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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 10: January 1, 1953

The two famous actresses Berta Kalich and Keni Lipzin.
-- Berta Kalich sings in a chorus of the Lemberg Temple.
-- Plays in Gimpel's Theatre, and then in the Romanian National Theatre.
-- Jacob P. Adler discovers Keni Lipzin in a small, Russian town.
-- She becomes famous in Gordin's plays.

Berta Kalich and Keni Lipzin were the two most famous actresses who had possessed the Yiddish stage. Both excelled in Jacob Gordin's or in classical plays.

Berta Kalich began to act in the theatre when she was very young. She began to play in Lemberg in Gimpel's Theatre.

Her father had a brush factory. Her mother had a workshop, where they sewed women's clothes. But from both businesses they did not have any income. They were both impractical people and not suited to any business. Her father loved to play the violin, and her mother loved the theatre. She often used to go with her daughter to the theatre, the opera, and always thought of it. You are not lying in head her business [Ir iz nit gelegen in kop ir gesheft.]

As a child Berta showed a great inclination for singing. Her mother was tormented by her singing and allowed her to sing in the Lemberg temple.

As to Yiddish theatre, she became aware it when the Grodners arrived, with a troupe that put on productions. Their playing made a strong impression on her.

The Grodners had played Goldfaden's "Kishufmakherin (The Witch)."

The daughter saw the production with her mother and never forgot it.

Berta Kalich's first professional position was as a chorister in the Polish theatre. It was not long before they had given her small roles, but the jealousy of the Polish choristers drove her away from the Polish theatre, and she then went over to the Yiddish theatre.  The director, Gimpel, picked her up and was happy with her.

She immediately entered the roles of the prima donna, such as in "Shulamis," "Bar Kokhba," "Shimson Hagibor (Samson the Strong)," Rebbe Yoselman," and "Dos tsente gebot (The Ten Commandments)."



Berta Kalich


Goldfaden then was in Bucharest, where the name of Berta Kalich had reached him. Goldfaden sent for her. She played in Bucharest with great success.

Her success in Bucharest reached the impresario of the Romanian National Theatre, and they immediately engaged her, and she performed in the Romanian language in a musical work, "Di vayse dame."

Berta Kalich was a language learner and was very capable of learning languages.

She had a great success in Romanian. Edelstein then came and suggested to her that she come to America. She broke her contract with the National Theatre of Bucharest and went away to America with her husband, Leopold Spachner.

In New York Berta performed as a prima donna, together with [David] Kessler. But soon she began to show that she possessed dramatic talent.

They specially translated several plays from Sara Bernhardt's repertoire, but this didn't excite the audiences. Gordin then sold "God, Man and Devil." She played Fredenyu, a dramatic role; but she achieved a great deal with Jacob Gordin, who wrote ,"Di yidishe safo (The Jewish Sappho)," especially for her.


Keni Lipzin

With the role from the "Jewish Sappho," the young Kalich appeared and immediately persuaded the large New York Yiddish theatregoers that she possessed an extraordinary, great dramatic talent.


Keni Lipzin, the dramatic actress, also arrived to the theatre through her singing, but in a different way than Berta Kalich. Jacob Adler and the comic Abraham Fishkind separated from Goldfaden's troupe in Russia, with the purpose of putting together their own company -- at that time there was the greatest difficulty to find women for the theatre. They traveled around from city to city until they found employment in a small town Smila, in Southern Russia. They stopped in a small inn and suddenly they heard a young woman's voice singing a song: "Oy, oy, oy, veh iz mir host mikh farfirt, a klog tsu dir; "Du kost mikh nit der vert, derfar hob ikh dir in dr'erd." (Oh, oh, oh, woe is me; you have deceived me, a complaint to you; you do not cost me the value, therefore I hope you are in the ground.")

This song was sung once and for all with a lot of heart and longing. When the singing had ceased, Adler said to Fishkind: "You heard, she has you in the ground." Fishkind says: "Maybe she means you?"

Adler jumps in: "Let's go see this young girl who sings." And they jumped over a fence and saw a young girl with short hair, sitting with her head resting on her folded hands. When she saw these two friendly people, she wanted to take flight, but Adler caught her.

Adler explained to her the purpose of their coming here, that is, that they are directors and are looking for a young girl who could be an actress.

She immediately liked the plan. She left Smila with them.

Keni Lipzin had the same struggle as Jacob Adler, because she also didn't have a voice for singing, and she had to act in cheap melodramas. But she immediately demonstrated dramatic talent -- she then was called Freulein Sonies. Later her name on stage became Keni Lipzin.

Besides Gordin writing for her, she played in a play, "Don Abarbanel"; the "Blind Mother" in "Uriel Acosta." She played the daughter in Shomer's play, "Der lebediger toyter (The Living Dead?)," or, "A klap far a klap"; "Zhanete" in the comedy, "Der falsher melamed (The False Melamed)," a main role in "Ester fun eyn-gedi (Esther From Ein Gedi)," and the main role in "Meshugene oys libe (Crazy in Love)." She also performed in the title role of "Devora" in Mozental's play.

Jacob Gordin had seen Keni Lipzin act for the first time in "Rukhl un leah (Rachel and Leah)," and he became upset that such a talent, with such a dramatic power, should disappear into such shund plays.

She married the publisher of a daily newspaper, Michael Mintz. The newspaper was called the "Teglikher herald (Daily Herald)."

From the day that Michael Mintz married Keni Lipzin, until the decline of the newspaper, there was virtually no other name that one could see in the newspaper but Keni Lipzin. They wrote where she went, what she had done, and what she had eaten. It was heaven, earth and Keni Lipzin.

Mintz was a wise businessman, and he won Jacob Gordin on to his side. In his last years Gordin gave away a lot for Keni Lipzin.

The first play that Jacob Gordin had written for Keni Lipzin was "Medea," an adaptation of Grillparzer, then "Mirele Efros," or the "Yidishe kenigin lir (Jewish Queen Lear)," "Di shvue (The Oath)," or, "Ronye di potshtarke," then Hauptmann's "Furman Henshel." Gordin's "Yesoyme (Orphan)" was almost a piece about her own life. "Khasye di yesoyme (Chasia the Orphan)," about which she used to say that she, Chasia, was her alone. I told this to Gordin. But officials said that he met with the stepmother. "Oy, this was a stepmother!"

Berta Kalich had an imposing and graceful figure. She used to mention that from her acting a lot with Jacob Adler, she had a holiday tenor, and she was able with the tone or her voice to do what she wanted. She often used to speak a little dramatically, almost like a classical Shakespearean actress.

Keni Lipzin, small in growth, had a very delicate appearance, and so tender and soft were her tenors. She used to speak naturally, still and quiet, but in a scene where she then needed to be hysterical, she used to shudder the theatre with hysteria. Her recitation of psalms in "Mirele Efros" was very impressive.


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