Lives in the Yiddish Theatre


Abraham S. Shomer

Born on 2 August 1876 in Pinsk, White Russia, son of the famous writer Nakhum-Meir Shaykevitsh (Shm"r). He was raised in Pinsk, Odessa and Vilna, where he studied in cheders, municipal schools, and with private teachers.

At the age of fifteen (1891) he wandered off, together with his family, to New York, where he helped his father in his printing business and by publishing the magazines, "Der menshenfraynd (The Philanthropist)," "Der telefon (The Telephone)," and "Der yudisher pok (The Jewish Puck)," in which he published two comedic dialogues: "What is America" ("Der yudisher pok, N.Y. Nos. 11-12, 1895), and "Kelberne haspelus, psychological moments" (same, no. 14, 5 January 1896). At the same time Sh. studied with a private teacher. In 1896 he entered into New York University (NYU), which he completed in 1900 as a lawyer.

Sh. participated strongly in Jewish societal matters: he was one of the initiators and founders of "HIAS"; founder of the Kishinev Aid Committee for the Victims of the Pogrom; chairman of a committee to bring to America Kishinev [residents] by the thousands. As a lawyer he called out the gang of hooligans in Brooklyn who used to bring Jewish mourners to the cemetery.

In 1906 he came up with the idea that Jews of the entire world need to have a permanent democratically congress with an Executive Board. Unable to obtain from the Jewish press any


access for his idea, he issued in Yiddish and English special brochures about the subject: "How We Can Help Ourselves (1906), "A Plan to Establish a Permanent International Jewish Congress" (1907); "How We Can Help Ourselves (1907), "Primary Case of Anti-Semitism (1909), "The Jewish Question in the Light of Psychology (1912), and "The Jewish Question in the Light of Jurisprudence" (1915).

These writings, which he distributed in vain, attracted the attention of the Jewish society in various countries and were translated into various languages.

In 1917 Sh. finally realized part of his idea: there was created the Jewish congress in America (in Philadelphia, with a representation of four hundred women and men), and in 1936 it was held in Geneva, Switzerland, the first Jewish world-congress. Due to the fact that the later congresses in America and the world congress were not organized on true democratic foundations, Sh. withdrew from the movement.

Sh.'s sister, Rose Shomer-Bachelis, recalls in her book, "How I Knew Them":

"My brother inherited from our father a part of his literary talent, and at various times he had a need to bring it to expression in various ways. When he was still a young boy, Abraham often tried to write a play. I remember that he once tried for weeks at a time to create a dramatization of Sienkiewicz's famous book, "Quo Vadis."

Sh. began his career with the Yiddish theatre as an "actor." As Sholem Perlmutter tells it in his book, "The Yiddish Dramaturge," he found in his archive a program from a dramatic union in New York, "Silver's Dramatic Club," with Sh. as a member. In 1893 the club performed Shomer's play, "Der baal teshuva" in Turn Hall, under the direction of the author, and the author's son had played the role of "the butcher."

Further, Sholem Perlmutter recalls that Sh. had once said:

"The Island of Tears, which is what Ellis Island is called, has made a dramaturge out of me. Visiting there often, the 'Island,' and seeing the troubles and the torments that the Jewish immigrants had to endure, moved me to write my first play, that I call, 'On the Sea and Ellis Island,' and it was later played under the name, 'The Golden Passport.' When I later began to look for the organizations of the landsmanshaftn (mutual aid societies), I had for the scenes what I heard about and seen, written for my 'alrightniks.' "

"The Alrightniks" was performed on 25 February 1910, in Kessler's Thalia Theatre, as an "original satire-comedy of New York Jewish life in four acts," stage director -- David Kessler.

