Sunday, 2 October 2016


            He was born in the village of Asitnyatshke (or Tarashcha), near Kaminka, Kiev district, Ukraine.  His grandfather, Avrom-Yankev Tomashevsky, known as the cantor from Talne, was at the time the cantor in Kaminka.  His father, Pinkhes, also had a fine singing voice and played the fiddle.  When Borekh/Boris was four years of age, his father moved to Zlatopol to take a position with Brodski’s sugar factory and had his son stay with the grandfather in Kaminka; there he had him learn Hebrew and Torah with Rashi’s commentaries and also made him a member of the cantor’s choir.  The youngster soon acquired a reputation for his “fine soprano” voice and as a “little comedian,” because in religious primary school he would pretend to be an old Jewish woman or imitate the speech of a stutterer.  An uncle of his, a traveling businessman, recounted stories to him of Goldfaden’s theatrical troupe and taught him the ditties from Goldfaden’s Di bobe mitn eynikl (The grandmother with the grandchild) and Di kaprizne tokhter (the capricious daughter).  Two or three years later, he left for Kiev, where his parents and family had in the meantime moved.  His father was now quite well-to-do—he owned a factory that produced vinegar and fruit drinks—and he guided his son, the “singer,” into opera and introduced him to a Yiddish opera chorister who had sung with the famed cantor Nisn Belzer in Berdichev.  On the basis of this chorister’s recommendation, the eleven-year-old Thomashefsky joined Belzer’s choir and stayed there for two and one-half years, living in the cantor’s home.  In 1881 Thomaskefsky and his family made their way to the United States.  Initially, young Boris had two occupations in New York: he worked in a factory making cigarettes (which were filled with matches that caught fire by rubbing them) near the Bowery, and he sang on Shabbat with the cantor’s choir at the Henry Street Synagogue.  In the factory he came to know one Avrom Golubok, a cigarette-maker by trade, whose two brothers were actors in the Yiddish theater in London.  Golubok also showed him a poster that had been sent to him with the name “Koldunye” [one of Goldfaden’s operettas] and the name of his brothers, the actors, on it, and he said that, when he had enough money to purchase ship tickets, he would bring his brothers to New York and then there would be theater in Yiddish in New York as well.  This interested the already enterprising young Thomashefsky.  He went to the president of the Henry Street Synagogue, who was very fond of Thomashefsky for his beautiful singing voice, and laid out for him a plan of this new business, and the next morning eight tickets were sent to London for the members of the Yiddish theatrical troupe.  The first performance of this “troupe”—which was also the first performance of Yiddish theater in New York as a whole—took place in July 1882 in Turn Hall on Fourth Street between Second and Third Avenues.  Koldunye, oder bobe yakhne (Koldunye or the witch), an operetta in four acts by Avrom Goldfaden, was thus staged.  Thomashefsky—lauded on the poster as the “world-renowned master singer”—played the role in the operetta of Mirele in the first two acts and the role of Moyshe, the babka-seller, in the third act.  For many years thereafter he likewise played female and male roles equally.  This was the sole performance of the amateur troupe, because the “Immigrant Committee” launched a fight against performing theater in “zhargon” (Yiddish), and everyone feared the “Immigrant Committee.”  Thomashefsky was even dismissed from the choir in the Henry Street Synagogue because of his participation in the performance.  He went on to make a number of attempts (partially with his father) at acting in theater on the East Side of New York and in Newark, New Jersey, wandering from one place to another looking for work; he lived in Philadelphia, in towns in New Jersey, on Long Island; for a short time he attended an English school, took piano lessons, worked in a factory polishing covers to clocks.
            It was in this period that Thomashefsky wrote his theatrical pieces: Aliles dam (Blood libel) and Menakhem ben yisroel (Menakhem, son of Israel), “a drama in four acts”; Di khalutse, oder dovid velvele (The [female] pioneer, or Dovid Velvele); and Der matroz, oder der griner shuster (The sailor or the cobbler recently arrived [in America]).  In 1886 he again assembled a troupe, staged performances in Chicago and Baltimore (1887), where he happened to meet the sixteen-year-old Bessie Koyfman (later, Bessie Thomashefsky), whom he would soon thereafter marry and with her build his glorious theatrical career.  From 1892 on he continued for more than three decades to progress.  “The prince of Yiddish theater”—as he was called after his great success in that year in Y. Lateiner’s play Aleksander, oder der kroynprints fun yerusholayim (Alexander, or the crown prince of Jerusalem)—was by nature ideal for heroic operettas and light musical comedies, though he evinced not a little gift for dramatic roles as well, and at the same time as he staged cheap operettas and pulp contraptions, he also staged dramatic works by L. Kobrin and Z. Libin, S. Yushkevitsh and Y. Gordin, O. Dimov and Y. Tshirikov, Avrom Shomer and Avrom Goldfaden, as well as works by Goethe and Schiller, Hauptmann and Zangwill, Hugo and Shakespeare.  Thomashefsky was also the author of a great number of operettas and plays which he staged in his theaters.  He published nearly fifty theatrical works (forty-five of them listed in Zilbertsvayg’s Leksikon fun yidishn teater) over the course of his career.  These were operettas, comedies, dramas, “comedy-dramas,” folk plays, theater pieces, dramas “with song and dance,” reworkings, “conceptions,” and “adaptations.”  Many of these were quickly pasted together contrivances with one person’s phrase, or idea, or little song, or just a word.  The play Yude hamakabi (Judah Maccabi) or Khane mit di zibn zin (Hannah and her seven sons), for example, was no more than an imitation of a play that he had seen by Zilberman in the Oriental Theater.  In this way was also born his enormously successful operetta Di khaznte (The cantor’s wife).  Many of his plays, the prose texts for which he ordered from other writers and which he they reworked, thus had several writers: the author, the plot writer, and the musical arranger.  