Lives in the Yiddish Theatre


Jacob Ben-Ami


Jacob Ben-Ami was born on 23 December 1890 in Minsk, Belarus. His father was a house painter. He studied in a cheder and completed his education in a private school. After that he became an extra in a theatre. From his very early age he had a strong interest in the theatre. As a small boy he sang with various cantors and often, together with other choir boys, would be taken to sing behind the curtains in Russian theatre. 

When he was seventeen years old he was given walk-on roles with the Russian State Theatre (directed by Chernov and later by Belyiev). The following season he became the leader of the walk-on actors and still later he was given larger roles, some with talking parts.

In the summer of 1908, he traveled with the Sam Adler-Meerson troupe as an understudy. After five months Ben-Ami was given the opportunity to play some minor roles. However, Adler had to let him go, telling him that “he would never be an actor.” Ben-Ami joined Mitleman’s troupe where he was given larger roles. After that, when both troupes amalgamated, Ben-Ami performed with them for a year. In Odessa, he met Peretz Hirshbein and helped him found the first Yiddish Dramatic Theatre (See Hirshbein troupe). There he both acted and directed. When this troupe disbanded, Ben-Ami directed for a short while in Vilna for the Yiddish Dramatic Amateur Circle. Later, this group became the nucleus for the Vilna Troupe.

In 1912 Ben-Ami was invited to London to be the director and leading actor in the dramatic presentations of Feinman’s Artistic Temple (Feinman's Yiddish People's Theatre - ed.). After four months, however, the theatre was closed down. Ben-Ami was then invited to America to join Sarah Adler’s troupe, where Schildkraut was performing at the time. There Ben-Ami performed in “The Green Maiden,” but this theatre too closed down in the middle of the season. Ben-Ami then became a member of the actor’s union, and in 1913 he was contracted to Thomashefsky where he acted in Dymow's “Eternal Wanderer” under the direction of the author.

In 1914 Ben-Ami toured with Keni Lipzin. In the spring of that year, he appeared at the Neighborhood Playhouse, with a group of amateurs in three one-act plays by I.L. Peretz.

In 1915, Ben-Ami signed on once more with Thomashefsky who assigned him very few roles over the next two years. He then joined Lieberman’s theatre where he played in a melodramatic repertoire directed by Weintraub. There he created the character “Note vasertreger” in Kalmanowitz’s “A Mother’s Worth."

In 1917 Ben-Ami signed on with Schwartz’s Irving Place Theatre, where they presented Pinski’s “Love's Strange Ways” and Hirshbein’s “Faraway Corner,” which became the hallmark of this theatre.

In 1919-1920 with Ben-Ami in the lead, along with a group of actors and thanks to the material assistance of Louie Schnitzer, they founded the Jewish Art Theatre with Emanuel Reicher as director.

The theatre had two names: In Yiddish, "The New Yiddish Theatre” (Dos naye yidisher teater), and in English, “The Jewish Art Theatre” (this name was bestowed on it by Emanuel Reicher).

The repertoire of this theatre was: Hirshbein’s, “Puste kretchme” (Empty Shops), “Grine felder” (Green Fields); various one-act plays by Sholem Asch; “Mit’n shtrom” (With the Stream) by Sholem Aleichem; “Mentshn” (People), also, Pinski’s “Shtumer moshiakh” (The Silent Messiah), Dymow's "Bronx Express," Hauptmann’s “Eynzame mentshn” (Lonely People), Tolstoy’s “Macht fun finsternish” (The Power of Darkness), and a reworked version of Sven Lang’s “Samson and Delilah.”

In 1920-1921 Ben-Ami started to perform for Arthur Hopkins in his English-language theatre. Later he performed with the British Theatre Guild as an actor and director.

During the period from 1920-1929, Ben-Ami would perform from time to time in guest performances in Yiddish.

In the 1926-1927 season he was an actor/director for a Yiddish troupe in the Irving Place Theatre (it went by the name of “Dos naye yidishe kunst-teater” (The New Yiddish Art Theatre). Here he presented “Di shif mit tzadikim” (The Ship of Saints), by Evreinoff, which was directed by the author; Ben-Ami, and Jacob Mestel’s “Shop fun leyvik" (Leivick’s Shop), “Fun yener velt” (From the World of the Dead), from Berkowitz’s scenes from Dostoyevsky's “The Idiot” and the rewritten “Samson and Delilah.”


