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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 24: February 19, 1953

The name, "Yiddish Art Theatre," was given by the people.
-- Maurice Schwartz excels in Sholem Aleichem's "Teyve the Dairyman."
-- The large productions of l.J. Singer's "Yoshe Kalb" and "Brothers Ashkenazi."

SHOLEM ALEICHEM'S "TEVYE THE DAIRYMAN"

"The Faraway Corner" from Peretz Hirshbein, created the Yiddish Art Theatre. The name "Art Theatre" did not come from any one person, but from the people, the audience, who came out of "Faraway Corner" and said: "This is art. This is an art theatre." And so they began to call it the "Art Theatre."

The existence of the Yiddish Art Theatre became even more apparent when they staged Sholem Aleichem's "Tevye der milkhigher (Teyve, the Dairyman)." In the comedy Schwartz was exalted as a great Yiddish artist. Through his directing and excellent acting, Sholem Aleichem's play first gained the right tikun.

Maurice Schwartz felt that for a great and important task, he had to be the director, regisseur and star of the Yiddish "Art Theatre," and he then brought out new playwrights, such as Berkowitz, Leivick, Nadir, Sackler, Zeitlin, Gottesfeld. He also staged plays from the world-literature, from Ibsen, Andreyev, Gogol, Gorky, Checkhov, Toller, Lope De Vega, Strindberg, Romain Rolland, Bernard Shaw, and also important set designers and painters, such as Boris Aaronson, Marc Chagall, Sam Leve, Van Rosen, and great musicians, such as Joseph Achron, Boris Moross, Secunda and Rumshinsky.

Maurice Schwartz, in all the years of the existence of his Yiddish "Art Theatre," was a great contrast of the old Yiddish theatre. Until Maurice Schwartz had the Yiddish theatre, very little was given about the art of light, that is, the lighting of a play. Maurice Schwartz devoted virtually as much time and energy and perhaps even more time to the sets and lighting effects, than to the play itself. Although a large part, almost the greatest part, Schwartz during the rehearsals devoted himself to the emphasis and true Jewishness of Yiddish. This theatre became Maurice Schwartz's "home." He went home only to eat a sleep for a few hours.

The "Yiddish Art Theatre" became not only the home of better Yiddish theatre, but the home of better theatre in America.

When Maurice Schwartz used to leave America for a season or two, he took the "Yiddish Art Theatre" with him.

 

They made several experiments to create a Yiddish art theatre without Maurice Schwartz, but it turned out to be a great failure. It lacked not only the great actor Schwartz, but the building, the tone-giver, the heroic power. Schwartz became a symbolic figure in the theatre arts.

They say that to be an "atheist," an epicurist, one needs to first be a hospitable man, a believer. Schwartz indeed went far away from the old Yiddish theatre. But he made it through and played virtually every one of Goldfaden's plays until "Chinke-Pinke." He went through the theatre from being a role writer to the biggest pedestal of theatre art. Not everyone who learns music is a good musician. Maurice Schwartz is a natural musician. His keen hearing and sense of music had helped him a lot in his art roles. For example, in "Blacksmith's Daughters," when Schwartz sings, working at a quadrille:

"Meydl, meydl, meydl,
I love you so;
Meydl, meydl, meydl,
I went before you in grief."

Maurice Schwartz filled his pauses with shabby tenors of popular religious melodies, or cantorial prayers, and it enters into the hearts of people, because it comes from a people's musician like Maurice Schwartz.

Maurice Schwartz was not a steady water ... he always sought new ways. Many times he wandered from style to style, until he had in a short time wandered to modernistic, futuristic productions,  which had for a short time caught on in Russia. It took a lot of diligence and a spirit of submissiveness to do "Dos tsente gebot (The Tenth Commandment)," "Di kishufmakherin (The Witch)," "Khelmer khokmim (The Wise Men of Chelm)," in a futuristic style. The productions were strange to the public, and more strange for the actors. Instead of coming in through front of the door, people crashed through a window, or through a chimney; instead of of carrying as usual a couple of sacks of one color, one sack was red, and the other -- green. A beard of a Jew had ten colors .... The text, the contents, is twisted upside down and with the legs up. For example: Halkin, a Soviet Jewish-Russian writer wrote a play on the historical theme of "Bar Kokhba." The great scholar patriarch, Elazar Hamudaʻi, is a blacksmith, and Bar Kokhba  is one of the blacksmith's workers. But who then had the habit of speaking a word against such theatre craziness? First, it was then considered the greatest spiritual art of the theatre play, and secondly -- it comes from Moscow!

