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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 18: January 29, 1953

Bessie Thomashefsky stands out in Dymow's "Shema Yisrael (Hear, O Israel)."
-- Yushkevitch's "Kenig" was once played for Adler in one theatre, and for Thomashefsky in a second theatre.
-- The success of Kornblit's "Chantshe in America."

The greenhorn plays, such as "Der griner bokhur (The Greenhorn Boy)," "Di grine vaybl (The Greenhorn Wives)," and so on, reigned for a long time in the Yiddish theatre, until it got tired of the crowd and people were already speculating that the next green play would be "Der griner gal (The Green Gal)."

Boris Thomashefsky suppressed the dissatisfaction of the public, and he answered the public and the press by performing three plays that were written for literature, such as "Shema Yisrael" by Osip Dymow, "The Jews" by Chirikov, and "The King," by Sh. Yushkevitch.

Bessie Thomashefsky, who was the "stariche" of all the green plays, excelled in Dymow's "Shema Yisrael" and showed that she could also play serious roles.

The audience, which earlier ran to see Bessie Thomashefsky in comical roles, ran to see Bessie Thomashefsky in the role of Chana from Dymow's "Shema Yisrael."

In Chirikov's "Evrey," "Di yiden (The Jews)," Thomashefsky  excelled with his fine literary acting, but Thomashefsky had a great deal of patience in playing. In one scene or one act he acted like the finest, most natural literary actor and immediately fell into the tenor of Lateiner's deytshmerish prose.

With Yushkevitch's play, "Der kenig (The King)," it happened similarly as with Sholem Aleichem's plays. Per Sholem Aleichem, Adler and Thomashefsky performed his two separate plays in one night; with Yushkevitch's "The King," it was even worse. Adler and Thomashefsky played Yushkevitch's "The King" at the same time.

About the offering, the critics and the audience voiced that Thomashefsky's was better, but when it came to acting, there have been differing opinions.

As was already said, when Thomashefsky remembered and did not fall into his specific Thomashefsky tenderness, he was even more natural than Adler. In the Yiddish theatre world it was lively; the patriotten (fans) used to fly from one theatre


to a second, and the press had something to write about from this.

The stars, Adler and Thomashefsky, also did not remain silent. At each performance of "The King," they made their certain speeches.

Adler used to say unfailingly: A certain actor, meaning Thomashefsky, also plays the role of a king. But the king came from "A Yeshiva Bokhur (A Yeshiva Boy)" and "Prince Elchasnador" (Thomashefsky's role from his old repertoire).

Thomashefsky used to give his own speech: The king in that theatre came from "A Wild Man" and an "Odessa Beggar" (roles from Adler's repertoire).

When they used to meet in a restaurant after playing the same night, they used to kiss each other's feet and eat a steak together, or sweetbread with a flask of Romanian wine.

At the end of 1907 Thomashefsky in the People's Theatre produced Abraham Goldfaden's last play, "Ben Ami." This play had previously been bought by Adler. But he had no desire to play it. Finally Thomashefsky produced the play, "Ben Ami," but he staged it not according to Goldfaden's request. Goldfaden felt that "Ben Ami" was his last play, and he wanted that it should be a pure drama, without music, and Thomashefsky staged the play against the wishes of Goldfaden, as a great operetta with music, dances and marches. Goldfaden found no great joy from his last play. He was still destined to be at the first performance. The play, "Ben Ami," failed. They were already going to take it off the stage. But suddenly Goldfaden became ill, and in several days he forever closed his eyes. Abraham Goldfaden passed away on January 9, 1908. The author of the play, "Ben Ami," died, but with his death his play," Ben Ami," was given life, and it became a colossal success.

In the performance of "Ben Ami," there was a large Zion march. The entire chorus with the actors used to march with Zionist flags, with Thomashefsky at its head. Thomashefsky used to turn toward the public, and they would stand up at the time of the Zion march.

He gave a command to the ushers of the theatre, that whomever from the public doesn't want to stand, they should be led out of the theatre.

Once Thomashefsky's mother, a difficult, old woman, sat in a box and did not stand up during the march. Thomashefsky said from the stage to an usher: "Everybody in the box should stand up!"

When the usher delivered Thomashefsky's order, she said to the usher:

"Tell my zindele, Boris'ke, that he never obeyed me, and I will not obey him either. I am going home, I forgive him."

From then on she no longer came to the theatre.


For many years, Jacob Gordin dominated the better Yiddish theatres. It was a time when Jacob Gordin's new play was like a holiday in literary circles. His most successful plays were "The Jewish King Lear," "The Russian Jew in America," "Mirele Efros," "The Oath," "Kreutzer Sonata," "The Orphan," "The True Power," "The Unknown," "The Worthless," and "Without a Home."