Boaz Young, who played in this comedy, tells in his book, "My Life in Theatre," that when the author read for David Kessler and his manager, Max R. Wilner, Kessler didn't like it, but Wilner simply forced him to play it. After the premiere, it looked like the play was a failure, because, "After all, this is not a play for the general public because it is a comedy, and the public loves a comedy mixed with drama, such as 'The Jewish Heart.' True, the comedy, 'The Alrightniks' does not consist merely of jokes, but also situations, but "it lacks drama and is a play full of pure comedy, for which even the actors themselves were not prepared (Goldfaden's comedies should not be counted)."

It had already been decided to take down the play after a week.

"On the second week -- Boaz Young further tells it -- the play received a completely different face. The laughter from Mogulesco ('s playing) in the scene of the meeting of the friend Anshi Shmardova was incredibly great. They also laughed a lot during Kessler's scenes, with my 'speech' at the meeting, and during the scene of the actor Gershon Rubin, who played the role of a glutton. Even myself and the actors could not control ourselves and laughed with the audience at Rubin's speech. The more we played the play, the greater the success. The box office got more and more crowded with each passing night, and we played it for ten to twelve weeks. 'The Alrightniks,' I think, was the first, pure Yiddish comedy of American Jewish life that had success on the Yiddish stage, and thanks to the author, who believed in his work."

Boaz Young later performed in the comedy and played the main role in London (1911), and in Chicago (1912-13).

"On the Sea and Ellis Island" by Abraham Shomer (ben Shomer), was especially written for Keni Lipzin and was played on 13 April 1911 in the Lipzin Theatre.

Some time later Sh. made a film in English from the film, under the name, "The Yellow Passport,," which was played by the actress Clara Kimball Young in the main role.

Sh. now gave up his practice as a lawyer and dedicated himself entirely to dramaturgy.

Sh. Perlmutter wrote about this:

"His dramas had a tense, heavy action, although in many of them he created beautiful effects with only small means. His play was never titled 'All Species,' like other plays from that time. It has always had a unified action, was carried out with the larger economy, did not offend the better taste, and appealed to the wider masses. The success of his plays comes from their theatricality, which gave an opportunity for the greater "stars" of contemporary Jewish performing arts to showcase their talent." 

On 25 August 1911 in the People's Theatre, under the direction of Boris Thomashefsky, there appeared Sh.'s drama in four acts, "Eykele mazik (The Reformed Convict)," with Rudolph Schildkraut in the title role.

On 4 March 1921 the play, in a new adaptation and staging by the author, was played in Yiddish in "The New Yiddish Theatre" in New York.

The play was taken into the Yiddish theatre repertoire in the world, and through Joseph Kessler was played in London (England), and by Paul Baratov in Warsaw, Poland, and in other countries where he guest-starred.

The drama had such success that Schildkraut later played it in German in Germany. Then, in Sh.'s own English translation, the drama was played under the name, "The Inner Man," with Wilton Lackaye [opened August 13, 1917 and ran for forty-eight performances] in the main role, and in London (England, Apollo Theatre) in 1922 under the name, "Devil Dick," in English with Morris Moshkovitch in the title role.

In October 1911, also in Sh.'s adaptation, under the name, "Der yunger dor (The Younger Generation)," there was staged for Rudolph Schildkraut Herman Sudermann's play, "Keytn-glider (Chain Links?)."

In 1911 there was also staged, according to B. Gorin, Sh.'s "Baruch Dayan Emes," a drama in four acts, (adapted from the play, "Troymulus," by Arno Holz and Oscar Yershke), and through David Kessler the one-act comedy, "Klore meshugim (Clearly Crazies?)."

On 15 March 1912 in Adler's Thalia Theatre there was staged Sh.'s drama in four acts, "Der sud (The Secret)," with Adler and Moshkovitch in the main roles.

All of the plays had shortened days [awk].

During the 1913 season Max Rosenthal appeared in Philadelphia's Arch Street Theatre in Sh.'s drama, "Style" ("Di mode").