  • B. Gorin: Happenings in the Yiddish Theatre, Vol. 2, pp. 195 and 237-245.

  • J. Entin: A yunge aktyor in a groyse role (a young actor in a great role), Di varhayt, October 6, 1917.

  • Waiter’s Shtumer (The Silent Ones) in nayem yidishn teater (New Yiddish Theatre). Di naye velt, New York, April 16, 1920.

  • Dr. A. Koralnik: Shildkroyt and Ben-Ami, in Der tog, November 21, 1920.

  • Loel Slonim - Ben-Ami derzeylt vi er hot gefilt bay zany ershtn oyftrit oyf der englisher bine (Ben-Ami tells how he felt when he first appeared on the English language stage).

  • Dr. A. Mukdoni - “Teater” (Theatre), New York 1927, pp. 141-146.

  • Jacob Mestel - “Zeks koyln tzaychnungen (Six charcoal drawings)” ,Yiddish Theatre, Warsaw 1927. Vol. 2, pp. 196-197.

  • Sh. Kumner -Zichroynes vegn der hirshbayn troupe (Memories of the Hirshbein troupe), teater zichroynes (theatre memories), edited by Z. Zilbertzveig, Vilna, 1928, pp. 69-86.

  • Y. Shames - Yaakov Ben-Ami vegn yidishn teater in amerike (About Yiddish Theatre in America), “Lit-bal”, Vol. 9, 1927.

  • Abba Lillian - “Samson and Delilah” “Yidishe vilne”, Philadelphia, June 5, 1924.

  • H. Parker- Jacob Ben-Ami and Berta Gertman “Dos yidisher vort” (The Yiddish Word), Winnipeg, May 28, 1926.

  • Dr. A. Koralnik - David Warfield--Ben-Ami, “Der tog” N.Y., January 14, 1923.

  • G. Buchwald - Ben Ami’s Triumph in Samson and Delilah, Frayhayt, October 8, 1926.

  • L. Malach - Yaakov Ben-Ami un zayn yidishe kunst teater (Jacob Ben-Ami and his Yiddish Art Theatre), Di prese, Vol. A. February 20, 1927.

  • G. Buchwald - Vos Ben-Ami and the players created in Leivik’s “Shop”, Frayhayt, Vol. 9, Dec. 1926.

  • A. Glantz - “Shop” , Der tog, Dec. 10, 1926.

  • Ab. Cahan - A naye piese in irving pleys teater (A New Play in the Irving Place Theatre) “Shop”, Forward, Dec. 14, 1926.

  • G. Buchwald - Leyvik’s sotziale drama in an umgeveyntlicher oyffirung (Leyvik’s social-drama in an unusual presentation), Frayhayt, Dec. 8, 19.

  • A. Frumkin - Samson and Delilah in Irving Place Theatre, Der tog. N.Y. , October 20, 1926.

  • Dr. A. Mukdoni - “Di shif mit tzadikim” (The Boat of the Righteous) ,Tog zhurnal, N.Y., September 22, 1926.

  • Ab. Cahan - Yevrayenov’s New Play in the Irving Place Theatre, Forward, September 21, 1926.

  • A. Frumkin - “Di shif mit tzadikim” A beautiful, interesting theatrical play, Der tog, September 24, 1926

  • Pompadour - Drama-ayn, drama-oys (drama in and drama out) “kunst” (art), N.Y., October 20, 1926.

  • Dr. A. Mukdoni -- Samson and Delilah, October 23, 1926,

  • A. Volyhiner- Eyndruckn fur yidishn teater-fortshrit” Impressions of the Yiddish Theatre. Developments, N.Y. October 22, 1926.

  • Ab. Cahan - Berkovitch’s new drama in the Irving Place Theatre, Forward, Nov. 9, 1926.

  • Shachne Epstein - A Literary Melodrama with an allusion to something more, Frayhayt, Nov. 10, 1926.

  • Pompadour - “Fun yener velt”, Kunst, Nov. 10, 1926.

  • Dr. A. Mukdoni - “Fun yener velt”, Yidishe teater, Nov. 12, 1926.

  • L. Kesner - “Fun yener velt”, Yidishe teater, Nov. 12, 1926.

  • A. Glantz - “Fun yener velt”, Der tog, Nov. 14, 1926.






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Adapted from the original Yiddish text found within the  "Lexicon of the Yiddish Theatre" by Zalmen Zylbercweig, Volume 1, page 184.

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