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Joseph Rumshinsky Tells About
Fifty Years of Yiddish Theatre
 A series of thirty-six articles written by Rumshinsky, over a four-month period, for the Jewish Forward newspaper,
from December 1, 1952, until April 2, 1953. Articles appeared in the Jewish Forward every Monday and Thursday.

Episode 1: December 1, 1952

The beginning of the Yiddish Theatre. -- Weary workers sing in abundance like free birds in the woods.
-- Boris Thomashefsky sings at work in a cigar factory.
-- The first theatre troupe is brought over from London and plays, "Di kishuf-makherin (The Sorceress)," in a hall.
-- German Jews want to hinder the playing of Yiddish theatre. -- Boris Thomashefsky plays women's roles.

The Yiddish Theatre began in the shops. At that time they worked hard, worked long hours, carried their machine on their shoulders to their work and sang. Weary workers sang in the shops like the free birds in the woods.

In almost every shop there was found someone who knew how to sing, or act, or dance, and each played a large role.

When a shop had the privilege of having in it a choirboy of a cantor, they were happy with him. At lunchtime the choirboy sang, and the workers followed with their own singing.

In that time, in a cigarette factory that stood on the square where the Chinese theatre is now located in New York, there worked in the shop the famous actor Boris Thomashefsky.

They say that from his very first day that he began to work, the young Boris Thomashefsky attracted attention, although he did not excel at his work. While working on the cigars, he always gave with a roar a melody of a song, and this interested everyone. They soon noticed that he was something else, that he was more than just a simple worker. In the old country, he had been a choirboy for the Berdichev cantor Nisn Belzer.

In the same shop, there worked a stand-in from a theatre. He befriended Thomashefsky and both, sitting at work by the table, sang songs, such as: "Bankelakh," "Vos toig mir mayn simkha," "Dos lid fun katsev (The Butcher's Song)," and other songs. All the workers sang along. Even the foreman, who loved to sing, sang with them and forgot about getting to work, as was the custom at the time. In particular, he made himself unaware that he was not one of the great craftsmen.

On a beautiful morning Golubok entered with a theatre poster from London, where it was announced that there will be performed the play, "Koldunye," or "Di bobe yakhne," by Goldfaden, with the Golubok brothers. These brothers Golubok were brothers of the cigar-worker Golubok.

Golubok took out a letter from his brothers, who had sent him the theatre poster. They wrote to him that they feel happy that they had played theatre in London. There they have a great moral success. But they didn't gain any income.

 

 

They asked to be brought over to America. They, together with other actors, should be sent ship cards, and they promised that they would create a Yiddish theatre in America that has "never been there before." (In that time they wrote in German.)

-- A theatre in New York!

Thomashefsky called out -- Akh, vi vunderbar! (Ah, how wonderful!), Vi erhaben! (How sublime!), Donnerwetter! (Gosh!), a Yiddish theatre in New York.

Every worker was excited about this place, but how ?! Ship cards are required for several actors. The workers have little to gain, and every one of them has paid for a ship card to take over his own relatives.

Yiddish theatre in New York. This must happen! -- Boris Thomashefsky repeated again that he would not rest until he carried out his plan.

At that time Boris Thomashefsky was a choirboy for a cantor in the Henry Street School. Every Sabbath, after praying, he used to go for Kiddush to someone by the name of Frank Wolf, who had a pub on Hester Street. The latter was a follower of cantors and singers.

Thomashefsky told him about the importance of having a Yiddish theatre in New York. He told him that a troupe could be brought over from London to play theatre, and this would be good business, and that he wanted do it. He can be the owner, the impresario, the proprietor of a theatre.

The pub owner was persuaded, and he sent ship cards for the actors from London.

In around a couple of weeks the troupe arrived from London. In the troupe were the two Golubok brothers, and a prima donna with the name of Krantzfeld.

For the first production the pub owner Frank Wolf took Turn Hall, on 4th Street, between 2nd and 3rd Avenue.

They staged Goldfaden's "Koldunye." They engaged Mr. and Mrs. Spector, who came from Odessa.

The young Boris Thomashefsky was rewarded for his effort and work and strategy. On the poster it was said that the world-famous singer, Master Boris Thomashefsky, will be ingsing:

"Heyse bobkelekh, idelekh, koyft! ..." (Hot Bobkes, Jews, Buy!)

Ticket were sold out like matzo-water. Everything was going as it needed to be. The mood was high. The actors dressed, removing the poverty of London; they put on big top hats, and they began to stalk about with haughty heads across the New York Jewish neighborhoods. Not only the actors then , but also the patrioten [fans] were dressed up in top hats.

This was the first time that Boris Thomashefsky had worn a top hat. This was in the year 1882, and until the last days of his life, he had never again wore a top hat.

The first managers of the Yiddish theatre were the Golubok brothers and Boris Thomashefsky.

In that time there was organized an immigration committee that was interested in the condition of the immigrating Jews. The pogroms in Russia had a great effect. The Jews in the former America had done very well. The German Jews were the leaders of the immigration committee. They helped with money, and they would also help with testimony.

The committee of German Jews strongly disliked Goldfaden's "Kishuf-makherin (The Sorceress)." They gave two reasons. First, one of the heroes, Hotzmakh, was a swindler. He feeds on his customers. This implied that we Jews were confirming the claims of the anti-Semites, that Jews are swindlers, and secondly that they do not like what they play in Yiddish. "This is not any language," they said, "This is only a crippled German, and it is not nice to speak it in public."

Calls were sent to the directors of the theatre, which was delivered, and the president of the immigration committee rebuked them with an angry voice.

"Shande un shmakh (Shame)!", he said to them: "You embarrass us German Jews with your actions. You play theatre in Yiddish, phooey! It is not in vain that you were expelled from Russia. You will also be expelled from America." Instead of being an idler and a loafer, an actor, learn a trade and you will be useful people and be an honor to us German Jews, who want to help you."

The directors of the theatre were startled in the first few minutes. They thought that they would soon be sent back to Russia. But the pub owner from Hester Street delivered another speech to them, and in exact Yiddish told people, and also to them said thus:

"Don't be greenhorns and listen to the German Jews like fading show. They cannot do anything to you. Here in America, you have a right to play theatre, and in Yiddish. Here there is not any ban to speak Yiddish. Here Yiddish is exactly as kosher as Polish and German.

The directors of the Yiddish theatre, together with the actors, calmed down and settled into their work.

The troupes of actors became greater in number. More actors came in from London in the middle of the summer. The company now consisted of the Golubok brothers, Spector and his wife, Barsky, Rozenblum, Boyarsky, Simon, Zhupnik and Boris Thomashefsky.

Boris Thomashefsky played women's roles. As there was a lack of female actors, Boris Thomashefsky, with his handsome figure and soprano voice, played all of the women's roles.





 


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