The Remarkable Zalmen Zylbercweig
and his Lexicon of the Yiddish Theatre

 

The Lexicon of the Yiddish Theatre
1931-1969

Zalmen Zylbercweig was the editor and main force behind the six-volume "Leksikon fun yidishn teater (Lexicon of the Yiddish Theatre)", a compendium of more than 2,800 Yiddish-language biographies and short histories of those individuals and organizations once involved in some way with the Yiddish theatre.

At the Museum of Family History, and with the cooperation of Zylbercweig's stepdaughter, we have undertaken a project that will ultimately result in the translation of all six volumes, as well as the unpublished seventh volume. This translation project, i.e. the complete translation of all seven volumes from Yiddish to English, is ongoing, and to date more than sixty percent of the biographies have been translated.

The Museum's intent is to keep the memory alive of those once involved in the Yiddish theatre, and the translation of these many biographies and histories goes a long way in furthering this goal. It is hoped that these translations will be of interest to you, the museum visitor, and that it might help you learn more about the Yiddish theatre, or at least about an individual or organization you are keen about.

This exhibition is part of the overall mission that the Museum of Family History has undertaken, i.e. to keep alive the memory and enhance the appreciation of Jewish culture, not only as it once existed but as it exists today. The Museum also wishes to honor the memory of Lexicon editor Zalmen Zylbercweig who remarkably had dedicated himself with all his heart and at great personal cost and sacrifice to the preservation of Jewish culture and the history of the Yiddish theatre.

 

Zalmen Zylbercweig
1941

According to an April 1931 New York Times article authored by William Schack, which announced the publication of Zylbercweig's first volume of his Lexicon:

"This extensive material has been gathered almost single-handed by Zalman Zilberzweig (sic), a Polish journalist and translator of many plays into Yiddish, by means of questionnaires, interviews and an assiduous study of the Jewish press of the last thirty years. In the course of extensive travels he looked up old-time neighbors of his subjects and scanned the walls of their homes for photographs. At Jassy, Rumania, he arrived just in time to interview the some-time secretary of Goldfaden before he betook himself to a home for the aged. Mr. Zilberzweig also ransacked the library of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the British Museum, and that rich source, the Institute for Jewish Culture at Vilna, Poland.

Conceiving the plan in 1914, Mr. Zilberzweig made his first attempt to collect data immediately after the war. In 1922, with the aid of a theatrical magazine he published in Poland, he continued his efforts. He corresponded with friends in the Argentine and two years later went to Palestine as newspaper correspondent, where he found further sources of information. Coming to this country in 1926, he interested Abraham Kahn (Cahan--ed.) editor of Vorwaerts (Forverts/Forward--ed.), and the latter put him in touch with the Hebrew Actors' Union, which gave him its hearty support."

Schack further writes that "it helped him in gathering data, in disposing of subscriptions, in encouraging benefit performances to defray the costs and in other ways. A committee created to assist him included Max Gabel, Charles W. Groll, Jacob Kalich, Joseph Rumshinsky, Maurice Schwartz and Reuben Guskin. Jacob Mestel of the Jewish (Yiddish-ed.) Art Theatre is the assistant editor of the Lexicon."1

At the end of the article, the author tells the reader that Zylbercweig is soon off to South America, where he will be collecting yet more material for his future volumes.

According to this article, the original plan was to publish the Lexicon in three volumes, whereas in the end six volumes were published, with a seventh remaining in galley form, unpublished.

Thus, the first volume of the Lexicon was published in New York in 1931; the sixth in Mexico City in 1969. Zylbercweig had completed work on a seventh volume, but due to his untimely death in Los Angeles, California in 1972, the final volume was never published. Until this point it has remained silent, so to speak, until now sitting idly in galley form within repositories in the United States and Israel.

Here is the translation of a Yiddish-language article that was published in an unnamed newspaper, dated 16 October 1928:

"Lexicon Committee" Established by the Yiddish Artists Union in Poland
The "Lexicon" Should Cost 14,000 Dollars.

According to the initiative of the management of the Yiddish Artists Union in Poland, there has been founded a committee by the artists Itzhak Nozyk, Dovid Lederman, and Zishe Katz, who may direct the work of the "Lexicon" for the Yiddish theatre in Poland.

The committee has this day called a conference of all the artists who are in Warsaw, to familiarize them with everything, matters that have a connection to the "Lexicon of the Yiddish Theatre".

During this conference, Mr. Zalmen Zylbercweig, the editor of the "Lexicon", took part, who familiarized those present with the preparations, which were made for the Lexicon so that it may be published as soon as possible.

The "Lexicon" will be published in America, through the local Yiddish Actors Union, and with the assistance of the Yiddish Artist Union in Poland. This will hold 1,600 pages. The edition of the Lexicon is calculated to cost 14,000 dollars. Each "Lexicon" will contain images and biographies of all the Yiddish actors and theatrical workers since the onshteyung of Yiddish theatre into a number of 1600.

In order that the Lexicon should be published as quickly as possible, there must be created a large number of subscribers.

In the conference that was completed, the parameters were written up the same as agreed, [which] paid for the first provision of information, [along] with the decision to create a greater number of subscribers for the "Lexicon."


And here is a short blurb in a Sunday edition of "Rampa", Anul XIII, No. 3171, dated 19 August 1928:

"We received a visit at our newspaper by Mr. Zalmen Zylbercweig,  who is currently undertaking a very interesting study tour in Europe.

The mission of Mr. Zylbercweig is to study objectively the historical evolution of Hebrew theatre, which strange to say has a valuable tradition that is quite old, despite its extraordinary worldwide spread, and which has not yet been subjected scientific study, is only superficial. With support from the Hebrew Actors Union in New York and American Jews,  Zylbercweig -- a young journalist in Poland -- is currently first undertaking a thorough research, in order to draw up an encyclopedia of Jewish theatre...."