Ab. Cahan, who was a realist and hated all the subtle, unnatural scenes and the futuristic style, published in the "Forward," with sharp words about such a kind of acting, that they make such fine actors as Joseph Buloff, Bina Abramowitz purimshpilers, clowns, comedians, and the scenery, the sets, he called Cossack furniture.
 

AB. CAHAN'S CRITICISM HAS AN EFFECT

Maurice Schwartz always had respect for the printed word. He began, as always, to look for new ways, and his natural, artistic sense led him on the right path.

There was printed in the "Forward" a novel from a European writer, I.J. Singer, "Yoshe Kalb." The first translation of the novel, "Yoshe Kalb," became the talk of New York's Yiddish readers. I had to wait impatiently for every continuation. It kept the reader excited to the highest degree.

When Maurice Schwartz announced that he was going to stage "Yoshe Kalb" in his Art Theatre, success was felt in the air. Although the main role of "Yoshe Kalb" was not played by Maurice Schwartz but by Lazar Freed, he strongly excelled in the role of the Nyeveshe rabbi. With "Yoshe Kalb" there began a new epoch for the Yiddish Art Theatre, a play staged from a novel.

 

"Yoshe Kalb" was a Hasidic spectacle. It had everything from the Nyeveshe rabbi. It had all the virtues that a successful play needed to have. It was exciting, interesting, a production for the eye and for warm Yiddish melodies, and for genuine Hasidic dance.

The tragedy and comedy with the production was as one. "Yoshe Kalb" was played in the time when the banks were closed. People could not raise enough money for their possible needs, but at the production of "Yoshe Kalb," it was packed. The question everyone asked: "What's next?" What can Maurice Schwartz produce after such a colossal success, like "Yoshe Kalb"? Is not everything God a Father and when he wants to ... keep it from door and gate. The same I.J. Singer wrote a novel, "The Brothers Ashkenazi," which was no smaller success than "Yoshe Kalb" as a novel in the "Forward," and for the theatre "The Brothers Ashkenazi"  was even more popular than "Yoshe Kalb," because they immediately translated it into English. The "Forward" readers and those who read the novel in English, filled the Yiddish Art Theatre for months.

"The Brothers Ashkenazi" was the second production of Maurice Schwartz staged from a novel. In "The Brothers Ashkenazi" the lives of the Jews of Lodz at the time [were portrayed]. Lodz then was a small Paris. It swelled and groped with two kinds of Jews: The German Jew and the Hasidic Jew -- The German Jew, so-called, was the one who wore modern clothes, without payes, with a short coat, who prays not three times a day, not even once, except in the case of terrible horrors.

In the "Brothers Ashkenazi" there is a struggle between the twin brothers, Max and Jacob Ashkenazi -- one a Hasid, the second a German, although both were born and raised in Poland. It is reflected in the "Ma-Yafit Jew," who pushes towards the Polish hervalye and Polish militarists. The second life is his Hasidic atmosphere. The two brothers are artistically played by Maurice Schwartz and Samuel Goldinburg. They have conflicts, scenes that this theatre used to squeak with excitement.

Singer, knowing well the lives of these Lodz manufacturers, portrayed the entire novel true and realistic, and the two brothers -- Schwartz and Goldinburg -- artistically divided both of the twin-brother roles.

A great number of non-Jews, who had read the novel in English, used to come to the performances of "The Brothers Ashkenazi."

I.J. Singer wrote a new novel that portrayed the fiery, mourning days of Hitlerism, "The Family Carnovsky."

 

Maurice Schwartz as the
Nyeveshe Rabbi in "Yoshe Kalb."

 As a novel in the "Forward," it was a great success, but when Maurice Schwartz performed it, only then did the whole thing, the entire tragedy, "The Family Carnovsky," receive its fix.

In "Family Carnovsky" Maurice Schwartz showed how to stage a modern drama, in which he played a Jewish doctor in Berlin, who Hitler had let the doctor and his family know that they are Jews.

Schwartz brought life into Singer's novels with his stage direction and play. The blessed, talented writer I.J. Singer and Maurice Schwartz were a successful combination.





 

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