Rose Shomer recalls that her brother had earlier read the play for Adler, Kessler and for Thomashefsky. But it was not liked. But in Philadelphia the play made such an impression that David Kessler soon staged it in New York's Second Avenue Theatre (with him and Malvina Lobel in the title roles), where it was played for many weeks with great success. Also Kessler also guest-starred with the play in Europe. Kessler's partner and manager, Max Wilner, had several Broadway managers interested in the play. The author had the play translated into English, and the well-known American dramatist George Broadhurst had the translation adapted for the American stage, and in November 1913 the play, under the name "Today," staged it on Broadway, new York. Rose Shomer tells that her brother was very dissatisfied  with the Broadhurst adaptation, and the premiere was a terrible failure. First when the author had the play put back to its original form, it was "an entire year ...  'ran' not quite on Broadway, in New York, but also in many other cities across the country, where in special companies were sent out to. Several years later, in 1930, they made a motion picture in Hollywood from 'Today'."

Sholem Perlmutter writes:

" 'Style' is a life story portrayed with the fiery temperament of a romantic, and captivating from the first scene until the final scene of the last act."

When Sh. wrote the comedy, "Der griner millioner (The Greenhorn Millionaire)," he read it for Kessler and Adler, but they did not like it. Thomashefsky bought the play for an unprecedented price: six percent of the revenue, and it appeared in the National Theatre during the 1914-1915 season [5 February 1915 -- ed.] with music by Perlmutter and Wohl.

Rose Shomer relates:

"Abraham was a very strong stage director for his plays. How was that actor or actress who dared, or allowed himself, to end a sentence from his play, as was the custom of actors at that time in the Yiddish theatre. ... With the exception of the great Rudolph Schildkraut, who wanted and demanded more direction, almost all the actors considered it an insult when they were made aware of a very false pronunciation of a word or phrase."

And so it is, due to a false intonation during the general rehearsal of "The Greenhorn Millionaire," there happened a scolding between the author and the actor Leon Blank, who played the role of "a shoemaker." But during the premiere Blank played, as the author had pointed out to him, and the success was very great.

Dr. S.M. Melamed writes:

"Abraham Shomer has made a great contribution to the modern Yiddish theatre through his numerous, magnificent and successful plays.  ... His comedy, 'The Greenhorn Millionaire,' with its gentleness, good-hearted humor, kept the New York Jewish masses in one laugh for several years."

Boris Thomashefsky tells in his memoirs:

" ... Shomer is a good reader. He reads so well, like an actor. ... When he reads he plays each character like a skilled actor. ... For myself, I have taken the role of Zalmen Puterknop, the coal man -- 'The Greenhorn Millionaire,' I gave the role of the shoemaker to Leon Blank. ... The role of the matchmaker was given to Sam Kestin. In the piece there is a role for a stupid, small-town guy. The role I gave to Lazar Freed. I staged the play entirely seriously, although half of my company did not take the play seriously. The play was soon taken off the stage. ..., 'The Greenhorn Millionaire' is one of the most famous successes of the Yiddish stage. This comedy brought to the Yiddish theatre an audience that rarely used to come to it. Our relatives came, and the 'professionals': doctors, lawyers, teachers, professors, musicians, cantors, artists from the English stage. They simply ran to see this successful comedy. Every actor excelled in their roles. ... I was very scared of this difficult role, which I had undertaken to play, the coal dealer. This is the first time in my theatre career that I had undertaken to play such a maddening character. ... I had this comedy played across the entirety of Europe. Mainly she excelled [precisely] in such countries, where the English language is entirely foreign there. Also in Argentina the play strongly excelled, the same in Brazil, in Russia. ... I also played the second act in English, in vaudeville. Mister Shomer himself translated the act for me. Also on the English stage I excelled strongly with the act. The 'Keith Circuit' engaged me for ten weeks, but I played for twenty-two weeks."

About Thomashefsky's playing the role of "Zalmen Puterknop," in Thomashefsky's book, "MY Life's Story," p. 325, there was published a spirited letter from the well-known Jewish-American director, David Belasco.

