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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 16: January 22, 1953

Boris Thomashefsky gives plays adapted for the greenhorn. -- Bessie Thomashefsky "starves" in the greenhorn plays.
Thomashefsky ends the policy and begins to give "pintele-yid" plays. -- The great success of "Pintele yid."

Besides an actor, Boris Thomashefsky was also a good businessman. When he saw that the Jewish immigration was very great, each week thousands of Jews arrived in this country, he began to give special plays for them, adapting to the new immigration, to the greenhorns. Every play also carried the name "grine (greenhorn)." The plays had the names: "Der griner bokhur (The Greenhorn Student)," "Dos grine meydl (The Greenhorn Girl)," "Di grine moyd (The Greenhorn Maid?)," "Dos grine vaybl (The Greenhorn Wife)," "Der griner tate (The Greenhorn Father)," "Di grine kinder (The Greenhorn Children)."

The author of this bunch of "greenhorns" was N. [Nakhum] Rakow. He provided all the greenhorn plays. Thomashefsky himself almost did not act in any of these plays. They guest-starred Bessie Thomashefsky.

In the writing of every play, Thomashefsky had a big part. He used to rewrite Rakow's plays, and in them he put in a lot of his prose, and from his soul, so that it should be adapted for that time, according to his taste.

The content of the greenhorn plays consists of what the greenhorn wants, and he does not let go, and it turns out that the greenhorn is wiser than the yellow of the Americanized or native Americans.

The green plays were called lebensbild with music.

Bessie Thomashefsky had a couplet in every green play. She used to sing the couplet for so long until the audience sang it with her.

The plays did not lack anything: comic scenes, dramatic, melodramatic. One was shot, one committed suicide, one was a thief, but what should not happen is that the greenhorn, or the green, comes out the wiser and more just.

The theatregoers, which consisted of seventy-five percent immigrants, used to suffer from such plays.

The repertoire of the green plays would last for several years. Then Thomashefsky crossed over to other offerings, such

 

 as: "Neshome'le," "Toyre'le," "Yidele," "Pintele," and the plays indeed were called: "Di neshome fun mayn folk (The Soul of My People)," "Dos toyre'le," and "Dos pintele yid."
Of all the plays with religious character, the most successful was "Dos pintele yid."

 

The first night that they performed "Dos pintele yid," it was a great failure. When the author of play, M. Zeifert, saw what they made from his play, he begged Thomashefsky, that he should remove his name from the play, and he renounced the royalties.

"Dos pintele yid" went on for an entire season to overfilled houses. Not only in America, but also in the entirety of Europe, where they played "Dos pintele yid" it created income.

The song, "Yidele dayn kroyz iz dos pintele yid," has been sung until the current day at every bar mitzvah celebration. It comes there indeed for a bar mitzvah, where the bar-mitzvah boy sings the song.

The bar-mitzvah boy was then played by Thomashefsky's son Harry. It is worth mentioning that when "Dos pintele yid" was played in Chicago, the bar-mitzvah boy was played by the current, famous radio and television star Barry Gray. He remembers until now the song, "Yidele dayn kroyz iz dos pintele yid." He does not need to be begged for a long time now. As soon as "Pintele yid" is mentioned, he immediately sings the song with the words. He indeed says that this was his first acquaintance with theatre and theatre people.

In "Pintele yid," boys used to march across the theatre with Torah scholars, and the large audience, when they saw Torah scholars, used to stand up.

In each of the Torah plays there was a religious or an Eretz Yisrael musical number -- such as "Men darf nit keyn kananen, keyn gever, men darf nokh a yidish milyoner (You Don't Need Cannons, You Don't Need Weapons, You Need a Jewish Army)," or, "Tsion, tsion mayn heylig land (Zion, Zion, My Holy Land)," "Dos iz di neshome fun mayn folk (This is the Soul of My People)."

I once asked Thomashefsky, "Tell me [why], the entire winter season you sing 'Zion, My Holy Land,' Eretz yisrael ikh benk nokh dir (The Land of Israel, I Yearn For You),' and when it comes to summer, you go on your vacation to Paris, Berlin, Warsaw"? He answered me that Eretz Israel

to me is a holy love, and I am afraid to touch it."

Thomashefsky did not stop at anything when it came to the theatre. He performed from the greatest nonsense to the greatest classical works, such as "Hamlet," "Huguenots," "Di veber (The Weavers)," and he treated all of them with the same seriousness and enthusiasm.

He did not think about anyone's opinion about a performance of a new play, especially he did not like actors' criticisms.

When he used to read a new play for the company, he used to say to them, I don't want to hear your criticisms. Whether you like it or not, we play the play. Many times this habit was very risky, but he did not stop for anything.

In the first years of my being in America, I was obsessed with the performance of Richard Wagner's sacred opera, "Parsifal," in the Metropolitan Opera House.

The opera, "Parsifal," is played every year on "Good Friday," very rarely on other days. I conveyed to Thomashefsky my enthusiasm for the sacred music and the grandiose performance of the opera, "Parsifal." When I finished my enthusiastic account of the opera, "Parsifal," Thomashefsky said: "If the opera is as good as you tell me, I should perform it at my People's Theatre." I tried to explain to him that neither the action nor the music is for Jews. He jumps up furiously and starts streaming dramatically: "Hamlet is for Jews? "Othello," "Di royber (The Robbers)" by Schiller, is for Jews? Everything is for Jews!" And thus speaking he soon brought over his translator, Michael Goldberg, and commanded: "I want you to translate the opera, 'Parsifal,' into a pure Yiddish, because Wagner was an anti-Semite, and I want his opera, 'Parsifal,' to be performed in a pure Yiddish."

He immediately ordered an orchestra of thirty musicians, a chorus of fifty, and a conductor from the Metropolitan Opera House.

When Yosl Edelstein, who then was Thomashefsky's partner, heard this, he grabbed both cheeks and began to ask Thomashefsky: "Borisl, tatele, what do you want to do on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, a goyishe (Gentile-like) play? The Jews obviously will flee from us." And he asked him further: "Do you want to make the other managers rich, and you want to make me unhappy?"

Thomashefsky answered: "Yosl Edelstein, throughout the years I have made you happy, so that one year I may make you unhappy." And Edelstein said, "In our People's Theatre Wagner's opera, 'Parsifal,' goes on during Rosh Hashanah." They began to hold rehearsals, the chorus sang all of the songs from the opera. The orchestra played the original music, but the actors, instead of singing the arias and recitatives, spoke their roles in a dramatic form. Thomashefsky played 'Parsifal,' Bela Gudinsky played "Kundri," Boaz Young played a priest. The entire company of the People's Theatre participated. The play was played virtually as if it was in the Metropolitan Opera House. All the English newspapers came out with big headlines: "Parsifal on the Bowery."

The production cost in the heavy thousands. When Jews on Rosh Hashanah from the shuls came to the People's Theatre, they saw clerks with photographers and heard the harsh Wagnerian choral singing. But Thomashefsky carried it off. After the first couple of performances of "Parsifal," Thomashefsky called in the manager, Yosl Edelstein, and said, "Yosele! Have no fear, on Sukkos we will play a genuine, Yiddish play in which they will sing and dance. The Jews will want to be resurrected." Edelstein answered: "Believe me, Boris, I also want to be resurrected."





 

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