This was precisely how it transpired with his most successful of Thomashefsky’s operettas: Dos pintele yud (“The Little Spark of Jewishness”) of 1909, written initially by Moyshe Zayfert at Thomashefsky’s request, but when he saw the play in Thomashefsky’s staging, Zayfert said that he would not begrudge Thomashefsky full authorship in the least, for he could never have made it as successful himself.  There were among his work better plays written in a fine vernacular style, a logically connected plot, and with developing dramatic action.  Dos farblondzhete shefele (The lost sheep) of 1913, Di poylishe khasene (The Polish wedding) of 1914, Dos tsebrokhene fidele (The broken fiddle) of 1916, Di khaznte of 1916, and others were fine Yiddish operettas; Der goldener fodem (The golden thread) of 1922, a drama in which he played both roles of Avrom Goldfaden and Boris Thomashefsky, was a genuine work of literature.  Of his theatrical pieces, only the following were published: Di yidishe neshome, oder berl kokhlefl (The Jewish soul, or Berl the busybody), a musical drama in four acts, by Y. Ter, adapted by B. Thomashefsky (Warsaw: Melodye, 1909), 56 pp.; Dos pintele yud, an operetta in four acts, by B. Thomashefsky (Warsaw, 1911), 60 pp.; Dos tsebrokhene fidele, an operetta by B. Thomashefsky, music by Y. Rumshinski (New York, 1917), 42 pp.; Di poylishe khasene, a folk play in three acts, with a prologue and an epilogue, by B. Thomashefsky (Warsaw: M. Goldfarb, 1928), 48 pp. (this play appeared in New York in 1914 in New York, printed by a typewriter).  According to Zalmen Zilbertsvayg, he was also the author of Di neshome fun mayn folk, di neshome fun yisroel (The soul of my people, the soul of Israel), an operetta in four acts, by N. Rakof (Warsaw: M. Goldfarb, 1926), and not the author of Shlemke un rikel (Shlemke and Rikel), a comedic operetta in four acts.  The actual author of this operetta was Y. Lateiner, and he called it Zayn vaybs fraynd (His wife’s friend). In addition the following were produced on a typewriter: Di yudishe kroyn (The Jewish crown), an operetta in four acts, by Boris Thomashefsky, 48 pp.; and Dos farblondzhete shefele, a drama in four acts, by Boris Thomashefsky, 94 pp.—both (New York).
            Thomashefsky’s literary activities were not solely limited to theatrical works.  In 1908 he published in book form Thomashefskis teater shriftn (Thomashefsky’s theatrical writings) (New York: Lipshits Press), 81 pp., in which was included his memoirs about the beginning of Yiddish theater in New York and his sketches: “Di ershte forshtelung” (The first performance) and “A yold brengt a pyese in yidishn teater” (A dupe brings a play to the Yiddish theater), among other items, which were apparently in part published earlier in Di varhayt (The truth).  In 1909 he founded the theatrical publication Di idishe bine (The Yiddish stage), “a weekly newspaper dedicated to all wings of Yiddish drama and Jewish music.”  In this weekly that appeared from November 19, 1909 until April 29, 1910, he published numerous articles and memoirs about the Yiddish theater, as well as chapters of an unfinished novel entitled “Tsvey shvester, origineler roman fun dem idishn teater-lebn” (Two sisters, an original novel of life in the Yiddish theater).  Aside from pieces by Thomashefsky, the newspaper also published theater news, articles about the theater written by other authors, correspondence pieces from various cities and countries about Yiddish theater, biographies and biographical notices concerning Yiddish actors, and reviews of Yiddish theatrical performances.  Beginning in 1913 and going until the last year of his life, he published hundreds of articles, theatrical feature pieces, biographical character sketches, travel descriptions, and primarily his valuable chapters of memoirs, both from his own life in theater and from the history of Yiddish theater in America generally.  The great majority of his published writings appeared in Forverts (Forward) in New York over the course of the years 1913-1936.  However, he also published in: Di varhayt (December 5, 1915) in New York; memoirs of singing as a chorister in his youth, in the anthology Di geshikhte fun khazones (The history of the cantorial art) (New York, 1924); memories of Jacob P. Adler, in Morgn-zhurnal (Morning journal) (April 26-27, 1926) in New York; on the first Yiddish theatrical performances in America, in Kalifornyer idishe shtime (Jewish voice of California) (January 4-May 7, 1929); memoirs of Adler, in Parizer haynt (Paris today) (February 10-11, 1929); and memoirs of Rudolph Schildkraut, in Nayer lodzher folksblat (New Lodz people’s newspaper) (October 19-20, 1930); among others.  Thomashefsky’s memories about the conception and development of Yiddish theater in the United States were published in Forverts twice, and those were two special treatments.  The first series appeared in the newspaper between April 2, 1916 and December 2, 1917 and was interrupted prior to completion.  The second series appeared in 1935 (from November) and 1936, and it later was included in his book Mayn lebnsgeshikhte (My autobiography) (New York, 1937), 386 pp.  The chapters of this book constitute the first part of his “life’s story” (the second part never appeared).  Thomashefsky’s “life-story”—if one ought not actually dub it in sum the overflowing descriptions of his numerous “love-stories”—contains a great deal of valuable material on the history of Yiddish theater in America and in general is of significant literary-artistic value.
            The general crisis in Yiddish theater in the 1920s and 1930s also hit Thomashefsky with his wild theatrical entrepreneurship.  In 1923 he opened a Yiddish theater on Broadway, where he played together with Rudolph Schildkraut and Ludwig Sachs and to which he brought the Vilna Troupe from Europe, but all this took months and this new undertaking of his closed.  He left to stage English (English) in 1925 and performed across the United States, Canada, South America, and Europe; staged Yiddish plays in English (in 1931 his son Harry’s adaptation of Di khaznte as The Singing Rabbi played at the Selwyn Theater in New York), but none of these had the least success.  On the skids, Thomashefsky no longer had a theater, and he with his second “life partner”—Regina Zuckerberg—went off to sing and act in a wine cellar on the East Side.  He died of heart failure.  Over 50,000 people attended his funeral (July 11, 1939).[1]  He left two sons—Harry Thomashefsky acted in Yiddish theater and lived with his father in Knickerbocker Village on the East Side; and Theodor Herzl Thomashefsky [later, Ted Thomas] was the author of scripts in Hollywood and lived with his mother there.[2]

