Author Spotlight: Beth Kaplan

Book: Finding the Jewish Shakespeare: The Life and Legacy of Jacob Gordin

“The book explores the life, times and legacy of the extraordinary playwright and activist Jacob Gordin. Gordin, born in Ukraine in 1953, was a newspaper editor and leader of a utopian community before fleeing to New York in 1891, at the age of 38. Only weeks after his arrival, he began for the first time to write for the theatre and in Yiddish. To the benefit of his greatest collaborator Jacob Adler and other actors of titanic talent, he created 70 or 80 plays and musicals, as well as writing countless short stories, lecturing and founding schools and dramatic societies. By 1900, his plays were being performed around the world, and he had become one of the two most revered men on the Lower East Side. Unfortunately, the other was Abraham Cahan, editor of the “Jewish Daily Forward” and Gordin’s bitter enemy. Cahan launched a vicious vendetta against the playwright in 1908, as Gordin succumbed to cancer. He died a year later, at the age of 56.

Jacob Gordin was the father of 11 children, the eighth of whom, Nadia or Nettie, was my grandmother.”

What motivated you to start writing Finding the Jewish Shakespeare?

“I grew up with a mystery: every summer, when we went from Halifax to New York to visit my father’s family, my grandmother Nettie would speak adoringly of her father. She showed me the Encyclopedia Judaica,whichreported that a quarter of a million people flooded the streets on the day of Gordin’s funeral, to watch his cortege go by.

And yet her first-born son, my scientist father whose name was Jacob Gordin Kaplan, spoke of his grandfather with scorn, and so did his younger brother, Edgar Kaplan, a world bridge champion. I could not understand why these two brilliant men were so disparaging about their famous and beloved ancestor. When I began to look into Gordin’s life, I discovered that though there were chapters dedicated to his fascinating life in books about the era, there was no full-scale biography. I decided to write one, and in so doing, to solve the mystery of my father’s disparagement.”

What was your intended audience for this book?

“Of course, scholars interested in the Yiddish language and Yiddish culture and theatre, and Jewish scholars generally. But also anyone interested in family history and American history, in theatre generally, in history generally. Anyone interested in an enthralling life.”

 What do you find most appealing about this book?

“I have to say, the production of the book is stellar; Syracuse University Press did a fantastic job, and the physical object is a thing of beauty. As for what’s inside – well, I hope that the power of the story transports readers to a remarkable time and place, and I hope to have resurrected a monumental man who had been consigned to oblivion. I think there is humour and fluidity in the writing; several of the reviews say the work is “elegant,” which has a nice ring. And, as well as the biographical focus of the book, there is also what I hope is the compelling personal story of my and my family’s connection to the man.”

What do you hope the audience will take out of reading your book?

“I hope they get a taste of the extraordinary early years of the last century, as Eastern European Jews, most of them penniless, flooded into America and within a few years achieved spectacular success. In the middle of that flood was my great-grandfather, a flawed but magnificent man and playwright, a beacon to his people. This was a thrilling era in all ways, but particularly in the Yiddish theatre, which became the vital heart of the Lower East Side. The actors and writers were giant personalities of immense talent and ambition, not just to make good in America, but to create lasting art, and, in my great-grandfather’s case, to change the world.

And in his way, as I hope is clear by the end of the book, he did.”

The paperback edition of Finding the Jewish Shakespeare waspublished thismonth. To learn more about Beth Kaplan, you may visit her website at www.bethkaplan.ca.

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