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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 21: February 9, 1953

David Kessler. -- His simplicity, his naturalness, in acting and in life.
--Boris Thomashefsky. -- His unnaturalness on the stage and in life.
-- A visit with him in the country. -- His dog Jack.


I do not know what kind of actor David Kessler would have been if he had been educated, whether he could also have been so natural in acting and so natural in speech in his life. His impudence, his simplicity made him great. In life he spoke like he felt, and on the stage he felt like he spoke.

They say that once he said to a shund writer, after the latter had read the first act of a new play: "Why write this?" I believe that only Kessler was able to express himself in this way.

Once, sitting with a writer and actors in a coffee house, he called out: "I will soon show you some scenes, without lights, sitting at a cup of tea, how I weep and how I laugh, here I am old and here I am young, here I am big, and here I am small."

And so saying he will begin to play scenes with weeping and laughing, with tears and singing. "But -- he said -- give me a why, a natural reason why I weep, why I laugh, why I am once happy, and why suddenly so unhappy? Why? Why?"

This is the "why" that had tormented Kessler his entire life. He was an enemy of small things, of supernatural, cheap goods. Only the natural, what was faithful to life, appealed to him. And the natural was reflected, even in his private life, in his actions and in his apparel.

The neat-mannered, the contorted attitude and humorous tenor tore into his ears. The false scenes and tenor used to stir up his hot artistic spirit. He could not control it. For him such a thing as control didn't exist; for him there existed two things: "Truth" and "Falsehood."

The truth comforted and cleared him up, and the wrong thing used to upset him and make him angry. He used to say it right away, or rather, he used to shout it out, no matter where and when it happened -- even in the middle of playing in front of a large audience.


For David Kessler the worst for him was in the horrible deytshmerish period, where every actor spoke this so-called "German." On the stage, kings, princes, ministers and others were vulgar. The stage was filled with paper crowns and wooden swords.

As Kessler had a beautiful, ringing voice, he used to play the lover-singer, who was always in love with a princess, or with a poor "madchen (girl)." He used to have to wear a tricot and go outside with the people outside. Then he used to argue with his actor-colleagues: "For an entire day I'm a human being, dressed like a human being, or as a human being, and when it comes to theatre at night, I imagine myself as a duck, a mocker."

Looking in the mirror, he used to say: "If I would go out into the street dressed like that, people would chase after me like crazy. They would throw me out in an instant, but on stage I was applauded."

The happiest period of David Kessler's life was -- the Jacob Gordin period. Then Kessler felt like a fish in water. The dream that he had for years became realized. He indeed created and grew, along with Jacob Gordin.


I received an invitation card from Boris Thomashefsky, that I should be his guest at his summer residence. His manager, Louie Goldberg, was waiting for me and we left. We went with several literary people, social activists and others. I asked Louie Goldberg, whether there will be enough places at Thomashefsky's for everyone who is traveling with us. He said: "If there were fifty more people, there would always be room to sleep and food and drink."

The train stopped at the small "Hunter" station. A long automobile was waiting for us. The automobile looked like an entire operetta, with all kinds of colors. A small, well-dressed chauffeur was waiting for us. We rode up the mountain until we stopped at the estate gate, on which were large letters in the shape of a half-moon: "Boris Thomashefsky."

On the right side of the gate there stood a summer theatre, with an open stage. We were able to see that nothing had played in that theatre for a long time. Everything seemed as if it had been abandoned. The sets from the last production were still hung. It was a palace of a historical play. In the palace, that is, on the stage, an animal had been turned around, indeed a "living cow," with a sad face, like someone who was lost, neglected in the summer theatre.

Louie Goldstein explained to me in short, that this pleasure, or the "craziness" to play Yiddish theatre in the summer in the country , together with the building of the theatre, costs Thomashefsky twenty-thousand dollars.

I have many times read in Russian literature about "pometchiks" (gut-baziters), about their servants and the comforts in their "estate," but I myself had never seen it.

The automobile waited at a garage, in which there stood a large, yet quite beautiful adorned "kaliaske," a magnificent wagon. The chauffeur gave greatness to the still-beautiful, noble wagon and said: "When will someone take this piece of crap out of here?"

