About Jacob Adler, we often used to put
the question to him in reverse: What would such a man be without
theatre? Looking at his glorious, majestic face, I used to think that if
the theatre had not existed before he was born, theatre would
have begun with him. When he arrived, he brought with him a
piece of theatre; He loved to play games; he was of the Motke
Chabad and Hershele Ostropoler type, a great prankster, a brat.
Traveling across America they once
arrived in Baltimore, where business was going very well. One
time he said to me in a holiday mood:
-- Come, let's separate from the
band (meaning the company) and eat separately.
We went away to a semi-private
restaurant and left the server an especially small tip. We ate
quite moderately in this secluded room, strongly engaged over a
large steak, with two even larger knives. Adler then was not
very talkative. We were silent more than we talked. In such a
quiet moment I sometimes heard from Adler a wild outcry:
-- You love my Sonia! -- You are in
love with my Sonia! This is true! Say it is true!
He cited the scene from "Vilder
mentsh (Wild Man)" to me, where he strangles his stepmother.
Finding himself under a sharp,
bloody knife and seeing his wild eyes and agitated body, until
I became more dead than alive, that language simply took me
When he saw how dead I was, he
slowly pulled back the knife from over my eye, sat down
comfortably, and spoke with a quiet tone, as it if it didn't
happen at all:
-- What do you say, friend
Rumshinsky? Yes, I am a good actor? I scared you a little for an
I did not answer him, because I
simply didn't have the strength. He was speechless for a while,
but he sat down quietly, dealt with the steak, and said with a
-- This is all theatre, nothing
more than theatre ...
"Yontev, yontev, yontev, is still
today!" -- This is Jacob Adler's song that he wrote by himself
to sing at the feast in "King Lear."
Adler was a yontev-like actor, he
hated the commonplace, he loved beauty on the stage, even his
bags and rags were made of silk. His beggar clothes were like
that of a prince.
He sought beauty everywhere, the
honorable, the great, yes, the great, he loved to have great
actors, tall, beautiful people, even his fountain pen was large,
and with this fountain pen he always wrote with large letters,
always looking for ways to make the play a success, beautiful
Adler did not know music, did not
have a singing voice, and nevertheless his tenor and phrasing
was filled with music. Music had an effect on him. Music used to
take him out of his everyday life. The least stupid thing that
affected his mood was able to get him out of his holiday-like
spirit. And conversely, a pleasant encounter before entering the
theatre gave him taste and desire to play.
Adler often used to request and
even give orders to the cashier of his theatre, that when he
plays the boxes (the loges) should be seated with beautiful,
tall, impressive figures.
It happened that a yidene
was tasting an apple while sitting in the boxes; he cried out to the
actress with whom he was playing: It's not nice when you have an
apple, it's a public place among people!
He said the words, although they
did not belong in the play, and crying out these words, he
looked with both eyes to the Jews in the box, but in any case
the event had already brought Adler out of his holiday spirit.
That the impressive, large,
imposing figure was periodically naively childish, he was like
all artists, but Adler showed this naiveté in a greater measure
than other artists.
Once with a certain manager, Adler
earned two hundred dollars for every performance. After the
first performance the manager carried in an envelope two hundred
Seeing this envelope, Adler
muttered, like a big, unhappy child:
-- This is all for a night out!
The next day the manager did
something else. He carried a thick envelope, in which there lied
two hundred individual dollar bills, with a big rubber band
around it. Adler, seeing this thick envelope, with a
good-natured smile, like a happy child, thanked the manager.
Touring across the province, where
business was colossally large, Adler became ill from a lumbago.
The cross made him very angry. The company had to change trains
at one point. As Adler could not move for work, a carriage was
pushed and Adler was put in it, and the company followed with
tears in their eyes.
Here Adler cried out with a loud
voice: "Give alms to the Jewish King Lear!"
He took his hat off his head and
played the role of a beggar.
They treated him with money. He
then stopped singing his beggar song, and he put on his hat
again. His face then lit up with childish joy, and for a
couple of minutes he forgot the pain of his lumbago.
Adler used to say that playing
theatre two to three hours a day is not much, his whole life is
theatre, and it is as necessary for him as air to play as much
theatre as possible.