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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 8: December 25, 1952

My first days in America. -- The death of Sophie Karp.
-- The actor Finkel, and his wife Emma. -- My visit with Shomer.

The novelist Shomer was famous as a guest host. He loved to have guests. He was especially known for his Friday night [gatherings], which was spent in his house. They were fine, literary, musical evenings.

I spent several Friday nights at Shomer's, and this were some of my most pleasant evenings. Whomever came there had to contribute something for the evening. There were writers, musicians, actors, newspaper people. A frequent guest there was Rose Pastor, who then worked for the "Yidishes tageblatt" and later married the American millionaire Phelps Stokes, and she then was called Rose Phelps Stokes.

Especially amusing among the guests were his three daughters, and his son Abraham Shomer. They were all successful children. Abraham Shomer then was a lawyer, and he was preparing to write plays. He said then that he will write plays like his father, and he kept his word. His comedy, "Der griner milioner (The Greenhorn Millionaire)," is remembered by people to this day.

Particularly friendly were the guests received by the three sisters. One of them then had married the lawyer Rothenberg, who was the leader of the Zionist organization in America.

The three sisters lived among themselves like girls. They were never supervised, one or the other. When one of them sung, the others applauded.

It's been many years since I spent several Friday nights with Nakhum Meir Shaykevitsh (Shomer), and I have not yet forgotten those evenings. I often long for something like this on Friday night.


I arrived in America in 1904.

In my first days in America I was met by three events that made a strong impression on me.


1) The funeral of the famous prima donna Sophie Karp (the mother of the prima donna Rose Karp). [Sophie*1 passed away in New York on March 31, 1904.]

2) The actor Finkel who shot his wife Emma Finkel, a sister of Boris Thomashefsky.

3) The death of Dr. Herzl.

The end of Sophie Karp's life was very tragic. She had not left the theatre for many days and nights before her death. She slept, ate and drank in the theatre. The cause of this was the following story:

They then had built the first modern Yiddish theatre on Grand Street. This theatre indeed was called the Grand Theatre. The theatre was built by several important actors, such as the comic Berl Bernstein, the composer Louis Friedsell, and still others, but the largest shareholder was Sophie Karp.

The company of the Grand Theatre played only one season, and due to certain reasons it was associated with bits of gossip, love interests, theatre politics, and the partners of the Grand Street theatre received a disposition. They were made to move. The blow became great for all the partners of the Grand Theatre, but it most strongly affected Sophie Karp. She expressed [her feeling] that she would be taken out of the Grand Theatre dead, not alive. In her days and nights she would lay in the theatre, and she did not go out even for a minute, until she had a severe cold, and out of anger she ran out.

Her death had a strong effect on the entirety of Jewish New York. Her funeral was one of the first large Jewish funerals in New York.

This cry and wailing from the public, young and old, was heard from afar. One could say that the walls were shaking from the noise, and there was crying from the same, from those who came to her funeral. People were hanging on the walls and on the roofs of the houses.

*   *   *   *

The shooting by the actor Finkel of his wife was a tragedy that had long been anticipated. It was expected that something unusual would happen to them, because it combined summer and winter, death and life, evil and goodness itself. He was very old. She was young, fresh and dizzying. He -- worn out, eyes closed. She -- with fiery, burning eyes.

At the same time they said that Finkel was the first, serious stage director of the Yiddish stage. Until Finkel became lawless, they [i.e. the actors] came to rehearsals when they wanted, and each left when they wanted. So it was with learning and playing the roles. Finkel took the theatre seriously, and with an iron hand. The actors, both small and big, trembled before him. At that time he was strongly in love with the younger soubrette, who had virtually burned up the stage with her temperamental singing and dancing. As none of the actors dared to say "no" to the strong stage director Finkel, none of the actors dared say "no" to the young superstar soubrette, that he wanted that she be his wife. People told her, and also her brother Boris Thomashefsky, that he was too old for her. But was one able to say no to the strong Finkel? A life in prison had begun for the young Miss Finkel, immediately after playing at home! She did not even dare laugh out loud at a peppery joke. She wasn't able to meet together with actors in their kibetsarnyes. He provided her in a short time with three children, two girls and a boy (who were later Lucy Finkel, the prima donna, and Bella Finkel, the wife of Paul Muni).

The Finkel woman quietly suffered and remained silent until Finkel became very cautious about a young  lover-actor Levenson.

The next season Adler wanted to engage Mr. and Mrs. Finkel in his Grand Theatre, where he then was the only boss, but Mrs. Finkel had answered Adler that she would agree to be engaged, but without Mr. Finkel.

Finkel's greatness as a stage director and actor lessened; his wife did not want to be with him in the same theatre; the jealousy of the young actor Levenson gathered in the heart of the strict Finkel, and when in the summer he was with his family in the mountains on a beautiful, early morning, Mister Finkel cried out: "Children, flee! I am shooting!" He shot and hit the young Mrs. Finkel, and immediately after that shot himself, and he fell instantly on the spot dead, and his young wife he crippled for life.

She performed on the stage in individual productions, but she did so sitting in a chair, and until the end of her life she had to get by on crutches.

*   *   *   *

The death of Dr. Herzl also made a very harsh impression on me, because I saw him a year before his death in London. Theodor Herzl then came to England "incognito," to negotiate with the English government. Zionist friends realized that Herzl was here, and as there had already been a split in the Zionist movement, he agreed to come to them, but privately, unofficially, to hear their arguments. The King's Hall was packed with all sorts of Jews: Jews with beards, Jews without beards, tall Jews and tiny Jews; plain Jews and aristocratic Jews. It was a tumult. They argued, which manifested itself in all kinds of languages, but with time it became quiet. Two people appeared, them being Francis Montefiore and Theodor Herzl.

Theodor Herzl's majestic figure stood out above all.

A Jew at the meeting asked Herzl how things would be in Eretz Yisrael on Shabbat.

-- Saturday will be Shabbat. -- Herzl said -- People will rest.

His majestic figure has not left my memory. In my ears his words resound: Saturday will be Shabbat. I could not forget him, and here's how I arrived in America, I heard that Herzl is dead. I did not want to believe it.

                                                            *1 -- See the article on the passing of Sophie Karp, which appeared in the Forverts on April 1, 1904.


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