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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 12: January 8, 1953

Yiddish actors who play on the English stage.
-- Charles Cohan, Tornberg, Jacob P. Adler, Bertha Kalich and David Kessler.
The Kalich is a great success, and David Kessler is a great failure in English.

Quite a number of Yiddish actors have played on the English stage.


One of them was Charles Cohan. At first he played in the Yiddish music hall that had existed at the time. He had a powerful, pure voice, a clear diction. His tenor is still ringing in my ears. Mainly his song, "Zumer baynakht oyf di dekher (Summer Night on the Roof)." I am afraid that I used to go to those Yiddish music halls to hear him sing.

Also Maurice Schwartz tells it that in his youth he used to be an admirer of Charles Cohan.

In that time Charles Cohan united with an other successful actor of the Yiddish music hall, Sam Lowenwirth. They went away to England, and there they played in English vaudeville with a huge success. They used to play in two or three music halls in one night.

In the most recent years Charles Cohan has been playing in the Yiddish theatre. But his entire energy is dedicated to the interests of the Yiddish actors. For the last thirty years he has been the secretary and treasurer of the Yiddish Actors' Union. For the last twenty-five years he has been the secretary of the [Yiddish] Theatrical Alliance.

When they now see Charles Cohan, and they ask him, "What's up?", it doesn't mean what is up with him, but which actor is sick and who, God forbid, has passed away. Because he knows the condition of every Yiddish actor who lacks matzo for Passover. He supplies them through the Yiddish Theatrical Alliance.


The second Yiddish actor to leave the Yiddish stage is the character-comic Samuel Tornberg. Tornberg was really a comic, however, he didn't know how to sing and couldn't dance, so Jacob Gordin's plays were so desired for him.


As a young man he studied to become a pharmacist (druggist), and he had an interest in Yiddish literature and with literature in general. A Mogulesco he wasn't. However he had a good pronunciation and brought out every word clearly and distinctly. He was from the actors who had sought the natural, both in his acting, as well as in the play. In his first time in Jacob Gordin's plays, an actor once told him, "Why do you think you're so big and proud of your acting? You're talking on stage the way people talk at home, talking like you're talking on stage, you can also be my grandmother."

In that time there was an English-Jewish manager Al Woods. He staged cheap English melodramas, where thousands of miracles have happened: where people have been shot, hanged, killed. Today one is a beggar, and tomorrow a great millionaire -- and the cheap, American public used to fill the theatre for Al Woods' melodramas.

In those melodramas there was a "Jew comic." Samuel Tornberg's pure pronunciation and Jewish appearance, with his large, Jewish eyes, was as desired as the Jew-comedian for these melodramas, and he played for years on the English stage in the melodramas, and it was really well deserved, because the Yiddish theatre then paid very miserable wages.

Later Berta Kalich went off to England to play in English. This was a great blow to the Yiddish theatre. With her the Yiddish theatre had lost such a majestic figure, like two great cherries, and her diction had given her the opportunity to surrender to the noblest shades and transition into her roles.

With her leaving, the Yiddish theatre lost not only a great power, a great star, but she took with her a great repertoire of plays, and without her the plays lost their charm, its force.

The English theatre embraced Berta Kalich. At that time the English theatre had built a large arts temple -- the Century Theatre. It indeed was seen as an art temple. They opened the Century Theatre with the Greek drama, "Sappho," with the accompaniment of the New York Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of the great conductor Walter Damrosch.

When I saw that production, I did not want to believe it, that this was the young, Lemberg-born Jewish girl who had sung so wonderfully and sweetly on the Yiddish stage. She was under the management of the aristocratic director Mr. Pisk, who had a wife who was also a great dramatic artist, Mrs. Pisk. When I used to see Berta Kalich on the English stage, I had one comfort, that we Jews had the best, the most natural actress, because in English theatre she used to play with the Hamlet-like, dramatic, unnatural tenor. Her every word was as on notes, not natural and not human. But meanwhile the Yiddish theatre lost a great force.

Many times Jacob Adler wanted to take on the English stage, but he stood in the way of the language. He was in no way able to learn the English language correctly. Also Adler was a specific Yiddish actor. They staged "Shylock" with Adler on the English stage, but the actors spoke a Shakespearean English, and Adler played the main role of "Shylock" in Yiddish. He received no great applause, and that ended his career on the English stage.

David Kessler was very jealous of Berta Kalich, and he took to studying the English language very seriously. At that time Jacob Gordin had as one of his Hasids a young writer Sam Schiffman, an intelligent person who wrote plays for the English theatre. One of his plays was performed on the English stage.

The greatest applause from his plays was created by "Friendly Enemies" [as Samuel Shipman].

It's worth mentioning that Sam Schiffman was the educated father of the current president of the City Council, Rudolph Halley. The mother of Rudolph Halley is a sister of the playwright Sam Schiffman. Her husband, a dentist, passed away very young, and the entire burden fell on Sam Schiffman, who raised the young Rudolph Halley as his own son.

Schiffman was a great follower of Jacob Gordin, and they often saw him at Jacob Gordin's society. At that time Sam Schiffman wrote a play for David Kessler in English ("The Spell"). The play was performed the first time in Boston. The entire English press came out with strong songs of praise, mainly for David Kessler. They praised him to the greatest English and American actors.

At that time the great American dramatic actor Richard Mansfield died. One critic in Boston wrote: "In Richard Mansfield we lost, and in David Kessler we have found a second."

In New York, however, Kessler failed terribly. He played a banker in the play, and the critic at the time, Ellen (sp) wrote: "He works with his hand without limit. A Jewish hand." He gave him a hint that he should act only in Yiddish.

Kessler indeed followed the critic. He played on Broadway from Monday to Saturday, and on Sunday he played in the Thalia Theatre in "God, Man and Devil." The Jewish public was delighted with his return, and he himself took comfort in the fact that he said that a good Jewish actor could not be good in another language.

Kessler's dream of going on the English stage returned. He then promised that he will no longer play on the English stage.


David Kessler


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