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The Religious Affiliation of the Great Yiddish Actor
Jacob Adler


Jacob Adler is widely regarded as the greatest Yiddish actor of all time. During his lifetime he was looked upon as the dean of the Yiddish theater movement. Although imperfect, Adler was committed to Orthodox Judaism, the religion of his birth and upbringing, throughout his life.

Adler's memoir, A Life on the Stage, is densely packed with recollections about his life as the most famous Jewish actor in the world during his time. Only a few notes from his memoir have been excerpted here, showing that Adler was born as an Orthodox Jew and died as an Orthodox Jew.


A Life on the Stage: A Memoir, by Jacob Adler

ABOVE: Sheet music for the gypsy music in act 2 of Tolstoy's The Living Corpse, with photos of Tolstoy (top center) and Sara and Jacob Adler
Souce: A Life on the Stage: A Memoir, Jacob Adler, page 369.

Text from the inside book jacket of: A Life on the Stage: A Memoir, Jacob Adler (translated, edited and with commentary by Lulla Rosenfeld), Alfred A. Knopf: New York (1999):

A rediscovery. A lost document of theatrical history written more than seven decades ago is now translated for the first time into English--the autobiography of the great Yiddish actor Jacob Adier. It is, as well, a history of the Yiddish theater--for which Adier himself was almost single-handedly responsible--in Russia, England, and the United States.

"The man's size--I do not refer to his physique--imposed a sense of peril," Harold Clurman said of Jacob Adier. "Grandeur always inspires a certain shudder at life's immeasurable mystery and might."

Adier's astonishing career as an actor took him from tsarist Russia in the late i8oos to London, and to New York at the turn of the century, where he was applauded and lionized (he was called Nesher Hagodel, "The Great Eagle") in role after role. We see Adier's powerful and revolutionary portrayal of Shylock; his Yiddish King Lear; his Uriel Acosta, from the Yiddish drama set in Spain under the Spanish Inquisition ("A classic dream, a truly great role . . . My soul was full of Uriel"); his great success in Tolstoy's posthumously discovered play. The Living Corpse.

The only son of an Orthodox Jewish wheat dealer, Adier was taught the Talmud by his rabbi grandfather, and introduced to the stage by his theater-loving uncle. We follow Adier from his school days in Odessa to his youthful boxing career, which lifted him out of anonymity, to his apprenticeship with "a hole-and-corner lawyer," to his chance meeting with a group of Yiddish folksingers whom Adier--now an official of the Department of Weights and Measures--brings to Odessa, thereby launching the Yiddish theater in Russia.

We see their first performance before a paying audience, their first production in which a woman appears, their first full-length play, called Schmendrick. And then on to the provinces of Minsk, Vitebsk, and Lodz, playing everywhere and anywhere--in granaries and stables--with stowaways who sneak up to the roof to watch between the rafters (as Adier says his lines "Birds in the heaven, tell me, pray, where is my beloved?" he looks up to see hens, roosters, and bearded men peering down at him).

We watch as Adier begins to understand the work of the actor, not to imitate but to play the part as he feels it ("The gifted artist will always give it another nuance because he lives it through in himself, in his temperament, in his life experience").

And always, in the background, the large Russian drama--the assassination of Tsar Alexander II by the revolutionaries; Alexander III's coming to power and overturning the reforms of his father, denying the Jews due process under the law, confiscating their land, shutting down their schools, outlawing their press. Adier recalls the pogroms of his childhood. And, in his adult life, the mobs destroying the synagogues and houses of study, the thousands trying to escape at the railroad station, being pushed back as Adier and the other actors in their fine clothes are taken for Christians, while old men bend low and cry out to them to "save us from death."

We see Adier forced to leave Russia, immigrating to London, facing poverty and worse, with no place to perform . . . finding a theater in a Whitechapel club, and remaining for seven years, playing first to Russian immigrants, then to London Jews.

And coming to America in 1889, taking over the Union Theatre on Lower Broadway, now embraced by the whole population of the Lower East Side.

We watch as Adier is invited twice by the producer Arthur Hopkins to perform his Shylock on Broadway: the cast would be American; Adier would speak in Yiddish (he refused both times until a friend said, "Do it. You owe it to the Gentiles. Let them see how a Jew plays Shylock"). And finally the building of the Grand Theatre at the Bowery and Canal--the first house specially built as a Yiddish theater for the more than half a million immigrants who came through Ellis Island from 1905 to 1908.

We follow Adier's passions, his three marriages to dramatic actresses--only the last, Sara, his equal on the stage--his many affairs, the lives of his children, his friendships, scandals, and rivalries.

His memoir is a revelation of a man and a world. It is brilliantly translated from the Yiddish with Lummentary throughout by his granddaughter, Lulla Rosenfeld.

From: Jacob Adler, A Life on the Stage: A Memoir, pages 6-7:
In the course of my life I have lived through three pogroms, the first of them in the years of my childhood in Odessa. As it happened, the synagogue and the Greek church were on the same street, and every year at Passover the Greeks beat up the Jews and robbed them. This first "little pogrom" began with a fearful alarm. Screams filled the air. Jews ran by with torn bloody faces, a murderous mob after them. We were saved only because we lived in the house of Rollya the Greek. I watched it all in horror with my parents and others at the courtyard gate.

That year (it must have been about 1862), the Greeks committed much robbery in Odessa. Jews were mauled and maimed, and one very poor man who sold lemons was beaten to death on the street.

For a long, long time the death of thaat very poor man was whispered and remembered in our home.

As it has now probably become clear, II was born into a simple, poor, Orthodox home. True, it was in the' great city of Odessa, we mingled with Christians, and all around us Russian was spoken. Still, it was a Jewish home, and except for the Rusissian newspapers, Yiddish was our language.

Our family became more observant andd pious when my grandfather, Reb Avremele Fridkus Adier, came t to live with us. A handsome old Jew, always in a long coat, always with a book in his hand, he filled the house with cleanliness, belief, c and peace. Not only my parents but the whole family revered him.

With my father often away on business aand my mother occupied with household tasks and other cares, it wwas he who took me to school, taught me how to read, how to pray, how to make a blessing. He loved me very much, and sometimes wheen I had been up to mischief, it was the zayde [Yiddish for "grandfather"] who saved me somne well-deserved blows. "Don't beat the child!" he would say. And hhe would take me away from my angry, excited father.

My grandmother was a fine old Yidene [Yiddish for "old Jewish lady"]. She had a shop where she sold remnants, but on Friday night she woulild lock up, come home with the keys around her waist, and make preparations for the Sabbath. Bathed and dressed in their best, she anod my mother would set the heavy brass candlesticks on both sides off the great round table, and then stand together and bless the candles.

Notes about the funeral of Jacob Adler, written by his granddaughter, Lulla Rosenfeld, the editor of his Adler's memoir. From: A Life on the Stage: A Memoir, page 379:
There were eulogies and articles in the cities he had played. An editorial in the New York Sun traced the history of his acting career. An editorial in the New York Times declared that with his passing the heroic age of the Yiddish theater had died.

For twenty-four hours before the funeral the body lay in state at the Hebrew Actors Club at 31 East Seventh Street. The portraits of Avrom Goldfaden and Jacob Gordin looked down from the black-draped wall above him, but Adler now lay simply an Orthodox Jew, the yarmulke on his head, the striped Jewish tallith tefillim over his body.

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Webpage created 9 October 2005. Last modified 9 October 2005.
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