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MENDEL SPIVACK1, by Semion Yushkevich

(Yiddish: Mendel spivak)

“The present play adds a brief but infinitely moving chapter to the short and simple annals of the poor," of the insulted and injured, of the downtrodden and sorrow-laden. It relates an episode from the life of Mendel Spivack, a humble watchman, who is a cross between a medieval saint and 'Bontze the Silent' (the hero of a famous story by I. L. Peretz), into Mendel's bleak and frustrated life there enters a ray of sunshine in the shape of a son with which his wife presents him in the eleventh year of their married life, -- their first child. The arrival of his first-born fills Mendel not only with joy, but with a sense of importance, making him feel as though he were the central figure of an unusual drama. But his happiness is short-lived, for the child, whose delivery necessitated a Caesarian operation, dies in its seventh day -- that is, on the eve of what to  

Mendel was to be the climax of the drama, namely, the rite of circumcision. Out of such simple material the author fashions a powerful play which attains to the very depths of pathos, pity, and tenderness, while avoiding the pitfalls of sentimentality. The play contains a number of skillfully, delineated characters, and there is many a humorous touch to relieve the general atmosphere of misery and gloom. Semion Yushkevich, the author of 'Mendel Spivack,' is an outstanding figure in contemporary Russian letters. He has written numerous novels, short stories, and plays, one of which, entitled 'Miserere,' was produced by the Moscow Art Theatre. A Yiddish version of his comedy 'The Luftmensch' was staged last year by the Yiddish Art Theatre. He now resides in Paris."1


photo: Bernard Geiling, as Moishele, a fiddler, in "Mendel Spivack"

"Mendel Spivack" is a play in three acts, which opened on 23 December 1926 at the Yiddish Art Theatre on 12th Street and Second Avenue, NYC. This was the ninth season for the Yiddish Art Theatre troupe, and their second production of the season. The play was translated from the Russian by Lazar Freed and was directed by Maurice Schwartz; Settings by Alexander Chertoff; Louis N. Jaffe, Lessor: Anbord Theatre Corp., Lessee.

The cast members were (in alphabetical order): Bina Abramowitz, Celia Adler, Anna Appel, Miriam Bobrov, Joseph Buloff, Izidore Casher, Bernard Gailing, Berta Gerstin, Mrs. Goldberg, Wolf Goldfaden, Ruth Goldstein, M. Greenberg, Luba Kadison, Abraham Kubansky, Minnie Paulinger, Sonia Radina, Michael Rosenberg, Leah Rosenzweig, Maurice Schwartz, Pincus Sherman, Anna Teitelbaum and Boris Weiner.

So, here is the synopsis of Yushkevich's "Mendel Spivack". The name of the actor who portrayed a particular role is in parentheses):



Zivyah (Anna Appel), Mendel's only sister, and her children are starving because her husband David Mayer (Izidore Casher), a tailor by trade, is out of work. Shloimka, a crippled cobbler (Joseph Buloff) comes in and begs Zivyah to hide him from his wife. Mani Gittel (Anna Teitelbaum), who would have him stick all day to his last, while he prefers to steal away every now and then to his friend Moishela (Bernard Gailing), a fiddler, whose playing makes him think he is a doctor instead of a mere cobbler. He is soon overtaken by his pursuing spouse, who cajoles him into returning to work. Yankela (Lea Rosenzweig), one of Zivyah's children, cries for a morsel of bread, and Mani Gittel goes to collect some money from her husband's customers in order to lend it to Zivyah. David Mayer, blunt, gruff, but kindly withal, returns home in bad humor because of his failure to find a job. He urges Zivyah to go to her mother Miriam (Sonya Radina) for a few pennies with which to buy bread, but she refuses, having already borrowed eight rubles from her mother during the last few weeks. She proposes that he apply to some charity institution for aid, but he indignantly declines. At this moment Mendel (Maurice Schwartz) enters and announces that his wife Hannah'la (Celia Adler), after ten years of childlessness, has given birth to a child. His joy strikes no responsive chord in David Mayer and Zivyah. He soon learns that they are starving, and though himself unemployed these six months, he gives them all the loose change he has. Thereupon they grow friendly but soon fly into a rage on hearing that Miriam has given Mendel four rubles with which to prepare for the festivities attendant upon the forthcoming circumcision of his newborn son. Mendel allays the storm by letting them have half of his mother's money, and now they listen good-naturedly as he prattles on about his plans for the child's future, The news of the birth of a son to Mendel travels rapidly, and soon all the neighbors rush in to congratulate the happy father.


