Lives in the Yiddish Theatre


Lazar Freed



Born on 3 May 1888 in Minsk, White Russia. His father was a merchant, who for a short time managed a soap factory in Mir (Minsk Gubernia), and also used to lead services.

F. learned in a Jewish elementary school, a yeshiva and attended a Russian progymnasium and Zarchin's Yiddish-Russian school. For a short time he learned in Professor Justinian's class in the Warsaw Conservatory. As a youth he sang as an alto-soprano for Israelke Minsker, Cantor Sirota in Vilna (conductor Leo Loew), and also in other synagogues.

As a child of six he saw theatre for the first time. He possessed a good ear for tunes, and an ability to copy voices. Living in the neighborhood of a circus, he often would be an extra there.

In 1905 he began to act professionally with A.G. Kompaneyets in Vitebsk, and in the "German-Yiddish" operetta went through all the troubles that are experienced by beginners. Several months later he was brought to Odessa by Sam Adler, where he began to act in larger roles, but he had to work hard to change his Litvak dialect.

In 1908 F. entered into the Hirshbein troupe. Dr. A. Mukdoni writes in his memoirs: "Of the people who made a good impression on us was the then very young and shy Jacob Ben Ami and his constant friend Lazar Freed. These were all the new people."

After the breakup of the Hirshbein troupe, F. played the "singing lover" parts in various Yiddish operetta theatres. He received special attention from the Yiddish theatre critics when he acted in the European operetta, "Eva," in Warsaw's Elizeum Theatre.

In 1913 Boris Thomashefsky brought him to America, where he acted in the National Theatre in Dymow's "The Eternal Wanderer," later in Thomashefsky's "The Lost Sheep," and in other troupes where he created "Moshe der griner" by M. Goldberg.

"During his first years in America -- writes Sholem Perlmutter -- Lazar Freed, who possessed a lyrical baritone voice with a warm, hearty tenor, acted in all the Yiddish operettas in which, due to his sweet singing, he very strongly took off with the American audiences. Several years later (1917-18 season), when Henrietta Schnitzer with Jacob Ben Ami played in the "Garden Theatre" in Madison Square Peretz Hirshbein's "The Idle Inn," Lazar Freed for the first time received his redress, when he completely gave himself over to serious dramatic theatre in America."

In the 1923-24 season F. joined the Yiddish Art Theatre (Director: Maurice Schwartz). From then on in his stage career, with hardly any small breaks, he was exclusively associated with this theatre, with which he also traveled as a guest actor to Europe. In the "Art Theatre" in which he held a prominent place, F. especially excelled as "Khanan" in the revival of the play "Dybbuk," as Nathan in Zulawski's "Shabse tsvi," as "The Worker" in Leivick's "Rags," "Der yetser-toyv" in Goldfaden's "The Tenth Commandment, or Thou Shalt Not Covet," Hershele Dubrovner" in the revival production  of Gordin's "God, Man and Devil," "The Visitor from America" in Sholem Aleichem's "The Gold Diggers," "Der eydem" and "Stempenyu," in Sholem Aleichem's "Stempenyu," "The Uncle" in Feuchtwanger's "Jew Suss," "Joseph" in Leivick's "Chains," "Aaron" in Asch's "Uncle Moses," and as "Tehilim-yid" and "The Jewish Student Shneyerson" in Sholem Aleichem's "[It's] Hard to be a Jew."

However  F. created an unforgettable image in the title role of I.J. Singer's "Yoshe Kalb.' Jacob Mestel writes:

"His 'Yoshe kalb,' the outlandish shell of a wishful, wandering man, on the border between two types of characters. This figure of the 'pious simpleton' made many contributions, that the play became so popular and as such continued its permanent association with Freed's name," that when Maurice Schwartz guest-starred with the play across Jewish America (1933), and later in Europe, F. played with him in the title role.

In the seasons when the Art Theatre did not play in America, F. was associated with several other theatres. Thus during the 1931-32 season he participated in the "Ensemble Art Theatre" where he had (under the direction of Egon Brecher) acted in the role of "Maharal" in Leivick's "Golem," and in V. Ivanov's "The Armored Train" (directors Snegoff and Mestel.) In the 1939-40 season he acted in "Khaver Daniel," and in I. J. Singer's "Khaver Nachman" (directors Ben Ami and Mestel.)

