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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 13: January 12, 1953

Sholem Aleichem arrives in America. -- Theatre managers race over to him.
-- His lectures are admired, but his plays fall through.
-- Solotorefsky saves theatres with his melodramas. -- They arrest actors for playing on Sundays.
-- Actors want to be arrested in order to have their pictures in the newspapers.


There are artists who are born prematurely, and there are works that appear prematurely. So this was also with Sholem Aleichem's plays. They arrived on the Yiddish stage of America too early.

In the year 1906, after the well-known days of freedom and renewed pogroms in Russia, the great humorist Sholem Aleichem went to America. He came with some forty plays. He came with the purpose of reforming and improving the Yiddish stage. His friends and followers arranged for a large reception for him in Adler's Grand Theatre. A large crowd came to greet the great humorist. The press greeted him in a way that he deserved, with the greatest singing of his praise.

The managers of the theatres ran to him.

Sholem Aleichem first sold Jacob Adler a play with the name, "Der oysvurf, oder, shmuel pasternak (The Outcast, or, Shmuel Pasternak)."

When Boris Thomashefsky became aware that Adler bought a play from Sholem Aleichem, he went to him, that he should also sell him a play. He worked hard, applying a lot of influence. Sholem Aleichem was afraid to sell him a play, but finally he sold him his "Stempenyu."

When Thomashefsky heard that Adler had already held rehearsals of Sholem Aleichem's play, he soon called his company and rehearsed for "Stempenyu."

Sholem Aleichem himself read his "Stempenyu" for the entire company.

When the humorist finished reading his play, the entire company applauded, not as much for the play, as for his splendid reading.


I was at the reading. I never have heard such a reading of a play. He played all of the roles. Even to this day I think that Sholem Aleichem, when he lived, would have been able to have the greatest success reading or playing every role from his plays.

Thomashefsky then said to the actors: When we play half as good as he reads, we will have a great success. But neither the audience nor the actors were ready for the thin features and the beautiful Yiddish of Sholem Aleichem. After the dramatic prose of Horowitz and Lateiner, even the long dialogue of Jacob Gordin's plays, it was like another soldier's orchestra playing the delicate music of Mozart.

Both theatres, Adler's and Thomashefsky's, were not ready for their performances. They held fewer rehearsals because they wanted to usurp the other before the second premiere.

So what came out of this rush? People burned themselves out. But more than anything, Sholem Aleichem suffered. Both plays began to be played on one Friday, and indeed both were failures on that same Friday.

At the time when they held rehearsals for "Stempenyu," Sholem Aleichem asked me to write a folk song with music, which they will sing in his play, "Stempenyu." This is what he sung to me:

"Oy, oy, oy, kugel heyst es,
un in moyl tsugeht es.
Oy, oy, oy, kugel heyst es,
in moyl tsugeht es."


"Oh, oh, oh, they call it kugel,
and it goes in the mouth,
Oh, oh, oh, they call it kugel,
in the mouth it goes."

When I met him after the failure of both plays, he began to sing dramatically to me: "Oy, oy, kugel heyst es," and said, "They couldn't digest this genuine Yiddish kugel."


An irrelevant actor from the province arrived with melodramas and saved many Yiddish theatres from going under.

One of Solotorefsky's greatest successes, "Der yeshiva bokher (The Yeshiva Student)," was written for Boris Thomashefsky. For years Thomashefsky did not think of any play with which he might begin the new season. They already knew that Thomashefsky would begin with the "Yeshiva Student," and the first production would surely sell out.

The content of "Yeshiva Student" was taken from Shakespeare's famous drama, "Hamlet." They used to advertise it the first time as "Der idisher hamlet (The Jewish Hamlet)." Many believed that there was such a Jewish food to eat, such food as that omelet. They advertised it as "Yeshiva Student," or, "The Jewish Martyr."

Solotorefsky said that he created a rabbinical court from the Royal Court of Denmark, and from the queen -- a rebbetzin, and from the young prince -- a Yeshiva student.

