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Joseph Rumshinsky Tells About His
Fifty Years in the 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 5: December 15, 1952

Jacob Gordin's plays compete with the operettas. -- Adler, Kessler and Thomashefsky play together, but not for long.
Keni Lipzin. -- The founding of the Actors' Union -- Joseph Barondess

The greatest follower of Jacob Gordin was Jacob P. Adler. The reason thus was because there was not any singing. In Gordin's plays, there needs only to be speaking, and beautiful speech. And this is what Adler wanted.

For his plays Gordin sought actors who speak clearly, sharply, who had a good diction, and this he got from Adler to a great extent. They both strongly felt  that Adler needed Gordin, and Gordin needed Adler.

Jacob P. Adler already saw that Gordin should not look like a yold, as they used to call the new playwrights.

Jacob Gordin, however, had a difficult struggle, competing with the Lateiners and Hurwitzs, who were then shot with plays, such as: "Bas Sheva," "Blimele," "Alexander, the Crown Prince of Jerusalem." As an operetta, "Alexander, the Crown Prince" was a great success. Boris Thomashefsky with his handsome figure had a "hit" in the play, "Vayblekh un meydlekh hoben im geshlungen." He then was young and handsome. But Gordin's plays also made an impression. People considered themselves intelligent when the saw one of Gordin's plays.

The managers of the operetta theatres brought over from the other side of the ocean good actors to compete with Gordin's plays. They brought Max Rosenthal, Berl Bernstein, Berta Kalich, Tabachnikoff [later Tobias], the soubrette [Mary] Wilensky, the comic [Abraham] Fishkind, Tanzman, Elias Rosenstein. The majority of all the actors then, in the old country, played in operettas and therefore they were alien to Jacob Gordin.

Most of the newly-arrived were accustomed to playing kings and princes in awkward costumes and spoke German. They called Gordin, "The Black Jew," who wanted to make the Yiddish theatre unhappy.

They said that Goldfaden, being in America, said to Gordin: " I know, Gordin, you taught the Yiddish actor to hold a pistol in his hand. Jews do not shoot, but virtually all of your plays are shot. It's because your plays are Russian. For example, when an actor wears a beard with a pair of boots is your play, he becomes a Russian peasant, a katzap. When an actor in one of my plays puts on a the same beard with a pair of boots, it is a Jewish beard with Jewish boots, because my plays are of Jewish life."



Jacob Gordin's plays, however, gradually crept into the hearts of the actors. This speech was a simple Yiddish, and mainly the realistic acting worked.  There began a jealousy to his actors who played in Jacob Gordin's plays. But as here there is only one Jacob Gordin, they fell into a plan to play plays by greater writers than Jacob Gordin -- by the classics of the world. And it has taken sulfur and gribbles on the Yiddish stage with such plays as: "Hamlet," "Othello," "Romeo and Juliet," "Richard III," "Julius Caesar," "Mary Stuart," "Don Carlos," "William Tell," "Faust," "Shylock," "Cleopatra," "Di heimath (The Homeland)," "Di ehre (The Honor?)."

The aforementioned plays were translated into a crude Yiddish, such that neither the actors nor the audience knew what it was. Almost all the classic plays were failures, except "Hamlet" and "Othello." This was a bitter disappointment, that it meant that it was going back to ancient times.

The time for a new writer had arrived. They were no longer laughed at; on the contrary, they were thought of as the savior of the Yiddish theatre.

The poet Abraham Michael Sharansky appeared. His play, "[Rebi amnon der bel] unshu tikf," had a great success. And indeed, when they performed Sharansky's play, "Kol Nidre," it had an even greater success. The public was refreshed with the two Sharansky plays, because they were Yiddish, of Jewish life and really with Jewish melodies, written by the composer [Louis] Friedsell and sung by the genial comic Mogulesco.

After this Sharansky wrote plays of the same sort, such as "Rokhl, oder, Degel makhne yehuda (Rachel, or, The Flag of the Camp of Judah?)," and, "Oyb (if)," which however were failures.

The classical plays that had been created strongly built the star system, because such roles as Hamlet, Othello, Shylock, and over and over again actors were given opportunities to act, better said, to scream, because it was not acting then. They shouted out the long prose.

