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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 22: February 12, 1953

Leon Blank and Regina Prager. -- Blank brings warmth onto the stage. -- He warms the actors and the public.
-- The pious Regina Prager with her wonderful voice.
-- In the middle of a performance, one learns about the Russian Revolution.

LEON BLANK

"Shat yidn, der shames geht! Yidn, der shames iz shoyn do! (Quiet, Jews, the shames is coming! Jews, the shames is already here!") This is how fellow actors used to relate to Leon Blank. He used to come in and give a zets (punch) on the table or on an actor's shoulder and shout: "Today they say 'Yayle oiva'! (He was descended from generations of shamosim.)  

Blank used to wait in his dressing room, always wearing Russian boots and a Russian beard. And that Blank used to pick up -- he did not use to put them on, but to pick up -- the Russian boots with the beard, and the boots and the beard needed a "fix," and they used to be Yiddish boots with a Yiddish beard.

The sudden, happy, dreamy, Jewish eyes, the two feet, a few attendees of the Jewish community used to mention a homely rabbi, a shames (sexton), a shokhet (ritual slaughterer), or a cantor.

When Blank ran in -- he used to not go in, but ran, sneezed, yawned -- he brought with him the shul, the beit midrash -- it used to be warm, a Jewish warmth: It used to be not only cheerful and fun, but really shshun-usimkha'dig, something like a Jewish cheer. That they used to cry out on the stage, the father goes, or quiet, Jews, the rabbi goes! Before he started talking, just by looking with his piercing eyes, it was already known who his father "loved" and whom he "hated."

In his playing theatre, he gave an impression that he wanted to say to the author of the play, "Will you teach me how a father or a rabbi speaks?" And he began to talk, to speak out, verbs with parables, to sing and hum an authentic Yiddish tune. He never uttered a word or a melody, and he felt like a fish in water.

Leon Blank did not used to like playing theatre, but "swimming theatre" ... No matter how big Blank's role was, the spectator got the impression that the Jew could play a bigger and stronger role. Always he was more like his role, which he played often times, even more like the play in which he had played.

 

Blank was a ruler, a commander on the stage. They never were able to understand Blank in the role of a servant, or a nebekhel (a nobody), but just the opposite, a Jew, a reh-zoger, an evil person, a strict father, and yet, rarely has an actor been able to cry of sorrow like Blank, cry like a people of thousands of years of weeping, wailing and praying.

Blank was a specific Yiddish actor. Playing such as Blank's played was rarely seen on a world stage, and indeed this was Blank's greatest virtue when he imagined the authentically specific Yiddish-Jewish father, rabbi, shames and cantor.

It is remarkable that the actor, who used to so artistically understand the aforementioned specific Jewish types, was in his private life very interested in American sports, especially with baseball.

He was a "baseball fan." He knew the yikhes of each baseball player, and he kept count of how many home runs, or how much progress the player had made, and how much he will miss him later this year [?].

It was as interesting as the rabbi and shames that he used to play. In a baseball park, he used to shout: "Oy, veh iz mir! Almost, almost a home run, or: "Jews, I will tell myself a story -- they have lost the game! And he used to sing a Gemara melody when they  -- "The Giants" -- would win. "I'm fine, I feel good, my boys (meaning the players) today were in shape (in good order)."


REGINA PRAGER

"Shabes, Yom-Tov un Rosh-Chodesh Ven Ikh Mir Far Zikh Aleyn (Sabbath, Yom Tov and Rosh Chodesh ... I Pray For Myself)." This is a song from "Shulamis," which Mrs. Prager often used to sing. The words of the song are well-adapted for the place in life, in the person of Mrs. Prager. But more well-adapted was when she would sing: "Sabbath, Yom Tov, Tog un Nakht, Lekh ikh mir far zikh aleyn," because this theatre life, this noisy night life, the women mades, even the theatre politics, the popularity of the cafe gezogekhts and talk, and the love intrigues have not affected Mrs. Prager.

Before her eyes were tragedies, murders, weddings, legal and illegal loves. She noticed it all as nothing. Better said, she did this more than noticeably, but it had no effect on her and it made no impression. She was, by nature, very God-fearing, but she did not attack anyone with piety or humility.

"God! Do not embarrass me! I beg of you, dear God, you should not embarrass me!" This is the prayer, this is the plea that she used to say in her every performance on the stage. With the words: "God, do not embarrass me," she lived on the stage for some thirty years.

In the Russian operetta, and in the opera, I often used to see similar scenes. Many prima donnas and soubrettes rarely used to go out on the stage before they had a good iberge'tslm't. This, however, was hypocritical, because in their private lives they were not saints at all. They used to mention the words, "What to God is to God, and what to people is to people" ...

Entirely opposite was the case of Mrs. Prager, She acted according to her feelings, according to what she believed, is how she behaved.

I am sure that her modestly restrained nature hindered her from being one of the greatest opera and concert singers. She would positively stand in the ranks of a Patti, Sembrich, Tetrazzini; her voice was rich in color, strong, sonorous, and she had from her nature a geshulten tone, as is the case with all of the great opera singers. Her voice was dramatic and at the same time flexible, like a true lyric soprano -- After her singing number, the theatre used to hear screams and applause, but she used to go into her room to sit and look at a book, or do something for her home. She refused to play on Rosh Hashanah, and when she could not help herself and continued to play, one had to wait until the next performance before she came home from the synagogue, which she had become accustomed to and where she prayed earnestly to God.

For my eyes the transition in Mrs. Prager's career -- from the lover-prima donna roles to the singing mother roles. I was the cause of this, and it's a shame that she was a little brusque to me at first. Being an actor, and especially an actress, she did not want to recognize so quickly that it already was time for her to play older roles. And even a withdrawn person like Mrs. Prager, for the first time also she did not want such light recognition.

For several years she sat idle, not engaged in any theatre. Her first singing mother role was the "chazante" for Boris Thomashefsky with my music -- especially written for her.

The holy patriarchal figure of the "chazante," she adapted to very well. She used the pious words of the prose, and the cantorial melodies, to speak and sing from her heart and soul.

"God, do not embarrass me!" With the words she played almost an entire season of "Di chazante."

The words of Goldfaden's "Shulamis" reflected Mrs. Prager's life.

On the Sabbath, Yom-Tov and Rosh Hashanah, I pray for myself.





 

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