Thomashefsky came to meet us. I saw this for myself, the pometchik, the good-owner. I wanted to believe that such an important person should have seen the former blessed soprano of Cantor Nissan Belzer and latter cigar-maker. We passed by huts, small and larger. I asked: "Who lives in these huts?" Boris Thomashefsky answered: "My guests, whom I laughed at."

I understood that my question was naively foolish, because the entire image belonged to Thomashefsky. We were going to a veranda, where there was already waiting the beautiful prima donna, Regina Zuckerberg. A small dog named "Nicky" jumped onto Thomashefsky's lap. Thomashefsky caressed him and called out: "Nicky, my boy." And across from them lay "Jack," a hunting dog, tall, lean, with long, grooved ears, with a hint of a dignified appearance.

Every move he made was accompanied by Jack: his whole soul and his watery eyes were fixed on his master.

I could not stand the audacity and security shown by this little puppy Jack, with whom one has once played the same way. I did not take my eyes off Jack. Because of his canine-aristocratic appearance, he made the whole estate look like the imaginations of the native Russian pometchiks.

I asked Thomashefsky: "How did the dog come to you?" Thomashefsky answered: "Do you mean Jack? He has been with me for twelve years. An English actor gave him to me as a gift."

Jack gave himself a standing ovation and stretched even longer than he was when he heard his name pronounced. And when Thomashefsky said "Jack is all right," Jack shook his head that he understood his master.

Regina Zuckerberg responded:

"Jack indeed is all right, but for the last five years you have completely neglected him. For the dog, it is a tragedy, unlike a human being; Jack is a hunting dog of the better sort. He lives to go on a hunt, and not lie by a Yiddish actor. It used to be that Boris used to give in the first time and play with him and look at him with delight. And Jack did not let any of the dogs around here. When a dog once wandered here, it  was woe to its years. He used to bite and tear at him. Five years ago a car overtook him, and since then he has lost all his courage, and he is satisfied that one looks at him and one mentions his name. The most interesting thing is that the aristocratic dog never used to go into the kitchen -- it did not suit him. Now he lies in the kitchen, smiles and is submissive to everyone; He feels poor, that he no longer plays a dog's first role."

Thomashefsky answered:

"So it is, my dear; one can't always play first roles."

"Yes," -- Mrs. Zuckerberg said -- "Hurt the dog and, by contrast, the actor, about whom you, managers and directors, have such an opinion."

"Dinner is ready" -- someone shouted.

Everybody was satisfied from the good meal, that they had finished eating, because the very strong, fresh cold air had taken aback every one of us, and at the same time tore up the appetite.

We passed corridors and passed many rooms, until we entered a large dining-room, where there was a richly served long, wide table. A large chair, a father's chair, for Thomashefsky, and round table chairs for some twenty people; It looked like a banquet.

Men and women came from all sides through the doors, several English actors, social activists -- every place was taken.

Thomashefsky noticed my wonderings, and he said: "It does not mean, Herr Rumshinsky, that this all for you; it is this way almost every day. But when you will bring new music to our operetta, 'Dos tsebrokhene fidele (The Broken Violin),' first then I will be the right kniak." [Editor's note: This play opened at Thomashefsky's National Theatre in November 1916, so most likely this visit to his estate was probably that year.]

After eating we tried to go back onto the veranda, but there was a cold, drizzle of rain. Thus we were in a large room, where there burnt a beautiful stove with wood. On the wide table stood a large, Russian samovar with boiled tea. Thomashefsky went up slowly on the steps, which led to his bedroom and cabinet. He went downstairs even more slowly with two bound booklets, one thick, and the other one thin, and turning to me, he said: "This thick booklet is the play, and the other is for you. Here you will find the lyrics for the operetta, 'The Broken Violin.' "

After every scene was read, he would say, "Here the Jews will applaud," and after a musical number that I had not written, he only spoke the words, "With that they will storm with applause." I thought from that:  How can he be so sure?

The next day I created the music to his words: "Ikh breng eykh a grus fun der heym (I Bring You Greetings From Home)." He took out a large, golden fountain pen and said: "This is a gift for your sweet song, 'I Bring You Greetings From Home." Baym gezegenen zikh, he said to me:

"Don't forget that I am giving you a large orchestra of some twenty musicians, and an extra ballet. I am sure that it will storm New York."

Jack, the dog, with whom I became friends in a short time, shook his fine hindquarters, as if he was saying: "It will be good."


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