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Biographies from Lyakhovichi -
Dr. Alexander Mukdoni

This is a page in our Biography section. Click on the "Biography" button in the left-hand column to read other articles in this section.

Artists Portraits of Yiddish Writers, 4th Series; Portraits of Aleksander Mukdoyni -
by David Mazower, copyright
Reprinted with permission from the author, originally published in
The Mendele Review, Leonard Prager, editor

Aleksander Mukdoyni [Alexander Mukdoni]
1878 - 1958

[pseudonym of Aleksander Kapel]

Mukdoyni has been hailed as the first (professional) Yiddish theatre critic (by Sh. Niger and others) and he is undoubtedly an important figure for the study of Yiddish theatre. But in the course of a literary career spanning half a century his interests and subjects ranged well beyond the Yiddish stage. Mukdoyni was active in radical politics, studied philosphy, drama, law and classics at advanced university level, wrote fiction, published widely on the theatre and world affairs, was a leading Yiddish cultural activist in New York and also published an important autobiography running to well over a thousand pages.

He was born in Lekhevitsh in the region of Minsk, Byelorussia in 1878. (At least that is the date given in all the major biographical reference works; however the appearance of the 50th anniversary brochure in 1927 would appear to suggest a date of 1877). Following a traditional kheyder and yeshiva education, in 1894 he moved to Pinsk where he became active in the socialist Zionist workers’ movement. After a period studying philosophy and classics in Berlin, he returned to Lekhevitsh in 1902 and spent a year as a private teacher. Between 1903 and 1909 he studied and taught philosphy, law, classics, literary history and theatre in Warsaw, Dijon, Lausanne, Geneva, Paris and Berne. In 1909 he received his doctorate from the University of Berne for a dissertation on factory inspections.

Mukdoyni returned to Warsaw in 1909, joined the literary circle around Perets, began to publish stories and sketches in a wide variety of Yiddish periodicals, and embarked on his career as a Yiddish theatre critic, historian and activist. Along with Perets and the writer Hersh-Dovid Nomberg, Mukdoyni was a leading intellectual advocate for art theatre in Yiddish. During the 1914 - 18 war he was involved in Jewish relief efforts in St Petersburg. He left Russia in 1920, worked as a Yiddish journalist in Kovno for a couple of years, then made his way via Germany to the United States. In New York Mukdoyni joined the staff of the newspaper Morgen zhurnal as its theatre critic. He was also active in numerous societies and organisations concerned with Yiddish theatre, including magazines, theatre studios and a theatre museum. The author of many hundreds of articles, Mukdoyni gathered some of this material into a volume entitled Teater (New York, 1927) and published another study of Perets and the Yiddish theatre (New York, 1949). He devoted much of his final years to writing his memoirs. Almost nothing of this voluminous output has been translated into English, nor has any recent scholarly work been done on his writings and his career as a cultural activist; indeed, in the words of Leonard Prager, “Mukdoyni emerges as a largely forgotten figure who could be rewarding to rediscover”.


Photographic postcard of Mukdoyni
published in Warsaw, c 1912
(photographer unknown)

Probably one of the earliest commercially available images of Mukdoyni, this card is one of dozens of similar portraits of Yiddish and Hebrew writers and intellectuals issued in Warsaw in the early decades of the twentieth century. (As well as the great literary figures, there are many relatively obscure authors and poets pictured on such cards, but they are invariably men; I cannot recall seeing a single woman featured in these series). The caption reads: Der emes vert in teater geshpilt un in lebn farleydikt….dr a. mukdoni (‘The truth is depicted in the theatre and denied in life……Dr A. Mukdoyni’). Mukdoyni was clearly proud of his academic doctorate and seems to have insisted on the ‘Dr Mukdoyni’ formulation for public appearances and in all publications by and about him.


Sculpture of Mukdoyni
by Ayzenberg c 1925

This image was selected for the front cover of the commemorative brochure issued in New York in 1927 to mark Mukdoyni’s fiftieth birthday. The artist’s name is given as A. Ayzenberg; is this the same person as the Bezalel artist Yankev Ayzenberg (Jacob Eisenberg) but with the wrong initial? The latter artist was born in Pinsk, Poland in 1897, made his way to Palestine in 1913 to study art, and in 1919 specialised in ceramics at Vienna’s School for Arts and Crafts. He returned to Palestine in the 1920s, teaching at the Bezalel school, and opening a ceramics workshop in Tel Aviv. He died in Jerusalem in the 1960s.


Caricature of Mukdoyni
by Zuni Maud c 1925

For biographical details about Maud, see this author’s article in TMR Vol. 10.003 (March 2006). This is a further example of that artist’s witty, irreverent style of caricature portraiture. On a linguistic note, the Yiddish word used to describe the portrait is sharzsh ‘charge, caricature, comic exaggeration’ (the full caption reads: sharzsh fun z. maud ) rather than the more commonly used karikatur or vitsbild.


Portrait of Mukdoyni
by Issachar Ber Ryback c. 1922

Ryback (Ribak) was a leading figure in the movement to create a modern Jewish national art by means of a synthesis of traditional folk art and avant-garde painting. In his brief career, Ryback experimented with many different styles. Much of his best work was produced around the period of the Russian revolution, notably several masterpieces showing the world of the shtetl collapsing under the strain of war and revolution. But Ryback was also capable of lapsing into gross sentimentality, and some of his crude and exaggerated portrayals of shtetl backwardness might, in other hands, be accused of verging on the anti-semitic.