The poet Morris Rosenfeld also wrote a play with the name, "Der letster kohen gedol (The Last High Priest?)," which failed greatly. With this, his career as a playwright ended.

The three stars: Thomashefsky, Adler and Kessler, tired of the competition, and they united and performed in Jacob Gordin's "Di gebrider lurie (The Lurie Brothers)," and divided the important roles among the three stars. There was peace and quiet until the curtain was raised, but on the stage, for the public in their eyes, they applauded them, one from another. Kessler laughed at Thomashefsky. This annoyed Thomashefsky and made him nervous. So as Thomashefsky needed to break a plate, he had already broken such a plate in anger. Adler, who played the role of a quiet, honorable rabbi, stood from the whiteness; but he saw that the public was amused as they broke a plate, he began to break a plate. As usual, it became a ridiculous production, and with this the combination of the three stars ended.

Then came the combination of Adler and Thomashefsky. Adler played only in dramas, and Thomashefsky in operettas. For Adler, this was what he desired, because it gave him the possibility not to act in operettas, which were still the most common commodities.

Kessler year-round remained in the Thalia Theatre, and it did not take long, and he became one of the directors there, Shaykevitsh was away from the stage the whole time, but he was not sitting empty. He wrote a play, the first play where the comic occupies the upper [rung]." This was "Haman the Second." The play strongly took off.


In that time the Mrs. Lipzin was away from the theatre. She was married to a publisher of a daily newspaper, Michael Mintz. Her situation then became such that she needed to be dependent on him for theatre. With the assistance of her husband, she succeeded in playing in only productions where she guest-starred. She used to hire a theatre for a week or two and by herself used to perform in several plays that she herself wanted, not enough to reckon with the tastes of the managers.

Jacob Gordin was the only writer who could have created a play for the Lipzin, which should create a reputation for a great dramatist.

She used to appear from time to time in Jacob Gordin's dramas. Sometimes she joined a repertoire of better plays. Her name became connected with the Gordin dramas, and for Gordin it began the very important epoch of his creations.

The better plays had still not attracted large audiences. To put on a good play without singing and dancing meant simply sacrificing to the interests of the theatre box-office. No money was expected from such a piece, and such a pleasure was allowed once in a blue moon.

Most of the actors had a desire to act in a Gordin play, but their requests could not be fulfilled. Gordin alone. He himself was pushed into the background and was rarely seen on stage. Just as at that time New York already had two radical, daily newspapers, and he joined them as a regular contributor to the "Forward" and there wrote news, articles and sketches for twelve dollars a week.


The business in the Yiddish theatre had strongly improved, but the situation for the Yiddish actor became worse and worse. The system of working "on marks" -- to obtain a percentage of the income -- was not any good. Firstly, the actor was given an undisclosed account. For example, one of the managers entered among is expenses three hundred dollars on a rope for the stage. For three hundred dollars, the rope can be used for twenty-five years, and again and again such accounts. Before they began to pay out the profits, they took out the rent, the expenses, heating, wages for the workers. This drove the actors to found a union.

In 1899, with the assistance of the union leader at the time, Joseph Barondess, they found the Yiddish Actors' Union in America. It is worth dwelling on the person and personality of Joseph Barondess, or as he used to be called -- Joseph Baron De-es. Though he was not an actor, the actors relying on him, poured. His place of speech, his attire, his gait, and his demeanor made him look like a brother of Jacob P. Adler or Boris Thomashefsky. He spoke dramatically, like a Shakespearean actor. He used to lead on the first of may the Worker's March -- He used to be the first one on a riding hours; he used to speak strongly, but he used to help with pleasure the poor and even do a favor. So as he considered himself a silent actor, he was close to the theatre profession, and he dove in with life and limb in the founding of the Actors' Union.

On 27 December 1903, the Yiddish Actors' Union celebrated the fourth anniversary  of its existence, and due to this joyous event, a journal was issued.

Anshel Schorr, who during that time was the secretary of the Actors' Union, has in a legend reported what the Yiddish Actors' Union has done in that time, during its four years of existence.


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