Leon Kobrin (18731–1946) was a playwright in Yiddish theater, writer of short stories and novels, and a translator. As a playwright he is generally seen as a disciple of Jacob Gordin, but his mature work was more character-driven, more open and realistic in its presentation of human sexual desire, and less polemical than Gordin's. Many of his plays were "ghetto dramas" dealing with issues of tradition and assimilation and with generational issues between Jewish immigrants to America and the first generation of American-born Jews.
Life and works
Born in Vitsebsk, then part of Imperial Russia, culturally considered at that time part of Lithuania, now in Belarus, he wrote in Russian before he emigrated to the United States in 1892; only in America did he discover that there was such a thing as Yiddish literature and theater. In the U.S. he first worked menial jobs in Philadelphia and in rural Pennsylvania, before settling in New York City. He became a journalist, then a writer of short stories, and finally gained fame as a playwright.
Gordin collaborated with Kobrin on completing Minna (1899) as a play; the title of Kobrin's Natur, Mensh un Khaye (Nature, Man and Beast, 1900) was a conscious echo of Gordin's Got, Mensch un Teivel (God, Man, and the Devil, 1893). Liptzin singles out his tragedy Yankel Boila (1908, based on his own 1898 story) as the "apex" of his work, and describes its title character as "a kindhearted but dull-witted Jewish youth… embroiled in a complex moral and emotional dilemma to which he could find no solution short of suicide". [Liptzin, 1972, 81]
His thirty or so plays spanned both "golden ages" of Yiddish theater in America. He started as a playwright at the time when Yiddish theater was bringing to America challenging modern classics such as the works of Henrik Ibsen and August Strindberg, and Leo Tolstoy that, at that time, had not been presented on the English-language American stage, and continued into the era of the Yiddish Art Theater, when Yiddish theater rivalled any in the world in defining 20th-century theatrical practice.
Kobrin continued, throughout his life, to contribute to Yiddish-language newspapers. He also worked extensively as a translator of modern classics from French and Russian into Yiddish. Among the authors whose work he translated were Guy de Maupassant, Émile Zola, Maxim Gorky, Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and Anton Chekhov. His wife, Pauline, collaborated on some of these translations.
- Minna or, The Ruined Family from Downtown (1899)
- Natur, Mensh un Khaye (Nature, Man and Beast, 1900)
- Ghetto Dramas (1904)
- The East Side Ghetto
- Sonia from East Broadway
- Yankel Boila oder Der Dorfs-Yung (1908, translated as The Village Youth or The Child of Nature)
- The Immigrants (1910)
- Die Next-Door'ike (The Lady Next Door, 1915)
- "The Black Sheep" (1915)
- "The Secret of Life" (1915)
- Rise of Orre (1917)
- The Tenement House (1917)
- Call of Life (1920)
- The Awakening (1920)
- Wild Ways (1926)
- Riverside Drive (1933)
- Ruined Worlds (1934)
- The Last Struggle (1934)
- The Golden Stream (1936)
- The Red Lola (1937)
- "A Moerder aus Liebe" ("The Love Crime", 1894)
- "Yankel Boila or, The Village Youth" (story, 1898)
- Yankel Boila and Other Tales (collection, 1898)
- A Lithuanian Village (novel, English translation published 1920)
- My Fifty Years in America (memoir, serialized in the Morning Freiheit mid-1940s)
1 This is the year given by Liptzin. Sandrow and the Cambridge History give 1872.
- Leon Kobrin on the site of the Folksbiene: biographical notes by Nahma Sandrow, New York Times obituary, and an ad (in Yiddish) for a 1915 play.
- –, "Leon Kobrin Dead; Dramatist, Author", New York Times obituary, April 1, 1946.
- –, "Leon Kobrin" in The Cambridge History of English and American Literature, Volume XVIII: Later National Literature, Part III; XXXI. Non-English Writings I, § 47.
- Liptzin, Sol, A History of Yiddish Literature, Jonathan David Publishers, Middle Village, NY, 1972, ISBN 0-8246-0124-6. 81.
- Sommer, Elyse "The Lady Next Door", Curtain Up, review of Folksbiene's 2003 production of "The Lady Next Door".