Born in Ukraine in 1897 into a Hasidic family, Ryback studied at the Art Academy in Kiev, alongside Mane-Katz and Boris Aronson. An enthusiastic supporter of the Russian revolution, he was an active member of the influential secular Yiddish cultural organisation Kultur Lige. His Pogrom series of 1918, painted following the murder of his own father the previous year and now in the collection of the Museum of Art in Ein Harod, Israel is one of the most powerful depictions of such anti-Jewish attacks in modern art. He left Russia in 1921 and spent several years in Berlin, coming under the influence of the Constructivists. Ryback was also active in Berlin as an illustrator of Yiddish children’s books and limited edition albums of lithographs, eg Shtetl / Mayn khorever heym / a gedenknish [Small Town, My Destroyed Home, A Recollection] (1923). He spent his last decade in Paris, where he died in 1935. His widow donated many of his paintings to a Ryback Museum in Bat Yam, Israel, which opened in the 1960s.

(For more on Ryback, see the articles by Seth Wolitz and others in Ruth Apter-Gabriel, ed. Tradition and Revolution / The Jewish Renaissance in Russian Avant-Garde Art, 1912 - 1928 (Jerusalem: The Israel Museum, 1987).


Sketch of Mukdoyni
by Abraham Manievich 1925

The first half of Manievich’s artistic career was spent in Europe, the final part in America, where he was among the large group of mainly leftist Jewish immigrant artists who achieved prominence in the interwar years. He was born in 1881 in Bielorussia and studied art in Kiev and Munich. Primarily a landscape painter, Manievich held solo exhibitions of his work at the State Museum in Kiev and at commercial galleries in western Europe in the years before the First World War. He was appointed Professor of Art at the Kiev Academy in 1917, and his work gradually evolved a greater degree of Jewish consciousness. In 1919 Manievich’s son was killed in an anti-Jewish riot in Kiev, a personal tragedy which prompted the painting Destruction of the Ghetto, now in the collection of the Jewish Museum in New York.

Manievich left Russia in 1921, and settled in New York the following year, around the same time as Mukdoyni. His cubo-futurist landscapes of the Bronx and other neighbourhoods were immediately noted, and he was given two solo exhibitions at American museums in the 1920s. Manievich shared a studio with his friend the sculptor Aaron Godelman and was an active member of the American section of the Yidisher kultur farband (YKUF), the Communist-affiliated Yiddishist cultural organisation formed to promote Jewish culture and combat anti-semitism in the late 1930s. Manievich died in 1942; his last solo exhibition in the USA was held one year later. His portrait of Khayim Zhitlovski, the leading ideologist of secular Yiddishkayt, is in the archives of the YIVO Institute in New York.

Sources:

Kleeblat, Norman and Chevlowe, Susan (eds.), Painting a Place in America / Jewish Artists in New York 1900 - 1945 (New York: The Jewish Museum, 1991) Mane-Katz - Issachar Ryback / Connections (Haifa: Mane-Katz Museum, 1993) Leksikon fun der nayer yidisher literatur [Biographical dictionary of Modern Yiddish Literature], Vol. 4 (New York: Congress for Jewish Culture, 1963) Yoyvl zamlbukh / lekoved dem 50 yorikn geburtstog fun / dr a. mukdoyni’ [Jubilee anthology in honour of the 50th birthday of Dr A Mukdoyni], (New York: A. Mukdoyni yubiley komitet, 1927) Zylbertsvayg, Zalmen (ed.), Leksikon fun yidishn teater [Biographical Dictionary of Yiddish Theatre], 6 vols, Warsaw, New York and Mexico City, 1931 - 70.




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Dr. Alexander Mukdony
in a candid of the 1950s

 


David Mazower is the great-grandson of Sholem Asch and describes himself as "the unofficial Asch family historian." A senior journalist with BBC World Service Radio, he is also a keen Yiddishist and a regular writer and lecturer on Jewish history. In 1987 he created the first ever exhibition on the history of Yiddish theater in London, and is currently working on a full-length study of the subject. He has also written widely on the culture and politics of the Jewish East End, and is Deputy Editor of the new academic journal, Jewish Culture and History.

Preliminary Note by David Mazower This article was prompted by a random find on a recent visit to that Mecca of Yiddish bibliophiles: the National Yiddish Book Center. Browsing the shelves I came across one of those anniversary publications so beloved of Yiddishists two or three generations ago: a 50th birthday tribute to the Yiddish theatre critic Aleksander Mukdoyni. Yoyvl zamlbukh / lekoved dem 50 yorikn geburtstog fun / dr a. mukdoyni [Jubilee anthology in honour of the 50th birthday of Dr A. Mukdoyni] , published in New York in 1927, contains articles by some of the luminaries of the Yiddish theatre and literary world, including Shmuel Niger, Yankev Mestel, Moris Shvarts (Maurice Schwartz), Yankev Kalikh (Jacob Kalich), and Yoysef Rumshinski. The brochure also reproduces pictures of Mukdoyni by four Jewish artists: a sculpture by Ayzenberg, a caricature by Zuni Maud, a Cubist style portrait by Issachar Ber Ryback and a portrait by Abraham Manievich. As the portraits and tributes suggest, Mukdoyni was a figure of some considerable weight in Yiddish intellectual circles between the two world wars. Further evidence in support of this claim comes in the form of a commercial postcard with his likeness, issued in Russian Poland, which I came across on Ebay and take the opportunity to reproduce here. Incidentally, I am not aware of what became of any of these portraits; the Ryback is by some way the most artistically significant of the group, but it would be interesting to hear any information about their present whereabouts.