The last drama of Jacob Gordin was called "Dementia America" ("Der mishegoss fun amerike"). The play had previously been bought by David Kessler, who later regretted it. Afterward Thomashefsky undertook to produce the play. The play did not take off. Gordin was already ill at the time of writing the play, and the failure of the play did not help his health.

Jacob Adler said to me: "Come, we will go pay a sick call to Jacob Gordin. They say that he is a sick patient." When we arrived at his house, where he lived in Brooklyn, the doors were already open, everyone had been admitted. We were shown his room, where he was lying. There were two large eyes, a thin face, and a horrible, black beard. Adler locked the door with both hands and slammed it hard.

Gordin didn't like it at all, he cringed. I saw him signal with a finger to get closer. Let Adler go, Gordin showed me that I should go. He gave me a signal to turn my ears closer to him, and he asked me in his thin voice: "What's going on in the Yiddish theatre?" I felt that one needed to tell him whatever would give him a smile, so I said: "The Thalia Theatre is playing 'The Jewish Heart' almost the entire season. Thomashefsky is already acting for a couple of months in "The Jewish Soul," and I am now writing music for a play, 'A Jewish Child' ... "

Gordin said: "When I get healthy, I want to write a play, "Der yidisher magen vos ken dos alts fartrogen (The Jewish Stomach That Can Tolerate All of This)." Unfortunately he never recovered. He had suffered from a cancer.

On June 13, 1909, he passed away.


There came to America a songbird from Lemberg in the form of Regina Zuckerberg. She first performed in America in the People's Theatre as Yehudis in Goldfaden's biblical operetta, "Yehudis un olofernus (Judith and Holofernes)."

Regina Zuckerberg could rightly be called a "Yefas toyer." Her bright face with true Jewish, large blue eyes, like cherries, with a tactile figure. Besides all the virtues, she had a sweet soprano voice.

Her theatre career had gone through as much as her two landslayt (countrymen), Regina Prager and Bertha Kalich. She sang in a Lemberg temple with the musical Cantor Halperin, and then in Gimpel's Yiddish theatre. Right from her first appearance as Yehudis, they were fascinated by her appearance. Women were always cold to her. A great jealousy was felt. Therefore she captured men's heart, and indeed the heart of Boris Thomashefsky.

Bessie Thomashefsky, who herself was a great beauty (in her younger years she competed with the American beautiful female actor Lillian Roselle), had felt  a great competition from Regina Zuckerberg, even though Bessie herself was a lot older.

The proud Bessie left Boris and played in guest-productions in various theatres in New York and in the province.

At the time when Bessie Thomashefsky left Boris Thomashefsky, Sara Adler took over a theatre in Brooklyn, the Brooklyn Novelty Theatre and engaged Rudolph Schildkraut. They produced Tolstoy's "Kreutzer Sonata." It was very strongly accepted. It played for fifteen weeks to packed houses. After becoming weak, the businesses went from bad to worse. Mrs. Adler invited Bessie Thomashefsky to several guest productions. She played a couple of weeks from her repertoire plays to great business, and indeed immediately produced "Chantshe in America" by Z. Kornblit. It was very timely, because then it was cooking with "women's rights" in the time of "suffragettes." American theatres also staged several of the suffragette plays, one of them had a great success on the American stage. It was called "Di never houms (The Never Homes)." It is called "Zi, velche zaynen keynmol nito in der heym (She, Who is Never at Home.)" "Chantshe in America" continued to have large houses. They came from every part of New York. For Bessie Thomashefsky personally, it was a great victory. The first play that she played without Boris Thomashefsky's direction and production.

In "Chantshe in America" the entire company played [the play opened on December 31, 1912 -- ed.], besides Sara Adler and Rudolph Schildkraut. But their earnings went up as before.

I noticed that Rudolph Schildkraut was angry with me and not friendly to me as always. I asked him why he was angry with me, and he said to me, "Why didn't you give the role of Chantshe's father to me? I can sing and dance, just like the actor [Hyman] Meisel" (Meisel played Chantshe's father]. And he said further: "And as for the duet with Mrs. [Sally] Schorr, 'A husband, A wife,' I wish I knew it well, even un-studied" ... and then Rudolph Schildkraut stopped speaking and sang and danced for me all the singing numbers from "Chantshe in America."

After he calmed down and ended his singing and dancing, I said to him: "Only now am I happy that you are not playing Chantshe's father ...."

"What then, I am not able?" he asked.

"You play too well," I said, "and the press will create for me a black end for making the famous Rudolph Schildkraut a clown ..."


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