F. also acted in several films and sound films. While in Europe he was in a film together with Libert and Regina Kaminska; in 1924 during the guest appearance of the Art Theatre in Vienna -- in Sackler's "Yizkor" [1924]; in 1925 in America (a Yiddish poet and detective) in "Salome of the Tenements," then in the sound films "The Holy Oath," "Overture to Glory," "The Great Advisor" [1940], and "Eli Eli" [1940] by Izidor Frankel, "The Jewish Melody" [1940] by Chaim Tauber, and "Love and Sacrifice" [1936] by Isidore Solotorefsky.

F. translated "Samson in Chains" by Leonid Andreyev and "Mendel Spivack" by Semion Yushkevich (which was staged during the 1926-27 season by the "Yiddish Art Theatre").

In his last years, F. due to his severe illness (tuberculosis), he could no longer act.

"...He has a face that is not well-known -- according to the writer Sholem Perlmutter -- as serious as his illness was, and it was because of this very difficult and painful to explain to him that in all his virtues there is no fault; as only his horrible illness was ..."

After having been treated in a series of hospitals and sanatoria in New York, F. went to California where he entered into the "City of Hope" sanatorium, and there he passed away on 11 March 1944. His body was sent back to New York where he was brought to his eternal rest, in order to honor his last request to "lie among his own."

F. was married to the actress Celia Adler. Their only son is Dr. Selwyn Freed.

About his activity in London during the guest appearance of the Art Theatre, Morris Meyer writes:

"A performer who played with fine nuances and moods was Lazar Freed. He was with Schwartz in London three times. He acted very impressively as Nathan Levi in 'Shabse tsvi.' He embodied the mystic appearance of the prophet, who flamed and burned from an inner ecstasy and ignited all around him with the fire of his ecstasy. His appearance was filled with mellifluence.

"With great understanding he played the role of Shneyerson in 'Hard to be a Jew,' although some moments for him were weak.

"With great understanding he produced in "The Seven Who Were Hanged" the stoicity that related to the coldness and philosophy of death.

"He acted with artistic radiance in the fine role of Nahumtche, thereafter Yoshe Kalb. Lazar Freed is an intelligent artistic personality, and the role didn't give him the opportunity to extract the full measure. The role had few opportunities to speak, but he acted in his silence. He brought out much expression in his face and in his eyes. How many mtushtsh'dikes and even how many farnunft and psychological truths he expressed. In the role Freed found beauty in the forms that he could give. He also was successful as 'Hershele Dubrovner' in 'God, Man and Devil.' He had profoundly brought out his struggle with a devil. One could feel a poetic spirit in his speech, and a specific fine mannerism one could notice in his movements."

Jacob Mestel writes:

"Freed had a hard but tender artistic human life on this earth. Artistry was in his veins and was awash in his blood and nerves ... He was well-versed in yiddishkayt, in Yiddish, Russian and English literature. He had read a lot. ... and nevertheless he had seldom employed his intellect to act in a role. This incorrectness would say to you that Freed thought of his roles. No, he had not 'created' his roles -- he satisfied them. ... To fulfill a role intuitively he reached the boundary of exalted actors' art. In fact he almost always played one role -- for his wonderful acting measures were played there before him: The lyric baritone member of his voice, the trouble-veiled dark eyes, the flexible rhythm, until during the last day [of his] 'youthful' body. Even his prominent, semitic 'Adlerian' nose had given character to his stage figure. His strong 'genre' was 'fanatical mysticism': his 'Khanan' in 'Dybbuk." "Natan Hanavi" in "Shabse tsvi," "Hershele Dubrovner" in "God, Man and Devil," "The Uncle" in "Jew Suss," his "Tehillim yid" (in selected scenes for Asch's work in the Folks Theatre. Everyone was uplifted by mysterious hidden content, religious ecstasy, secondary melancholy and pious certainty with which he had everyone--the actors on the stage and the audience in the theatre ... overwhelmed and intoxicated. In this way he put boundaries around all sorts of helpless little people 'the unsuccessful ones' : 'The Workers' in 'Rags,' 'Aharon' in 'Uncle Moses,' and his 'Zaidel' in '60,000 Heroes."

"....Freed has had an honest attitude to his stage work. Perhaps not knowing many 'names' of stage directors, but he always tries to walk on the marked-out line. Rarely did his partner complain that Freed had 'spoiled' a scene. He used to keep himself honest, and according to his powers, also help his friends. We came out to play a role with Freed -- 'Avraham Yakov' in "Green Fields.' With all his poorly paid opportunities for expression, he had diligently explained the scenes and situations to us, which might help carry out the role.

