The Weekly Reader: Shakespeare & Yiddish

Yiddish translations of Shakespeare’s plays were notoriously labeled “fartaytsht un farbesert”—“translated and improved.” As Yiddish theater scholar Alyssa Quint has argued, “improved” in this context really meant “made worse”—that is, made more palatable to Yiddish theatergoing audiences, who wanted melodramatic and potentially salacious entertainment, not serious arthouse drama. But whether improved, made worse, or rendered with absolute fidelity, Yiddish actors and playwrights loved Shakespeare. The 1892 production of Jacob Gordin’s The Yiddish King Lear is credited as the start of the great era of Yiddish theater in New York City, and it was followed by Yiddish productions of HamletOthelloRomeo and Juliet, and The Merchant of Venice, whose title character, Shylock, was played by Jacob Adler on Broadway to great acclaim. Starting on March 9 literary scholar Ilan Stavans will be delivering a four-part course over Zoom on Yiddish and Shakespeare, but if you want to be ahead of the class from day one, read on.

—Ezra Glinter

Stavans on Shakespeare (Part 1)

Yiddish Translation of Shakespeare's sonnets.

It’s one thing to get ahead of the class by reading up ahead of time; the real pros find out what the professor has already said on the subject. As it turns out, this won’t be the first time Stavans has lectured at the Yiddish Book Center on the subject of Yiddish and Shakespeare. In this talk from 2022 you can listen to Stavans explain the ways in which Shakespeare became a litmus test for Yiddish actors, playwrights, and translators, who infused him with a Jewish sensibility often defined by melodrama.


Watch a lecture by Ilan Stavans

Between Covers

Shakespeare in Yiddish text with ornate design


Shakespeare wasn’t just performed in Yiddish; his plays were also translated and published for anyone to read. As on the stage, perennial favorites were The Merchant of Venice (Der koyfman fun venedig) and King Lear (Kenig lir), which were translated multiple times, but many of Shakespeare’s other plays, as well as his sonnets, were also published in Yiddish translation. Thanks to the Steven Spielberg Digital Yiddish Library, you too can read Shakespeare in Yiddish. Is it as good as the original? Maybe better?


Read the selected works of William Shakespeare in Yiddish translation

The Translator

Woman with short hair and purple glasses sits in front of bookcases, wearing purple shirt

If you clicked the previous link, you might have noticed the name of the translator: D. M. Hermalin. Dovid Moyshe Hermalin was a Romanian-born writer and translator who immigrated to America in 1885, where he had a long career as a journalist and newspaper editor. He is best remembered, however, for his translations (and, if we’re being honest, adaptations) of world literature, as well as for his own popular fiction. In this oral history interview, Israeli Yiddish teacher Hanna Palmon, whose father was Hermalin’s cousin, talks about how her relative’s translations weren’t just about making money but were also for the sake of educating newly arrived Jewish immigrants.


Watch an oral history interview with Hanna Palmon

Eager Readers

Two Yiddish books, one brown and one green, side-by-side
Left–Right: Afn mayrev-front keyn nayes (All Quiet on the Western Front), Dos bukh fun dzhongl (The Jungle Book)

Shakespeare was far from the only literary classic that got translated into, or performed in, Yiddish. The tastes of Yiddish readers were international and eclectic, and they included works ranging from the Bhagavad-Gita to the novels of Jules Verne. This aspect of Yiddish culture is often overlooked—after all, unlike Yiddish originals, Yiddish translations don’t get translated back into their original languages (though that might be an interesting literary experiment), and there are few people today who would prefer to read a novel in Yiddish. But the history of Yiddish translation is fascinating, and it tells us volumes about the relationship between Yiddish-speaking readers and the larger cultures of which they were a part. Here you can read about Yiddish translation in our Unquiet Pages online exhibit; you’ll also be able to learn about the subject in our new, currently under construction core exhibition (not to mention a whole section on Yiddish theater), so stay tuned for that!

Read about translation into Yiddish

The Jewish Shakespeare

Bearded man wearing coat rests his chin on his hand

Shakespeare was translated into Yiddish, which is great. But did Jews have their own Shakespeare, or someone who could even come close to claiming that title? Well, some might say it was Jacob Gordin, the late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century playwright (and Shakespeare adapter) who tried to raise the standards of a Yiddish theater that was based more on popular tastes than artistic excellence. That, anyway, is the contention of author, actress, and educator Beth Kaplan, Gordin’s great-granddaughter and author of Finding the Jewish Shakespeare: The Life and Legacy of Jacob Gordin.


Listen to an interview with Beth Kaplan on The Shmooze podcast

A Critic’s Education

Harold Bloom2.png

Harold Bloom was one of the best known, most controversial, and certainly one of the most prolific literary critics of the twentieth century. Given his vast oeuvre it’s probably easier to describe what he didn’t write about rather than what he did, but he certainly wrote about Shakespeare. In his 1998 book Shakespeare: Invention of the Human, Bloom analyzed every one of the Bard’s thirty-eight plays for the benefit of the general reader. In 2019, shortly before his death, Bloom was interviewed by Christa Whitney for the Center’s Wexler Oral History Project, and he offered a somewhat astounding revelation: The first Shakespeare plays he ever saw were in Yiddish.

Watch an oral history interview with Harold Bloom