At Mendel's home, the same day. Anna (Mrs. Goldberg), the midwife, considers her work done and prepares to leave. Hannah'la's aunt Nehamah (Bina Abramowitz) -- a coarse, superstitious, loquacious, but kindly old soul arrives in the company of a young girl named Peshka (Berta Gerstin). Nehamah is sure the baby's illness is due to an "evil eye" and proceeds to pronounce a prayer calculated to ward off the spell. Mendel enters, followed by a poor man he has picked up in the street. He gives the latter something to eat, and only the protests of his wife and his aunt prevent him from giving him also longing for the night. Hannah'la is distressed, while Nehamah is positively furious, on hearing that Mendel has given his sister two rubles, but his good nature and childlike simplicity silence their protests. Presently a number of relatives and friends, including Moishela, come in to congratulate Mendel and Hannah'la. Moishela strikes up a merry tune and all dance.


Eve of that great day when every Jewish man-child is made a party to Abraham's covenant with the Lord. In accordance with an immemorial custom among the Jews of Eastern Europe, friends gather on that eve at the home of the newly born to keep watch over it; also for a good time. Aunt Nehamah, far from being ably assisted by the clumsy Peshka, is busy setting Mendel's house in order and preparing refreshments, upon which Peshka makes frequent raids. Mendel comes in with some fruit he has purchased for the party and is glad to hear that his wife is asleep, the baby's growing illness having kept her awake all night. Zivyah and Miriam rush in all excited and out of breath. They report they have just called on Mr. Flax (Wolf Goldfaden), the superintendent of the hospital where Mendel used to be employed as watchman, and informed him of the latter's plight, The superintendent, it seems, was not even aware that Mendel had been discharged and was shocked to hear it. And now he and his wife are coming to Mendel to question him about the matter and also to congratulate him on the birth of a son. The prospect of entertaining such distinguished guests sets them all aflutter, and their preparations to give them a fitting reception are quite amusing. Nehamah now packs Hannah'la and the baby off to the kitchen, for she has heard that Mrs. Flax (Miriam Bobroff) possesses an "evil eye." Relatives and friends arrive, and are presently followed by Mr. and Mrs. Flax. Mr. Flax not only reinstates Mendel in his old position at the hospital, but declares that he is going to punish the minor official responsible for Mendel's dismissal, but the latter begs him not to. Mr. and Mrs. Flax leave, and the overjoyed Mendel rushes off to the hospital with a note from the superintendent ordering his reinstatement. The guests, now augmented by the arrival of some young folks, ask Moishela to play so they can dance, and the fiddler who once dreamt of becoming a stage artist, and who now tries to drown his disappointment in drink, is ready to oblige. Hannah'la implores them to be quiet, as the baby is getting worse every minute, but youth insists on having its fling. The music and dancing suddenly cease when the frantic mother screams that the baby is dying. Zivyah runs for Mendel. When the latter returns home, the child is already dead. For once in his life, the gentle, serene, and infinitely patient man rebels against his fate and accuses Heaven of playing a joke on him. But the note of rebellion soon gives way to one of helpless sorrow and the heartbroken father voices his grief in words of almost unendurable pathos. 

1 -- Maximilian Hurwitz. Playbill for the Yiddish Art Theatre's production of "Mendel Spivack", 1926. Courtesy of YIVO.





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

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