor, dressed like an old Cossack musician, crops up and urges the Jews to save themselves by crossing the river while there is still time. Thereupon Marusha dresses Deborah in a Cossack costume, and the two leave after a touching farewell scene between Shlomele and Deborah. Before many of the others have a chance to escape, a Cossack, disguised as a Polish herald, approaches the ramparts, announces that a Polish army has come to the relief of the beleaguered city and asks that the gate be opened. The Jews hesitate, but the Polish commander, who is in collusion with the enemy, orders the Jews to open the gate and himself rides out to meet the supposed army of relief. Suddenly the war cries of Cossacks are heard. The Jews, realizing they have been deceived, shut the gate and heroically resist the assault of the enemy.

Scene 2: After four weeks of futile assaults upon the city of Tulcin, where the Jews together with some Polish troops are now entrenched, Chmielnicki resorts to a stratagem. He sends a letter to the Polish commander-in-chief, Marshall Dominick, declaring that it is not the Poles, but the Jews he is fighting, and that he will make peace with, and acknowledge the authority of the Poles, of they will disarm the Jewish defenders in Tulcin, take away all their money and jewels, and open the gates of the city to the Cossacks, who would allow the Poles to depart in peace. The letter is dispatched by a courier. Presently a Cossack brings in a Jewish captive, Shlomele. He does not know whether to kill or spare his prisoners. The mysterious Little Tailor, disguised as an old Cossack beggar, bobs up and advises the Cossack to sell Shlomele to Chmielnicki's ally, Murad Khan, who is sure to collect a large ransom for him from the Jews of Turkey, while the courier returns with a message from Dominick, summoning Chmielnicki to a peace parley. Shortly after Shlomele is carried off to the camp of Murad Khan, two Cossacks, Yerem (Anatole Winagradoff) and his uncle Krilko (Michael Gibson), bring in another Jewish prisoner. This time it is Deborah, who is still accompanied by the faithful Marusha. They cast dice for the possession of the beautiful Jewess and Krilko wins. Thereupon Deborah flees to the kindlier Yerem for protection and cries out that Krilko has cheated. The two men draw their knives and Yerem kills his uncle.

Scene 3: The Polish commanders at Tulchin, Duke Tchwerchinski (M. Lerer) and Pan Konitz-Polski, not realizing that they are also marked for slaughter at the hands of the wily Chmielnicki, play into the hands of the latter. They tell the Jews a plausible story to induce them to part with their money and other valuables. But when they also ask them to give up their arms, the Jews, led by Mendel, suspect foul play and threaten to kill their betrayers. Suddenly The Little Tailor appears again. He reminds them that if they will slay the Poles, other Jews will suffer for it tenfold, and urges them to have their strength for the supreme ordeal: death for kiddush hashem. The Jews are transformed and transfigured by his words, permit the Poles to disarm them and to pen the gates to the enemy, and with sublime faith and almost joyously go forth to meet a martyr's death.

Scene 4:  Deborah is a prisoner at Yerem's cottage, but the love-smitted young Cossack is more her captive than she his. He has promised not to molest her until her period of mourning for her loved ones has passed. When she renews her promise to marry him at the expiration of her days of mourning, he presents her with a pair of golden slippers which he bought from a Cossack who had carried them away from the doomed city of Tulcin. Deborah recognizes them as those Shlomele had brought her from Lublin. Taking this to mean that her husband has perished, she is ready to meet him in heaven. She becomes transfigured with a supernal radiance. Yerem, thinking her the Holy Virgin come to earth, cries out to his friends, "God is here in my garden." His friends, who have been jeering him for his thraldom to the Jewish maiden, demand a miracle as proof of her divinity. Deborah persuades Yerem to fire his gun at her, assuring him it cannot harm her. He does so, and she falls dead. "The cheat!" cry Yerem's friends. The Little Tailor now appears with what looks like a peddler's bag and sings a song the burden of which is that he has a rare commodity for sale -- Faith.

Some excerpts of reviews of "Kiddush Hashem":

From the New York Times:

"Nothing on Broadway this season approaches the grandiose conception of Sholom Asch's epic drama."

From the New York Herald Tribune:

"Beautiful and impressive as anything that has appeared in the theatre."

From the New York American:

"The most exquisite thing I have ever seen. No word description can do this astounding spectacle justice. It is more than a play, it is a miracle on one should miss seeing regardless of creed, race or nationality."

From John Mason Brown in Theatre Arts Monthly:

"The Yiddish Art Theatre is one of the few playhouses in New York that has shown a steady humility in its approach to the theatre. It has been untiring and patient in its work. And it has been directed by Maurice Schwartz, one of the few really creative directors that this country knows."

From Donald Mulhern in the Brooklyn Standard Union:

"Here is the case where the power of the theatre surpasses syllables. This splendid repertoire company, which blazed with the genius of acting down in Fourteenth Street, is like the great Italian, Grasso, like the great Russians of the Moscow Art Theatre, in that it transcends linguistic limits and gets its idea over.... The Yiddish Art group is supplying theatre that is worth anyone's evening... masterly production."

From Prof. N. Bryllion Fagan in the Jewish Daily Forward:

"The production of 'Kiddush Hashem' is a laudable and ambitious undertaking. The scene of the old Jews surrendering their arms and chanting their praise of the Lord at the moment of death is worthy of a Reinhardt. The synagogue scenes have a reverent magnificence, a religious poetry. The producers deserve commendation for their broadness of gesture."

From Variety:

"'Kiddush Hashem' is successful both as art and box office because of its tremendous appeal to the Jews. Schwartz had, in this story, a strong framework among which to display his wares and he has done so with precision, power and never-lagging dramatic force."


Settings by S. Ostrowsky; Painted by A. Chertov; Dances by Charles Adler. Executive Staff: Joseph M. Grossman and Leon Hofman, Managers; May Strassberg, Treasurer; Arthur Kober, Press Representative; Alex Chertov, Scenic Artist. Stage Staff: Joseph Schwartzberg, Librarian; Ben-Zion Katz, Stage Manager. Technical Staff: Herman Grossman, Master Carpenter; David Gold, Master Electrician; George Nemser, Master Properties; I. Misbin, Superintendent. 

1 -- From the program for the Yiddish Art Theatre's production of "Kiddush Hashem", 1928. Courtesy of the New York City Library.





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

Copyright Museum of the Yiddish Theatre.  All rights reserved.