Lives in the Yiddish Theatre


Naftali Goldfaden

Born approximately in 1857 in Staro-Konstantinov in Volhynia. He was the second son of Haim-Lipa Goldenfodem, the brother of Avraham. He worked for his father as a watchmaker.

Jacob P. Adler relates that when in 1878, Israel Rosenberg heard that Avraham Goldfaden had come to Odessa, he took notice of the attention that appeared with the mere mention of the name "Goldfaden." He decided to cozy  up to Goldfaden’s brother Naftali (nicknamed Tulleh), and together with him created an acting troupe that started to perform in Kherson in Ukraine. It was here that Adler put his foot for the first time on the stage.

B. Gorin tells us in his "History of the Yiddish Theatre": "When Abraham Goldfaden in 1879 rented the Mariinsky Theatre in Odessa, that he had no desire to become partners with Krug (a lobbyist for the police). At that time it was forbidden to perform Yiddish theatre and Krug took it upon himself to work out a solution. Goldfaden promised to make him a partner in the theatre if Krug’s intervention could be productive.  However, Goldfaden put together a company to appear in that same province under the direction of his brother Tuvia (Naftali). Krug sent them to Southern Russia. The company was comprised of Israel Rosenberg, Jacob Katzman, Sonia Oberlander, Shabbtai (the older), David Sabsey, and others.  Jacob P. Adler joined the company as an extra. This was only for a short time since eventually he became a full-fledged actor and very quickly.

"Understandably, the company did not play any new plays and indeed didn’t need to. For in the towns and villages in which the company appeared, everything that the company played seemed for, their audience, to be brand new. Other skills were not needed by the company, but if a specific skill was indeed needed they could find it in whatever town they were. They could always seek out needed skills and find them. The most important skill that an actor needed in those days was that he could sing.  Already on the first trip in Kherson (this was in1878 under the directorship of Rosenberg and Naftali Goldfaden) the company needed a comedian to play the role of "Hotzmach" in the "Female Magician." They started to search for a boy who was familiar with the entire repertoire as the folk singer. They found someone among their own members. In a few days he had put together his role so that he gave up his former position on the directorship of the company and started to travel all over, playing young and old women and other comic roles. This was the well-known comedian Abraham Fishkind.

"In Kishinev the same company gave Dovid Kessler the opportunity to enjoy the taste of the professional stage. He had never been given such a quick appointment right into a minor role. At first this role on the stage sufficed but when he had the privilege to appear on the stage as a leading performer, and since he had a good voice and also had hopes to attain even a higher goal which was to become an actor.

"In Kishinev other folksingers joined them, M. Haimovitch (Heine) and (Berl) Grudberg.  As folksingers they had no privileges to perform on the stage in speaking roles, but they were immediately given acting roles.

"When this company came to Smila they were lacking an actress. Till then Miss Diane (later known as Mrs. Katzman)  was their leading actress. Her father did not like her appearance on the stage and her travels with actors so he came and took her home. However even in such a small town as Smila it wasn’t long before they could find someone to take on the role left empty.  Here the company encountered Miss Sonias and she went onto the stage. Miss Sonias was no other than the later famous actress Keni Lipzin."

Yitzhak Libresko tells us in his memoirs that appear in Z. Zylberczweig’s "Behind the Curtain": (Abraham) Goldfaden could not deny that he didn’t need me any longer. He however had a matter to discuss with me. Since he had a brother Naftali whom he sent out to Kishinev and since he knew that this brother is not doing much that was good for the company and that he is a party animal, that I should go to him as a manager... The troupe in Kishinev played in Grossman’s theatre. This was a state theatre that belonged to a Jew who also owned a hotel where the actors held rooms. The actors were drunk all day long. They continued to play cards, not one of them had any thought about playing in the theatre. And their business was such that those actors were accused of many wrong doings. No one wanted to trust them with even a pruta’s worth of purchases.  It was chaos and not a theatre. I could see that from here that I could not manage the situation.

The same account appears in G. Auslander and O. Finkel in his book "A. Goldfaden":

... That this very same matter had to be dealt with came to Avraham Goldfaden’s mind, and he decided to do something very early on in 1879. But at that time he dismissed a number of performers from his troupe that was under the leadership of his brother Naftali Goldfaden. His job was to scout out several towns near to Odessa for future appearances.  The first trip by this troupe had apparently been no great success.  So, for example, we read in the Odessa "Pravda" about the failure of Goldfaden’s brother in Kishinev.  The same newspaper wrote a few months later  that the traveling troupe have not had any artistic successes, and that it is financially unsuccessful and cannot save itself from its heavy burden. Later, after a short time, the same newspaper wrote that a guest performance from this traveling troupe in Nikolayev performed in a negative rendition of its material that had been introduced by Goldfaden’s brother Naftali to the towns around Odessa. As much as we don’t want to place too much emphasis on the reviews from "Pravda," which had a bad opinion of Yiddish theatre, we must realize that A. Goldfaden’s brother and his traveling troupe had little to offer Yiddish theatre in order for it to gain popularity in the province.  It appears that this traveling troupe not having a reliable leader none-the-less brought to its presentations the most earnest methods of the earlier Romanian period of Yiddish theatre. But A. Goldfaden’s traveling troupe lost much more than it won in his brother’s troupe... Worst of all was the attachment to Goldfaden’s theatre in the news outlet in the Odessa bourgeois "Pravda." In fact the newspaper had a secondary realization, which was that the traveling troupe led by Goldfaden’s brother had some positive aspects. This announcement of the Kishinev failure was obviously only the beginning. That which was started by "Pravda" in Odessa initiated a continuum by the Jewish/Russian press in Petersburg in the "Russian Jewry" and "Raskvet." They used the performances of Goldfaden’s brother in order to attack A. Goldfaden himself, and they did not hold back from blaming, sometimes justified and sometimes with false accusations.

After playing in Kishinev (four weeks) G. with his troupe traveled to the town of Ackerman and after that to Elizavetgrad (where Israel Grade took over the troupe), Kremenchug, Ekatarinoslav, Poltava and its surroundings, and after that returned with only half of the troupe to Odessa to his brother Avraham.

Jacob Katzman, who played in this troupe, tells us that apart from Avraham Goldfaden’s repertoire, they also performed Naftali’s play by the name (which I think is) "The Oath."

M.E. from his brother Shemaiah, Jacob Katzman and Abraham Fishkind.

  • B. Gorin -- "History of Yiddish Theatre," Vol. 1, p. 212.

  • Jacob P. Adler -- 40 Years on the Stage, "Di varhayt," N.Y., 26 November 1916; 1, 6 February; 5 April 1917.

  • David Kessler -- Di tsores fun a grinem aktyor, "Der tog," N.Y., 14 January 1917.

  • N. Auslander -- An. Finkel -- "A. Goldfaden," Minsk, 1926, pp. 49-50.

  • Zalmen Zylbercweig -- "Behind the Curtains," Vilna, 1928, pp. 93-94.






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Adapted from the original Yiddish text found within the  "Lexicon of the Yiddish Theatre" by Zalmen Zylbercweig, Volume 1, page 370.

Translation courtesy of Paul Azaroff.

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