 

THE CONTENT AND LAYOUT OF THE MUSEUM'S LEXICON TRANSLATION PROJECT
 

The reader should take note of the content and layout here, so they may best navigate through this major project.

  • On the "questionnaire page", you can read an English translation of the Yiddish-language questionnaire that was sent out to all the prospective actors, actresses et al who were given the opportunity to have their biographical information appear in what would turn out to be seven volumes of the "Lexicon of the Yiddish Theatre".

  • Starting in January 1929, in cooperation with the Yiddish Actors Union in America, Zylbercweig put out "Lexicon" bulletins on a periodic basis, to inform actors et al of the doings of the "Lexicon" committees, its activities, its efforts to raise money for the publication of the "Lexicon" by various means, etc. You can read the English translation of some of the "Lexicon" by clicking on the link above.

  • A number of benefit performances and testimonials in honor of editor Zalmen Zylbercweig were given in both the U.S. and abroad, both prior to subsequent to, the publication of the first Lexicon volume. You might enjoy reading about them.

  • You might like to read the introduction written by Zylbercweig, for the first volume of the "Lexicon". It is very interesting, as it gives one insight as to the preparation and inner workings of Zylbercweig, the various Lexicon committees, as well as the actors unions, representatives, and especially those actors et al from whom he sought biographical information from.

  • The "graphics page" contains the single major illustration that is featured in each of five of the six published volumes, as well as links to a link to the original, unpublished, Yiddish-language seventh volume. Each graphic is linked to the Museum's list of translated biographies for each volume. There is also a separate webpage that lists the names of all those who once passed through Maurice Schwartz's Yiddish Art Theatre, which was based in New York City.

  • The main list of those biographies alphabetically lists the names of all the translated biographies, along with the town/city in which the person was born (if known), and the number of the volume in which the particular biography appears. Each name listed is linked to the webpage on which exists the translation, so one need only click on any of the links to be taken to the page and read the biography in its entirety.

    There are also smaller web pages, each one dedicated to a particular volume. Thus, there are eight separate pages of listed biographies, though the names of all those whose biographies have been translated can be found on the main biography page.
     

EXHIBITION DATABASES

The Museum has several privately-held spreadsheets, replete with data, relative to this project. Its wish is that these databases be made freely searchable, online within the Museum of Family History website. However, the Museum cannot accomplish this without the assistance of a volunteer, who would be willing to come forth to create such a database. If you are such a person, please contact the Museum.

The Museum's data regarding Zylbercweig's "Lexicon of the Yiddish Theatre" has two components:

  • The main database contains the names of all those individuals and now-defunct organizations that have biographies featured in the seven volumes of the "Lexicon". Besides the names, one may find (when available) the town or city of their birth, as well as the number of the page on which one would find the original Yiddish-language biography within the Lexicon. The Yiddish Book Center, in cooperation with Internet Archive, contains pdf files of each of the six published Lexicon volumes. The aforementioned database contains not only the specific page numbers in the hard copy of the "Lexicon" volumes, but the pdf version of each volume as well.

  • There are also nearly four-hundred photographs contained within these seven volumes, and the Museum has a finding aid for these photographs, along with English translations of all of the captions.

  • Until an online, searchable database is created, one may contact the Museum in order to enquire about a particular individual or organization, e.g. whether someone has been biographied within this work, or perhaps on what page a biography is located, etc.


SOME PRACTICAL ASPECTS OF THIS PROJECT

The Museum of Family History is not only unfunded, it does not actively seek contributions. Thus, the Museum hasn't the financial means to pay those capable of translating the Lexicon biographies. Because of this, the task of translating these many volumes rest on volunteers, especially yours truly who has translated ninety percent of the biographies. This means that the time-consuming job of translating the entire seven volumes will not be accomplished overnight, and perhaps (unfortunately) never will. One can only hope.

As I am not a professional translator, I cannot state that each biographically is translated without error. There are indications within a number of these biographies of translation difficulties, with words, phrases, etc. Please forgive any errors that might have been made; appreciate the large amount of effort and painstaking work that has been done to this point in order to accomplish our goal.

Of course, the Museum always welcomes volunteers to aid in the translation of the remaining Yiddish-language biographies into English, as well as monies to fund the payment of "professional" translators if needed.

If you are interested in some way with this project, please contact the Museum directly by e-mail.


TO BEGIN YOUR JOURNEY INTO THE WORLD OF ZALMEN ZYLBERCWEIG

Since no online, searchable database currently exists for the "Lexicon" biographies, you must search for any names of interest by perusing the various lists contained within this exhibition.

Might I suggest you first visit the "questionnaire page", so that you may get some sense of what biographical information you might find as you read any of the translations.

Then visit the project's "graphics page" and click on the "entirety" link that will take you to the main biographical listings; or, alternatively, on any of the graphics representing a particular "Lexicon" volume.

The Museum will be adding more material to this exhibition as time permits, so please check the Museum's "Recent Updates" page from time to time, or sign up for the Museum's blog or e-newsletter, Perspectives.

I hope you enjoy reading about not only the acting greats of the Yiddish theatre, but also its supporting actors and actresses, its directors, its chorus singers, its prompters, the literary critics who wrote about the Yiddish theatre et al.

Through its many trials and tribulations, its ups and its downs, the history of the Yiddish theatre is a fascinating story and one quite worth your attention!


Best wishes,

Steven Lasky

Founder and Director
Museum of Family History


 


1 -- Schack, William. "A New Spotlight on the Jewish Stage", New York Times, New York, 5 April 1931.
 

 


 

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