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Yiddish Playwright and Novelist

Leon Kobrin

Leon Kobrin was born on March 15, 1873 in Vitebsk (today: Віцебск, Belarus). He started writing in Russian age the age of 15. In 1892, Kobrin emigrated to the United States and it was there that he was first introduced to Yiddish literature and theater.

In the U.S. he first worked as a shirt maker, cigar maker, and baker in Philadelphia and in rural Pennsylvania, before settling in New York City. He became a journalist and then a writer of short stories and novels, creating his most famous character, “Yankl Boyle” in a novel published in 1898.

He later turned to playwriting, where he gained fame as a disciple of Jacob Gordin. For many years, he wrote exclusively for Boris Thomashefsky and was the writer in residence for Thomashefsky’s company.

Kobrin’s most successful plays were Yankl Boyle, Minnah, East Side Ghetto, Two Sisters, Children of Nature and Returning to his People. His thirty or so plays spanned both “golden ages” of Yiddish theater in America. Kobrin started as a playwright at the time when Yiddish theater was staging challenging modern classics which had not yet been presented on the English-language American stage, and continued throughout the Yiddish Art Theater era. Although he is known for his close association with Jacob Gordin, Kobrin’s work was more character-driven, open, and realistic in its presentation of human sexual desire.

Throughout his life, Kobrin contributed 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, Emile Zola, Maxim Gorky, Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and Anton Chekhov. His wife, Pauline, collaborated on some of these translations. Kobrin died in New York on March 31, 1946 at the age of 73.

Here is a trailer for Michael Tilson Thomas’ movie about the Thomashefsky family’s contributions to Yiddish theater: