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The Yiddish ‘Hamlet’
by [?]

I

The little poet sat in the East-side cafe looking six feet high. Melchitsedek Pinchas–by dint of a five-pound note from Sir Asher Aaronsberg in acknowledgement of the dedication to him of the poet’s ‘Songs of Zion’–had carried his genius to the great new Jewry across the Atlantic. He had arrived in New York only that very March, and already a crowd of votaries hung upon his lips and paid for all that entered them. Again had the saying been verified that a prophet is nowhere without honour save in his own country. The play that had vainly plucked at the stage-doors of the Yiddish Theatres of Europe had already been accepted by the leading Yiddish theatre of New York. At least there were several Yiddish Theatres, each claiming this supreme position, but the poet felt that the production of his play at Goldwater’s Theatre settled the question among them.

‘It is the greatest play of the generation,’ he told the young socialists and free-thinkers who sat around him this Friday evening imbibing chocolate. ‘It will be translated into every tongue.’ He had passed with a characteristic bound from satisfaction with the Ghetto triumph into cosmopolitan anticipations. ‘See,’ he added, ‘my initials make M.P.–Master Playwright.’

‘Also Mud Pusher,’ murmured from the next table Ostrovsky, the socialist leader, who found himself almost deserted for the new lion. ‘Who is this uncombed bunco-steerer?’

‘He calls himself the “sweet singer in Israel,”‘ contemptuously replied Ostrovsky’s remaining parasite.

‘But look here, Pinchas,’ interposed Benjamin Tuch, another of the displaced demigods, a politician with a delusion that he swayed Presidential elections by his prestige in Brooklyn. ‘You said the other day that your initials made “Messianic Poet.”‘

‘And don’t they?’ inquired the poet, his Dantesque, if dingy, face flushing spiritedly. ‘You call yourself a leader, and you don’t know your A B C!’

There was a laugh, and Benjamin Tuch scowled.

‘They can’t stand for everything,’ he said.

‘No–they can’t stand for “Bowery Tough,”‘ admitted Pinchas; and the table roared again, partly at the rapidity with which this linguistic genius had picked up the local slang. ‘But as our pious lunatics think there are many meanings in every letter of the Torah,’ went on the pleased poet, ‘so there are meanings innumerable in every letter of my name. If I am playwright as well as poet, was not Shakespeare both also?’

‘You wouldn’t class yourself with a low-down barnstormer like Shakespeare?’ said Tuch sarcastically.

‘My superiority to Shakespeare I leave to others to discover,’ replied the poet seriously, and with unexpected modesty. ‘I discovered it for myself in writing this very play; but I cannot expect the world to admit it till the play is produced.’

‘How did you come to find it out yourself?’ asked Witberg, the young violinist, who was never sure whether he was guying the poet or sitting at his feet.

‘It happened most naturally–order me another cup of chocolate, Witberg. You see, when Iselmann was touring with his Yiddish troupe through Galicia, he had the idea of acquainting the Jewish masses with “Hamlet,” and he asked me to make the Yiddish translation, as one great poet translating another–and some of those almond-cakes, Witberg! Well, I started on the job, and then of course the discovery was inevitable. The play, which I had not read since my youth, and then only in a mediocre Hebrew version, appeared unspeakably childish in places. Take, for example, the Ghost–these almond-cakes are as stale as sermons; command me a cream-tart, Witberg. What was I saying?’

‘The Ghost,’ murmured a dozen voices.

‘Ah, yes–now, how can a ghost affect a modern audience which no longer believes in ghosts?’

‘That is true.’ The table was visibly stimulated, as though the chocolate had turned into champagne. The word ‘modern’ stirred the souls of these refugees from the old Ghettos like a trumpet; unbelief, if only in ghosts, was oxygen to the prisoners of a tradition of three thousand years. The poet perceived his moment. He laid a black-nailed finger impressively on the right side of his nose.