Perets Hirshbeyn and his wife, the poet Esther Shumiatsher, on a visit to Johannesburg, South Africa, 1921. (YIVO)

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Hirshbeyn, Perets

(Often spelled Peretz Hirschbein in English sources; 1880–1948), playwright, novelist, journalist, travel writer, and theater director. Perets Hirshbeyn’s father operated a rural water mill outside a small town in Grodno province, where Hirshbeyn was born. Educated initially by local tutors, Hirshbeyn eventually made his way to Grodno and then Vilna, where he joined a circle of yeshiva students who studied the Bible, Hebrew grammar, and Jewish history together. Hirshbeyn began giving Hebrew lessons to support himself while publishing Hebrew poetry and writing Yiddish stories. He also began to shift from writing lyrical poetry to naturalist drama, starting with Miryam (1905), which he first wrote in Hebrew, later translated into Yiddish, and later still revised in Yiddish under the title Barg arop (Downhill). Inspired by an encounter with a prostitute—and perhaps by Hirshbeyn’s own squalid living conditions in Vilna—the play was a harbinger of Hirshbeyn’s skill at characterization, dialogue, and atmosphere.

Zalman Shneour (right) and playwright Perets Hirshbeyn (left), Vilna, 1905. (YIVO)

Hirshbeyn first visited Warsaw in 1904. Like many Yiddish writers of his generation, he had been nurtured by Y. L. Peretz, who had introduced him to Ḥayim Naḥman Bialik. During the early 1900s, Hirshbeyn continued writing naturalist dramas in Hebrew, including Nevelah (Carcass), which in Yiddish (Di neveyle) became one of Hirshbeyn’s most successful works. ‘Olamot bodedim (Lonely Worlds; 1906) marked a new symbolist phase in his career, as well as the end of his practice of writing originally in Hebrew. His symbolist Yiddish plays of this period include the one-act Kvorim-blumen (Grave Blossoms), Di erd (The Earth), In der finster (In the Dark), and Der tkies-kaf (The Handshake).

In 1908, when Hirshbeyn moved to Odessa, he began to take a more active role in staging his plays. That year he wrote the drama Yoyel (Joel), and Dovid Herman staged Der tkies-kaf in Łódź. Soon afterward, Af yener zayt taykh (On the Other Side of the River), his first Yiddish drama, was produced in Russian in Odessa. In autumn of the same year, Hirshbeyn—encouraged by Bialik and by students from an acting conservatory in Odessa—founded the theater company that became known as the Hirshbeyn Troupe. It was the first Yiddish company to devote itself exclusively to “better” Yiddish theater. Although the ensemble stayed together for just two years, it staged works by Hirshbeyn, Sholem Asch, Dovid Pinski, Sholem Aleichem, and Jakob Gordin, as well as translations of plays by Semen Iushkevich and Herman Heijermans.

It was only after the troupe disbanded in 1910, however, that Hirshbeyn reached his zenith as a dramatist, with four plays that Jacob Glatshteyn (In tokh genumen [Sum and Substance], 1976, p. 77) has called “the four greatest plays in the Yiddish repertoire”: A farvorfn vinkl (A Forsaken Corner; 1912), Di puste kretshme (The Empty [Deserted] Inn; 1913, written in America), Dem shmids tekhter (The Blacksmith’s Daughters; 1918) and Grine felder (Green Fields; 1918). In these and other dramas, Hirshbeyn abandoned symbolism and returned to his rural roots, dramatizing the lives and loves of rural Jews. The understated quality of these works appealed to directors including Maurice Schwartz and Jacob Ben-Ami and became regular productions in the repertoire of artistically ambitious Yiddish theaters.

Although Hirshbeyn might seem to have found a successful formula at that point of his life, he was never able to remain long at one location, either professionally or geographically. In 1912, he first visited New York, where he subsequently settled. However, he spent the succeeding decades traveling, accompanied by his wife, and publishing both fiction and nonfiction based on his trips. Some critics consider Hirshbeyn’s best prose writing to be the descriptions of rural life that are found in his first volume of memoirs, Mayne kinder-yorn (1932).

The most important legacy of this full and restless life was a body of dramatic literature far more subtle and nuanced than almost any earlier Yiddish playwrights had produced. Hirshbeyn managed not only to write in a manner contrary to much of the Yiddish dramatic tradition but often to succeed with audiences and critics as well. His popularity extended to other cultures and genres, and his plays were performed in Russian, Hebrew, English, German, Spanish, and French. Indeed, the 1937 film version of Grine felder is among the most beloved of all Yiddish films.

Suggested Reading

Isaac Goldberg, “The Yiddish Drama,” in The Drama of Transition (Cincinnati, 1922), pp. 329–434; Peretz Hirschbein, Gezamlte dramen, 5 vols. (New York, 1916– ); Peretz Hirschbein, Dramot (Warsaw, 1921); Peretz Hirschbein, Arum der velt: Rayze-ayndruk, . . . 1920–1922 (New York, 1927); Peretz Hirschbein, Indye: Fun mayn rayze in Indye (Vilna, 1929); Peretz Hirschbein, Monologn (Chicago, 1939); Peretz Hirschbein, In gang fun lebn: zikhroynes (New York, 1948); Peretz Hirschbein, Erets-Yisroel (New York, 1951); Peretz Hirschbein, Teater, veltrayzes, zikhroynes: Dray bilder; Musik tsu fir lider, ed. Shmuel Rozhansky (Buenos Aires, 1967); Jacob Mestel, “Perets Hirshbeyn: A pioner in yidishn teater,” in Literatur un teater, 87–92 (New York, 1962); Aleksander Mukdoyny, “Zikhroynes fun a yidishn teater-kritiker,” in Arkhiv far der geshikhte fun yidishn teater un drame, ed. Yankev Shatsky, pp. 341–421 (Vilna, 1930); Shmuel Niger and Mendl Elkin, eds., Perets Hirshbeyn: Tsu zayn zekhtsikstn geboyrntog (Los Angeles, 1941); Nokhem Oyslender, “Der veg fun dem Odeser yidishn ‘kunst-teater,’” in Yidisher teater, 1887–1917, pp. 237–258 (Moscow, 1940).