Sam Kestin tells in his memoirs:

"Abraham Shomer knew how to direct a play. He understood theatre well and had a healthy sense for realism, and for a natural tone in acting. He was also able to stand firm on what he was saying and had to follow the rehearsals, even when it was remembered that he was not right. ... The great success of ... , 'The Greenhorn Millionaire' was a surprise for every actor in the troupe.  ... The truth however, is that it was not an accident. The play was indeed good, the humor in it was a healthy one, a popular one. The action was natural, the events were there, as if chained to each other, and it played well. Thomashefsky in the role of the coal man was splendid. Blank in the role of the shoemaker played such that it could not have been acted better. Also Gershon Rubin, when in the same role, strongly excelled. And as for my playing the matchmaker, the critics have already expressed their opinion, which has given me a lot of pleasure. The season ended with the comedy 'The Greenhorn Millionaire,' and after many years, and he playing it from time to time, whenever he played it, the theater was packed. "Many people have seen the play not only once, but also two or three times."

A synopsis (content) of the comedy (sixteen pages with a song) was printed and published.

On 19 October 1918 there was staged by Maurice Schwartz in his Irving Place Theatre Sh.'s play, "Dos gayster-hoyz (The Ghost House)," with music by J. Brody. The play was soon taken off the stage.

On 3 October 1921 here in the Fourteenth Street Theatre there was staged Sh.'s "Hatikvah (The Jewish Hope)," a new drama in three acts with a prologue, with Thomashefsky in the main role. The play also was soon taken off.

The same fate was had by Sh.'s four-act play, "Der kamf (The Struggle)," which Max Rosenthal directed in the People's Theatre, with max Rosenthal, Ludwig Satz, and Berta Gerstin in the main roles.

In 1923, on the eighteenth yahrzeit of Shm"r's death, through Samuel Goldinburg, there appeared in the Irving Place Theatre Shm"r's comedy, "Der farlibter shnorer," under the name, "Oy, di libe," in Sh.'s adaptation.

On 5 November 1924 at the National Theatre there appeared from the author, his comedy, "Point of Order" (music by Peretz Sandler), with Leon Blank as "Brother President," but it also was without success.

In 1919 Sh., together with Sidney Ross, organized a film society, "The Schomer-Ross Motion Picture Company," and in the span of its two-year existence, he wrote and directed four films: "The Sacred Flame," "Ruling Passions, "The Hidden Light," and the comedy, "The Great Chamber Mystery."

On the same themes he also wrote plays in English.

For a long time Sh. was a member of the American Zionist Executive Board, Gshia of Order, "Ben Zion," actively participated in the general liberal, political life of America, and in 1919 he was the chairman of the committee in America that organized in Madison Square Garden the historical protest meeting against the excesses of Jews in Poland.

Under the harsh effects of the First World War, in 1926 Sh. issued in New York the brochure, "The Primary Cause of War," and in 1928 in Los Angeles, the book, "War and Peace in the Light of Intellectology," which was strongly praised by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

The last twelve years of his life, Sh. suffered from asthma and a weak heart. He settled in Los Angeles, California, and there he passed away on 16 August 1946.

His sister Rose Shomer-Bachelis characterized him this way in her book:

"From his early youth Abraham demonstrated a positive character, and a strong willpower. ... Abraham had a great love for the stage and was attracted to it with great respect and seriousness. He considered the theatre to be an institution, not only to entertain the audience, but also in order for them to learn, for them to touch upon and advance the social questions, etc. ... He was a serious human being, but at the same time also filled with a lust for life and a joy for life. At every gathering he was at the center. ... He was able to tell jokes, anecdotes and jokes that made his listeners laugh. He loved people, and the people loved him."

  • Zalmen Reisen -- "Lexicon of Yiddish Literature," IV, pp. 449-53.

  • B. Gorin -- "History of Yiddish Theatre," II, pp. 214, 275, 282.

  • Z. Kornblith -- "Di alraytniks" in Thalia, "The Yiddish Stage," N.Y., 4 March 1910.

  • D. B. (Sh. Yanovski] -- In theatre, "Fraye arbayter shtime," N.Y., 12 March 1910.

