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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 36: April 2, 1953

The three periods of Yiddish theatre. -- The uphill period, the golden period, and the downhill period.

In my last article of this series, "Fifty Years of Yiddish Theatre," which I have written in the "Forward," I want to summarize what I have written.

We have in the Yiddish theatre had three periods. The first period was the time when the theatre began to evolve, and it was going barg-aroyf (uphill), so one can call it the "uphill" period.

The second period in Yiddish theatre was a time when the Yiddish theatre was built, when we had famous Yiddish theatres, when we supposed that this Yiddish theatre would surpass everything; that one would come to us to learn; that they will play our plays on the stages of every kind. That they could call this period "The Golden Period."

The third period is the current time, when we went downhill, which were the worse years, when it was a year with less and less Yiddish theatres. They could call this the "Barg-arop (downhill) period."


The first period began with folk singers in the wine cellars, with badkhanim [jesters] at weddings, with purimshpilers. Almost in every cheder they put together a play about the "selling of Joseph," or as they used to call it, "Joseph With His Brothers." In every city or town there was someone who created time-songs. From those events he used to meet in town, where he created a song. The sad songs used to begin with a "calamity." Indeed it is a word that "where there is a calamity, there is tsores (trouble)."

When the wine cellars and in the bars would become crowded, where they used to try out their productions, they brought their singing and playing into the gardens. The first Yiddish theatre was in the "Pomul Verde" in Iasi, Romania. Later several gardens were created, where they played Yiddish theatre, also in Bucharest, Lemberg and Czernowitz.

In America the Yiddish theatre began in the chops, in the halls and in small theatres on the East Side.


The first large theatre was the Thalia Theatre, then the People's Theatre, and the Windsor Theatre. Together with the large mass of immigration there came Yiddish actors, actresses, writers, and musicians from Romania, Russia and Poland.

Initially the German Jews, who then had represented the Jews in America, wanted to disturb the Yiddish theatre, threatened the Yiddish actors, that they will be expelled from the country if they will play Yiddish theatre. Their arguments were that it was a shame and a mockery to speak publicly in a plain Yiddish. But they remained at their position, and the Yiddish theatre grew together, along with the large, Jewish immigration.

The immigration with the Yiddish theatre developed from day to day materially and artistically, with its stars, with good acting. The dramaturge Jacob Gordin with his plays gave a literary value, and he also excited the intelligent, theatre-goer.


The first period gave us stars and a Jacob Gordin. The second period gave plays, original Yiddish plays. There came Libin, Kobrin and then Dymow, Leivick, Sackler, Gottesfeld, Bimko, and each new offering from a new dramaturge was a beauty.

Who doesn't remember the simkha that occurred with Osip Dymow's "Bronx Express"? With H. Sackler's "Yiskor," with Leivick's "Shop," with Chone Gottesfeld's  "Who Will Die?," and "American Chasidim"?

This theatres were built. Jews fled to the theatre -- today an operetta, tomorrow a drama.

The first period lasted about twenty-five years; the second period -- around thirty years. In the first period they discussed the stars, and in the second period -- also already about plays, but those two periods were already gone.


Now we live in the third period.

For this writer it is hostile to write about this. It now is the "downhill period," and we are going downhill so quickly!

I created over the last years of the first period when the Yiddish theatre evolved day by day; also the entire glorious "golden period." With my brilliance and splendor, that's why my heart is so heavy. One does not want to believe that this all happened in the last century, something like a past event. Behold, it seems, at first not long after Jacob P. Adler had reigned with his majestic appearance, with his dramatic tenor, the eternal Yiddish King Lear. There sounded to my ears the tenor of David Kessler's 'Mizmor l'Dovid' in "God, Man and David"; it seems that it was not long before Boris Thomashefsky appeared in his "Broken Violin," "The Cantoress," and Yushkevitch's "The King." Thomashefsky was the fantasist who made all his dreams come true.

And here I see Jacob Gordin sitting in a coffee house with literati, actors, and they are arguing over his new play.

Though every play by Jacob Gordin was like a holiday in the city, it still rings in my ears the Psalm narrations of Madam Keni Lipzin  in "Mirele Efros"; and it stands before my ears the glorious figure of a Mrs. Kalich and the up-and-coming stars, such as Morris Moshkowitz, Tornberg, Katzman, Blank, Rosenstein, Mrs. Prager, and Ludwig Satz.

It is true that their deaths cannot be restrained, but our living stars, those who they have approached are not, after all.

And where has Maurice Schwartz disappeared to? Schildkraut? Ben-Ami? Where are they?

One often hears this criticized and calculated, whose fault the virtual collapse of Yiddish theatre is. Everyone gives their advice, and everyone throws the blame one on another. But the greatest blame for the "downhill" of the Yiddish theatre, is, per my opinion, is the language. The desire to please the English [-speakers] and attract the young people has lost the fine Yiddish that has developed in recent years, as it has been turned into a crippled English.

It is possible that the greatest critic of the speakers of English on the Yiddish stage are the youths, the younger generation who come to the theatre, about whose grandparents, father and mother have told them about it and sung for him. The true Yiddish melodies with true Yiddish humor is disappointing for the Yiddish theatre, where they come to find that there is a crippled English, in an afternoon of jazz melodies.


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