                                Thomashefsky as Hamlet

Sources: Zalmen Reyzen, Leksikon, vol. 1 (with a bibliography); Z. Zilbertsvayg, Leksikon fun yidishn teater (Handbook of the Yiddish theater), vol. 2 (New York, 1934), cols. 804-40 (with a highly detailed bibliography); B. Gorin, Di geshikhte fun yidishn teater (The history of the Yiddish theater), vol. 2 (New York, 1918), pp. 155, 242 (with a listing of Thomashefsky’s plays); B. Vaynshteyn, Di idishe yunyons in amerike, bleter geshikhte un erinerungen (The Jewish unions in America, pages from history and experience) (New York: United Hebrew Trades, 1929), p. 125; Vaynshteyn, “Di ershte yorn fun yidishn teater in odes un in nyu york” (The first years of the Yiddish theater in Odessa and New York), in Arkhiv far der geshikhte fun yidishn teater un drame fun yivo (Archive for the history of Yiddish theater and drama of YIVO), edited by Yankev Shatski (Vilna-New York, 1930), vol. 1, p. 252; Ab. Cahan, foreword to Boris Thomashefsky, Mayn lebnsgeshikhte (My autobiography) (New York, 1937), pp. i-viii; Cahan, in Forverts (New York) (July 23, 1939); obituary in Forverts (July 10, 1939); M. Osherovitsh, in Forverts (July 11, 1939); “50 toyznt bay tomashevskis levaye” (50,000 at Thomashefsky’s funeral), Forverts (July 12, 1939); Y. Rumshinski, in Forverts (July 15, 1939); Rumshinski, Klangen fun mayn lebn (Sounds of my life) (New York, 1944), references to Thomashefsky spread through numerous chapters of the book; Y. Mestl, in Yivo-bleter (New York) 25 (March-April 1945), pp. 271-74; Mestl, 70 yor teater-repertuar (Seventy years of theater repertoire) (New York, 1954), see index; B. Yong, Mayn lebn in teater (My life in the theater) (New York, 1950), pp. 150-52; Sh. Perlmuter, Yidishe dramaturgn un teater-kompozitorn (Yiddish playwrights and theatrical composers) (New York, 1952), pp. 98-110; A. Mukdoni, In varshe un in lodzh (In Warsaw and in Lodz), vol. 2 (Buenos Aires, 1955), see index; Yankev Tikman, Tsili adler dertseylt (Celia Adler explains) (New York, 1959), see index.
Yitskhok Kharlash

[1] Translator’s note. Newspapers at the time estimate the number at closer to 30,000. (JAF)
[2] Translator’s note. There were two other children, Esther (1889-1895) and Milton (Mickey) (1897-1936), who predeceased him. (JAF)

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