When the yeshiva student comes from the yeshiva, he finds a young rabbi on his old father's rabbinical chair, and he farrekhtig his mother with the young rabbi in his father's, the old rabbi's death. Here Thomashefsky used to cry out with his melodramatic and half-Daytshmerish "rish'n": "Take off your veil" (a handkerchief), and to the audience he cried out: "Jews, stand up! Extinguish the light, his son will say Kaddish for his deceased father and your rabbi."

Ordinarily, he does not say Kaddish, but he sings Kaddish with a trained choir, and the audience cries and complains.

The play, "Yeshiva Student," was infested with melodramatic, heartbreaking scenes and even comedy.

As was said, the "Yeshiva Student" saved many difficult times in the Yiddish theatre.

Solotorefsky came with melodramas that made money for the managers. He wrote "Di idishe anna karanina (The Jewish Anna Karenina)" -- from Tolstoy -- for the crippled Emma Finkel; "Diamonds," a strong melodrama for Rosenthal and Bessie Thomashefsky; "Der prayz fun libe (The Cost of Love)," for Adler; "Di lebedige yesoymim (The Living Orphan)," and so on, which staved many theatres from going under, but he could not save himself; he loved the bitter drop, and he was rarely sober.

He fled from his first wife to Canada, and she did not hear from him. When the writer of these lines had to travel with a company to play in Canada, I met him there and reprimanded him: "How is it possible? Send your wife some money." He said: "Rumshinsky, my friend, what are you saying? I send and I send (drunk), and it does not concern you at all."

He made money from the theatre, but he died in misery and need.


They did not permit the playing of theatre on Sundays. They called it, "Der shtrenger zuntag (The Stricter Sunday)." Legitimate theatre was strictly forbidden. Only concerts, singing, readings were permitted, but not dancing, also there was no permission for any costumes to be used. They had to perform in simple clothing, tuxedos or frocks.

The Yiddish theatre could not have existed then without the two Sunday productions -- a matinee and an evening. The Yiddish actors -- performed in theatre plays in their street clothes. On several Sunday productions they often came out entirely for comic scenes. For example: Boris Thomashefsky on a Sunday played "Hamlet" in a frock ... When Hamlet spoke his great monologue, "To Be or Not to Be," Thomashefsky spoke from behind the stage, as if there was a detective there in the theatre. Hamlet began to sing "Kum, Israel'ik, kum heym (Come, Israel, Come Home)," so that the detective could say that he heard singing at a concert.

Berl Bernstein began to sing a couplet on a Sunday, in which after each couplet there was a little dance. I said to him, conducting the orchestra: "Mr. Bernstein, a detective is here in the theatre." He said to me: "Play the dance." When the orchestra played the dance, Bernstein brought out a man with stripes, and he said to the public: "Indeed I may not dance today, but he may dance." Pointing at a man, he pulls the string and the figure dances, according to how Bernstein pulls the strings. The public was strongly amused by this successful idea.

When at that time almost the entire company was dragged in to the police station house, the detective told the judge of the incidence, and the Jewish judge also laughed strongly.

In the Thalia Theatre then they played on Sundays, "Dos yidishe harts (The Jewish Heart)," but without dance, and with one piece of scenery.

No sceneries were allowed to be changed, but detectives once found fault with the Sunday law. They used to drag several actors and actresses off to the police station. They used to let them out on bail and fined them twenty-five dollars. When the image of the arrested actors and actresses used to appear in the next morning's newspapers, the actors, mainly the actresses, asked them that they should be let out of the station house, so that their image will be in the newspapers.

Boaz Young tells that on a Sunday he stood and waited for Mrs. [Clara] Young, that she should emerge from her dressing room and leave arrested. However, it took a lot of time to wait for Clara Young. [Boaz] Young banged on her door and shouted: "Clara, make it faster, or [Malvina] Lobel will be arrested (Clara Young's sister)."


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