  • D. B. -- In theatre, dort, 22 April 1911.

  • A.K. (Ab. Cahan) -- Schildkraut as a Yiddish Actor, "Forward," N.Y., 26 August 1911.

  • D.B. -- In theatre, "Fraye arbayter shtime," N.Y., 9 Sept. 1911.

  • M. Katz -- Unzer bine, "The New Life," N.Y., 1911, pp. 426-30.

  • D.B. -- In theatre, "Fraye arbayter shtime," N.Y.,  October 1911.

  • Y.S. (Slonim) -- Today from george broadhurst and abraham shomer, "Theatre and Moving Pictures," N.Y., 14 Nov. 1913.

  • Hillel Rogoff -- Yiddish Plays and the English Stage, "Di tsukunft," N.Y., February 1914.

  • D.B. -- In theatre, "Fraye arbayter shtime," N.Y, 13 February 1915.

  • Reuben Perlmutter -- Why Aren't There Any Good Plays?, "Der tog," N.Y., 20 Oct. 1916.

  • Gustav Blum-Abraham Schomer -- An Interview, "East and West," N.Y., Nov. 10, 1916.

  • A.K. -- Shomer's "Eykele mazk" in English, "Forward," N.Y., 29 Dec. 1916.

  • L. (MIller) -- A kurtser hspd nokh a nit gelungener piese, "Di varhayt," N. Y., 26 Oct. 1918.

  • M. Grimm -- Rudolph Schildkraut in "Eykele Mazik," "Di tsukunft," N.Y., 19 March 1921.

  • J. Entin -- The Last Yiddish Theatre Season, "Di tsunkunft," N.Y., May 1921.

  • L.S. Bieli -- "Hatikvah" in the New 14th Street Theatre, "Yidishe tageblat," N.Y., 7 October 1921.

  • Ab. Cahan -- Boris Thomashefsky in Shomer's New Play, "Forward," N.Y., 8 October 1921.

  • Aaron Rosen -- The Premature Death of Shomer's "Struggle," "Yidishe tageblat," N.Y., 3 March 1922.

  • L. Kesner -- "A Point of Order," dort, N.Y., 14 November 1924.

  • Elkhanan Zeitlin -- "Eykele mazik," "Unzer ekspres," Warsaw, 31 January 1928.

  • Sh. Pan -- "Eykele mazik" by a. shomer, staged by Joseph Kessler, "The Post," London, 24 May 1928.

  • Boris Thomashefsky -- Boris Thomashefsky -- His Life Book, "Forward," 4, 5 May 1936.

  • Tina Rivkes -- Hollywood, "Der veg," Mexico, 31 October 1936.

  • Morris Meyer -- (--), "MOrgentsaytung," Buenos Aires, 8 September 1940.

  • Rose Shomer-Bachelis -- "Our Father Shomer," N.Y., 1950, p. 180.

  • Boaz Young  -- "My Life in Theatre," New York, 1950, pp. 173-76, 203-28.

  • Jacob Mestel -- "OUr Father Shomer," "Yiddish Culture," N.Y., October 1950.

  • Sholem Perlmutter -- "Yiddish dramaturges and thatre composers," New York, 1952, pp. 264-71.

  • Jacob Mestel -- "70 Years of Theatre Repertoire," New York, 1954, pp. 35-7, 44, 55, 99, 104, 111.

  • Rose Shomer-Bachelis -- "As I Have Known Them," Los Angeles, 1955, pp. 13-34.

  • Ber Green -- A shtik kalirfule fargangenhayt fun der yidisher amerike, "Morgn frayhayt," 12 June 1955.

  • Jacob Mestel -- A tsushteyer tsu yidisher teater-geshichte, "Yiddish Cultre," N.Y., October 1955.






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Adapted from the original Yiddish text found within the  "Lexicon of the Yiddish Theatre" by Zalmen Zylbercweig, Volume 3,  page 2104.

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