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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 29: March 9, 1953

The Vilna Troupe in "Dybbuk." -- I see the play twice. -- I know the play, and they play unforgettably.
-- Isidore Edelstein is also enthusiastic; He wants to buy the rights for "Dybbuk," but Maurice Schwartz already bought it.

THE VILNA TROUPE

The first time in my life that I was in a Yiddish theatre where I did not know any of the actors, and even did not know their names, was in the Elysium Theatre in Warsaw, where they played "The Dybbuk."

The theatre hall is long and slender, with ordinary benches. It makes the impression of a Russian barracks.

I sat on a hard bench. It was very dark. I saw an old tallis on the stage that gave the impression that it was soaked in tears. In the thick darkness I saw a tall Hasidic student, with a book and a light. He looked far away, where nothing ends.

When the second curtain rose in the Beit Hamidrash, I heard chopped, torn sounds, an indistinct melody; moaning sounds; religious ecstasy, sounds that have been around for generations. It took a long time before the first word was uttered. It was almost like a great symphony playing, but without an orchestra, and I must add that no orchestra in the world and no composer could bring in the mystical Hasidic atmosphere like the movements and the broken sounds of the Jews ... I do not say that about the actors, not because I do not consider them actors, but because they were more than actors ... I did not feel like I was sitting in a theatre, but in a mystical world, where I float in the air.

The entire time of the performance I felt a pleasant shiver. My thoughts were profane. I forgot everything. And remarkably, it did not remind me a minute of a Yiddish theatre, a Yiddish type, but the highest degree of mysticism of super-humans. The sounds were not sacred, not fantastical, and not realistic, but something chopped up, interrupted, something said and not told. Nothing was too clear, too obvious; even the wedding was a torn joyous event.

The dance, the death dance ... Only one person,  [it was] not even clear enough whether it was a woman or a man, but something of a figure that sighed, gasped, in a mad, indefinite rhythm.

I was physically and mentally in an indeterminate world, just as the "dybbuk" is indeterminate. When the performance ended, I was curious to know what effect it had made on Isidore Edelstein, who is a native-born American, a full-fledged

 

attorney, the son of Yosl Edelstein, the manager of a Yiddish theatre, where they play Lateiner's plays, "Khinke-pinke," "Pintele yid"; he also had seen many American musical shows. I imagined that he would not like such a mystical, Yiddish play as the "Dybbuk."

As surprised as I was, I saw that the American-born Isidore Edelstein was a scoundrel, a troublemaker even more than me. He could hardly gather himself ... We also went to see the evening performance.

After the performance I made the acquaintance of the entire troupe. I already knew the person who played "Khonen" (the Hasidic Romeo), Aleksander Shteyn, and he is a Russian actor, and the love interest, "Leah" (the Hasidic Juliet), was played by Miriam Orleska, and although she is still so young, not long ago she graduated from a Polish dramatic school. And he who played the nervous tsadik so brilliantly was called [Matus] Kowalsky. And the "messenger," who is the leit-motif of the play, is on the stage even when he is not there, for his spirit floats around all the time -- he is the performer, the conductor of the entire symphonic performance -- the "messenger" is played by Noah Nachbush.

I also wondered who was dancing the death dance. I was told that she was eating with her husband, Kovalski, and she is Pola Walter.

There arrived a graceful, neatly dressed lady, with a fine, natural smile. She asked: "Do you eat too? And how did you get on stage, so tall, wide, long? I am, after all, a whole ballet by myself."

By the night of the second performance, I had enjoyed it even more.

At night, lying on my bed, for the first time before my eyes, I saw the entire play of the "Dybbuk" being performed, and I could not get to sleep. I gave a look, and opposite me on the second bed I saw there laid Isidore Edelstein, with his eyes open. I asked: "Isidore,  why aren't you sleeping?" He said to me, "For the same reason that you aren't sleeping." I said, "Isidore, since I'm now the manager of the Second Avenue Theatre, I want to begin the next season with 'Dybbuk,' and I want to bring four or five of the main role players to America."

However, we found out that Maurice Schwartz had already bought the rights to play the play in America [opened on October 19, 1922 at the Garden Theatre, NYC, by Maurice Schwartz and his Yiddish Art Theatre troupe -- ed.]

When the Jewish-American composer George Gershwin saw Maurice Schwartz's production of the "Dybbuk," he decided to write an opera on the text of "Dybbuk." But an Italian composer had already written an opera from the text of "Dybbuk," and it failed in Italian, and also with Rosa Raisa in America it did not reach its desired success because as I had mentioned earlier, no composer could contribute more, bring in more mystical, Hasidic atmosphere, such as the torn sounds, the groaning, the religious ecstasy of the Vilna Troupe.





 

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