"....Did Freed die an 'abandoned' person? It seems to us that he alone had created a kind of loneliness which had outlasted his life. This is like lying in his personal identity. For in his long and rich stage career -- that began in his early youth while still in Europe, with the 'Ben hador,' 'Absalom,' and later the the Hirshbein repertoire, until his 'Song of Songs,' 'The Lost Sheep' and afterwards the artistic-dramatic repertoire in America -- Freed had always found love and recognition from the broad theatre audience, as with his professional colleagues. Each artist had felt happy with such success -- Freed always remained a sad person. Not having this gave him perhaps too few to satisfy. He never forced to make a being of his artistic performance -- he was possibly too modest, too shy for such pretenses. .... However there is somewhere in his soul that lay a grief that had made him feel himself like an orphan.

Social, almost always with a smile, a sad smile, not infrequently even with humor -- he had, however, isolated himself, closed in himself. Nevertheless, even his laughter used to roll out like a wave in a covered tone, with his hand in front of his mouth. Something of a hermit, as an ascetic monarch which lied within him. His private life, possibly his family life, has presented a shock from which it is it hard to receive oneself. And got tired of the sleepless nights, to seek comfort in a book, he has squandered his grief entire nights at the coffee table."

Sholem Perlmutter:

.... "His greatest pay was a good critique and an evaluation of his acting, and for his serious attitude to Yiddish theatre. He was one of the beloved personalities in our theatrical world. Everyone had love for him, and to us all he was a good friend.  ... Each issue in which it he been asked to handle had him interested, and it soon became near to his heart. And even when an issue came up that hadn't affected him directly, he was always willing to help, whether on a council or with thoughts. And therefore he had in his last few years, be it that the cruel fate had almost, as if by violence, expelled him from the theatre, and he became a lost resident of the hospital, and in the sanatorium, he had very many complaints about the theatre profession. He also had complaints about his own people, friends and colleagues, and for the entire world. It is perhaps poetic that in his last few years that they did not give him the proper attention, they did not give him enough hospitality. If one is not sufficiently sincere, and even when they do him a favor, he used to say -- It is not with the entire heart.

.... Lazar Freed had in his repertoire the important, prominent roles that were created in the last years in the Yiddish theatre. And he had created Jewish types of an eternal worth, and just as 'Stempenyu,' 'Khanan,' 'Yoshe Kalb,' also 'Moshe der griner' remains marked in the memory of every Yiddish actor, and every theatre lover. And every showman who wants at times to sit in a theatre where that play will be performed, will before his eyes continually float the image of Lazar Freed, which one never wants to forget"....

N.B. Linder:

"Lazar Freed was the master of bringing forth onto the stage with the fullest entirety of those chasing, troubled, always for hard done by people, who speak little and suffers much. Very little do Yiddish actors know such silence, and so masterfully act silently, as those who have known Lazar Freed."

And Maurice Schwartz writes:

"Lazar Freed, Samuel Goldinburg, Abraham Teitelbaum and now Izidor Casher! These four actors were pillars of the Yiddish Art Theatre. With their loss it is not possible to bring so quickly onto the world stage, to Yiddish theatre, others who may represent them...."


Sh.E. from Itskhok Frankel.

  • [--] -- In der idisher theater velt, "Forward," N. Y., 4 October 1913.

  • Alter Epstein -- Interesante momentn fun aktyoren leben, "Der tog," N. Y., 15 December 1918.

  • Jacob Mestel -- Ver zaynen di kinstler fun dem nyu yorker idishen kunst-teater, "The Times," London, April 1924.

  • Dr. A. Mukdoni -- Zikhrunus fun a yidishn teater-kritiker, "Archive," Vilna, 1930, p. 381.

  • N. B. Linder -- Lazar frid, der fayner kinstler in der dayner mensh, "Der tog," N. Y., 18 March 1944.

  • Sholem Pelmutter -- Lazar fried, "Der teglikher idisher kurier," Chicago, 27 March 1944.

  • Jacob Mestel -- Lazar frid, "Yidishe kultur," N. Y., May 1944.

  • Morris Meyer -- "Idish teater in london," London, p. 303.

  • Maurice Schwartz -- "Izidor kashir, "Forward," N. Y., 20 April 1948.

  • Dr. A. Mukdoni -- "Itzhak leibush peretz un dos yidishe teater," New York, 1949, pp. 169 and 208.

  • Dr. A. Mukdoni -- "In varshe un in lodz," Vol. II, Buenos Aires, 1955, pp. 215 and 238.






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Adapted from the original Yiddish text found within the  "Lexicon of the Yiddish Theatre" by Zalmen Zylbercweig, Volume 3, page 2193.

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