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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 19: February 2, 1953

They build the "National Theatre." -- Louis Minsky, the philanthropist.
-- Osip Dymow is brought to New York. -- His "Eternal Wanderer," "Slave of the People," and "Bronx Express."
-- Sholem Asch.

Since David Kessler opened his new, modern Second Avenue Theatre, Boris Thomashefsky did not rest and grew a dislike for his People's Theatre, in which he made his career and a large fortune. He used to argue with his manager and partner, Yosl Edelstein, that he could no longer play in this old People's Theatre on the Bowery in the time when David Kessler played in a new, modern theatre that was specially built for him.

Edelstein, who was by nature a conservative person, used to argue: "Dear Boris, what do you lack in the theatre? It's wide and warm for you, and you make a beautiful living. They should swim in debt; we will quietly sit here and make money like before."

Edelstein's arguments, however, did not help. Boris Thomashefsky realized that with a conservative Jew, Yosl Edelstein, he could do nothing, and he began to negotiate and take an interest in real-estate people. He was interested in the perfect, the fine real-estate man, Louis Minsky. The old Minsky, with his distinguished appearance, who could well study a page of Gemara, was interested in almost all charities and undertakings. When people used to mention the word Minsky, it denoted Torah, charity. That Minsky never imagined that the word "Minsky" would denote: naked girls and burlesque jokes.

The older Louis Minsky often attended and was a great follower of Yiddish theatre. When Boris Thomashefsky decided to build a Yiddish theatre on the Avenue, the idea was very pleasing [to Minsky], and he built the National Theatre for Thomashefsky. He expressed that he was building a monument for himself. He did indeed engrave "Minsky" on every seat of the theatre.

The National Theatre was built with a roof garden, but a closed one, and there the young Minsky began his burlesque shows with virtually naked girls.

Boris Thomashefsky opened the National Theatre with a genuine Yiddish operetta, this "Torah'le." At the same time on the roof garden the naked girls danced with a considerable amount of burlesque jokes.

 

OSIP DYMOW

After Jacob Gordin's passing, the better drama and the dramatic actor first realized what a great force the Yiddish stage had lost, in addition to the fact that Jacob Gordin had adapted the roles for the Jewish actors, that he adapted for everyone, and that he also was a good stage director. He taught them concretely, and the significance and meaning of each phrase.

After the first performance of "Der meturef (The Worthless)," where Peter Graf played an old-fashioned watchmaker, and Mary Wilensky -- the old-fashioned Graf said to Gordin: "Ah, yes, Mister Gordin, I'm holding up well in the role!" Gordin answered: "Ah, yes, the role holds you up very well." In almost all the roles in Gordin's plays, the roles carry the actor seventy-five percent.

Boris Thomashefsky, though an operetta actor, was the first to realize after Gordin's death that he needed a new playwright. Thomashefsky then left for Russia. This was at the beginning of the summer. There in Lodz he met Osip Dymow, whose play, "Shema Yisrael," he had performed several years back. He attended a production of "Der eybiger vanderer (The Eternal Wanderer)." He saw the impression that the play made on the spectator. He made an offer to Dymow that he should come to America. Dymow accepted the proposal.

Thomashefsky saw the play played in Russia. The Yiddish translation was made by Dr. Mukdoni.

At the reading for the company in New York, the play failed. The actors prophesized that they would not play the play more than one night, but their prophecy was not fulfilled, as always, "The Eternal Wanderer" was strongly accepted by the New York public, even more than in Russia.

In the literary world Dymow became known for his drama, "Nyu (New)," after the pogroms in Tsarist Russia, the "Jew" awoke in him, although he rarely was in Jewish society. And he wrote "Shema Yisrael" and "The Eternal Wanderer."

The free America affected him, and he wrote several comedies with a special "Dymow humor," which are beyond wit, but it was also critical and biased.

In his two comedies, "Di velt in flamen (The World in Flames)" and "Shklafn fun a folk (Slaves of a People)," one could see for oneself an entirely different Dymov. "Slaves of a People" brought out the genial Ludwig Satz in the role of "Joseph the Poet."

In "Bronx Express," which was played in several languages, Rudolph Schildkraut excelled in the role of "Khatzkel."

After Jacob Gordin's death, the then young aristocrat Osip Dymow was the correct playwright, who, with his lighter, effervescent pen, enriched the Yiddish stage.

In the musical world, they said: When there would have been a Mozart; when there would not have been any Beethoven; when there would not have been any Wagner. Osip Dymow was the only one who forbade the public and the actors for the modern Yiddish drama.

As I have already mentioned in my previous article, Sholem Aleichem's plays failed, only because neither the public nor the actors were prepared for a Sholem Aleichem style.

In his play, "Der shtot-gayst (The City Spirit?)," Samuel Goldinburg had an important role as the city spirit. The play did not fail, but Thomashefsky took it down before its time, because he was done with mine [meyner] without an operetta. It may still be one of the most original American plays. It can even be made into an opera.

Osip Dymow was and will remain the European intelligentsia and aristocrat, both in life and in his plays.

Osip Dymow in life also had a very sharp wit. A couple of days after the death of manager Yosl Edelstein, I said to him: "Already Yosl Edelstein also is no more." He answered: "Who told you that he is not? He is here, he is here. He no longer comes to the coffee house, but he is here." Once, at seven o'clock at night, he said to me: "Come, Let us go to Broadway to see a production." I said: "Well, good, let us go." He said, "Let's go see a play that is a great failure." I said to him: "Why something that's a failure?" He said: "A successful play everyone sees, and in that play, even a failed one, has one or two good scenes, or moments can be used and no one will know, because no one will see it ..."

While directing his play, Dymow said that there are phrases that are said one way, but they mean something else. Lazar Freed, the actor who was in the company, asked him: "I don't understand, they say one thing, and they mean something different." Dymow said: "For example, when a woman, who you do not like very much, cries out, 'Let me be happy! Let me be happy!'
she does not please the actor ...
 

SHOLEM ASCH

Sholem Asch was the opposite of Osip Dymow. Osip Dymow was not brought up or educated as a Jew, although he was born of fine Jewish parents. He was a student in a gymnasium, then was in the Peterburg Forestry Institute, and later he was a novelist and playwright; all of Dymow's friends and colleagues were Christians. Even the editor of the former anti-Semitic Russian newspaper, "Novoye Vremya," Alexei Sergeyevich Suvorin, was one his friends. Nevertheless, the pintele yid, the essence of Jewishness burned inside him, and later became even greater. Sholem Asch, on the other hand had, had an authentically Jewish education. He was born in Kutno; until he was seventeen he learned in a cheder and in a yeshiva. He could not read a small book in a foreign language, and this was not done because it was heretical -- but he was flattering to the Christian world at the beginning of his career. In a Sholem Asch drama there were never any bad Christians; most often there were bad Jews -- but all the Christians were good and pious.

About his play, "Unzer gloyben (Our Beliefs?)," that Boris Thomashefsky had produced in the National Theatre, Sholem Asch screamed to Thomashefsky: "Give me a good sheygets (gentile)!"

In his play, "Kiddush Hashem," there is an old gentile -- he is very holy ... Not a man, but something like an angel ...

When I saw his play, "Got fun nekome (God of Vengeance)," I had the same feeling as when I saw Shakespeare's "Shylock" -- two works of art, but both are pasquilles [a pasquil is a form of satire] on the Jewish people. In the first play a torah was dragged into a brothel, and the second is blood-thirsty ...

Sholem Asch's plays received no great applause on the Yiddish stage, although he is an extraordinarily great talent ... This flattering of the Christian world was felt in all of his plays.





 

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