Lives in the Yiddish Theatre


Sophie Karp
(Sarah Segal, Goldstein)

Born approximately 1859 in Galatz, Romania. Her parents were not rich. According to Libresco, her mother ran a restaurant. K. worked for a seamstress. According to one version by Shimon Mark, with whom she performed in Goldfaden’s "Garden" in 1877, he heard her singing as she was passing by in the street, and he was so captivated that he begged her to come and sing in the theatre. She accepted his proposal.

The historian of Yiddish theatre, B. Gorin, writes:

In his memoirs, Zelig Mogulesko tells us that the first lady of the Yiddish stage was Rosa Fridman. He says that when the Yiddish theatre was proving itself, Rosa Fridman danced and sang in the Constantinople cafés. She therefore had no reason to be ashamed in the Yiddish theatre, and she became the first Yiddish actress and traveled in Goldfaden’s troupe. Leyzer Tsukerman asserts that Mindl Tsukerman and Golditse were the first actresses and had already appeared on stage in Shmendrik. But the general impression among theatre-people who remember the time well, was that the first actress was Sara, who later became better known under the name Sophie Karp, and that impression is not unfounded … She shone on the stage with the first company [troupe] before Goldfaden came to Bucharest. That was in Galatz, when Goldfaden’s company consisted of two-and-a-half actors … He needed more talent actors than he possessed at the time, and he searched high and low for them. In Galatz, his glance fell on a young girl, a seamstress named Sara, who distinguished herself by her sweet voice.


Because of her sweet singing, people called her “Pasarika.”  This is a Romanian word meaning “little bird.” And Goldfaden convinced her to consent to play a role in the play that he had chosen to produce. She performed just one evening, after which her mother declared with harsh words that she would never let her daughter act in the theatre again, and Sara’s match with the stage in Galatz was ended for the other evenings. But nevertheless, the young Sara had a desire to act and she made an agreement with her mother. But the agreement didn’t help her, and her mother declared categorically that while Sara lived with her, the mention of theatre was forbidden and only after she was married could she do what she wanted. Sara let Goldfaden know the verdict that her mother pronounced, and the founder of Yiddish theatre called together his two actors [Yisrael Grodner and Shakhar Goldstein] and consulted with them. He himself had a wife. Grodner was also a married man, and thus Shakhar Goldstein was the one who could marry her, with the purpose of putting her on stage. Goldfaden and Grodner persuaded him to do it. It began to sound like an ingenious idea. In a few months, Shakhar Goldstein actually travelled to Galatz, married her, and brought her to Iasi to act.” The same story is confirmed by Julius Sand, who was the controller of the “Lebanon” union, which, in February 1877 invited Goldfaden with his troupe to come and perform in Galatz. But Goldfaden was searching for female talent for his troupe. Sand says that they erected a simple wedding canopy in the union hall, and three days after the wedding the young wife, Madame Goldstein, played the grandchild in "The Grandmother with her Grandchild" in the place of her husband, who had to play the role previously.

But according to Goldfaden, it happened that her first role was definitely the role of “Rakhele” in his play, "The Intrigue, or, Deborah the Gossiper." Because K. had never had any stage experience, Goldfaden wrote a small role for her, more “to shine on the stage” than to act. Also for her, he inserted into the play two light numbers called by the name of “a kiss-duet”, and a song that was also a translation from the era’s popular couplet “Madame Anna” from Le Cocq’s operetta, "The Daughter from Hell [La fille de Madame Angot]." When the troupe travelled from there to Braila, K. did not go with them, because her brother did not permit her due to certain formalities. After Passover of 1877, Goldfaden took his troupe to Bucharest, and there we find K. again acting with them. Despite the small number of Yiddish actors, Goldfaden did not maintain hegemony over his troupe for long. It divided, and Grodner created his own troupe, and “Prof.” Hurwitz created a troupe. The actors changed sides from one troupe to the other, and Gorin explains that “Grodner could not tolerate the applause that people granted to Sara Goldstein (later know as Sophie Karp). The jealousy between the actors and the actresses was so great, that they could no longer stay together.”

Goldfaden’s first manager, Itzkhok Libresco, says in his memoirs:

“The leading lady in our troupe was Sarale Goldstein, but in secret she and her husband came to an agreement with Mogulesko, that they would travel to him in Odessa. Grodner’s wife in turn was angry that Sarale was the leading lady, and she, together with with husband, left the troupe, and Sarale Goldstein remained our whole attraction.”

Libresco further relates how he borrowed money so that the troupe could perform in Iasi, but he discovered that K. and her husband had departed to travel to Mogulesko in Odessa. He registered a complaint with the police, saying that they had robbed him, and subsequently they were detained in the middle of their journey. They were brought back to Iasi to perform there, and during a sharp discussion about the matter, Libresco struck Sara, and immediately afterwards, she and her husband left for Odessa.

There, she and her husband performed in different troupes, including Goldfaden’s and others.

Gorin says that K. performed for Y.Y. Lerner in Odessa during the time that he staged his translation of Gutzkow’s "Uriel Acosta," and Skrib’s "The Jews [Zhidovka]," and the leading roles in those two plays were played by Aba Shoengold and Sophie Goldstein (Karp) [“Yehudis” and “Rokhl”], and they excelled in their roles.

After the prohibition on Yiddish theatre in Russia, she travelled to other countries.

B. Gorin says that a troupe was formed by Tsukerman, Spivakovski, Shoengold, Sara Goldstein, Goldschmidt, the Vaynshtoks, Vaynshteyn, the Koifmans, and after others, immigrated to Germany.

David Kessler writes in his memoirs that from Berlin, K. was brought to Iasi.

M. Heine-Chaimowitz says in his memoirs that Max Karp travelled to Europe and on Erev Yom Kippur brought her to America, where she starred as “Dina” in "Bar Kokhba" in the Oriental Theatre and was a flop, and he says:

“Sophie was not at fault; rather, it was the musician in the theatre. It was another case of a Yiddish theatre composer or musician not knowing about such a thing as orchestrating the music, that it should be adapted for the voice of a male or female singer. Sophie Karp definitely had a very pleasant voice and yet on this occasion, she was a failed actress. The music was not orchestrated, so she had to adjust her voice. No one bothered to correct such a “trifle,” and this was the reason why Sophie Karp’s first appearance in America was a failure. She was certainly not at fault.”

But her later appearances were a big success. At that time, she married Max Karp and began to appear as Sophie Karp.

Regarding her acting in "Romeo and Juliet" in Yiddish, Boris Thomashefsky says:

“Girls used to bring their young men, so that they would learn from Thomashefsky and Sophie Karp how to make love. At each performance of "Romeo and Juliet," the theatre was packed with young boys and young girls. Husbands also brought their wives and wives their husbands so that they would also get a lesson [a lecture] in love.”

In another place, Boris Thomashefsky writes that Prof. Hurwitz wrote (1896) an operetta, "Brakha [Blessing]," and K. played the title role. In the play, there was a scene where a Jewish girl has to flee from anti-Semites and had a sin on her conscience. She is sentenced to be crucified in the middle of the market. She is bound to a great wooden cross and all those who pass by spit in her face and throw stones at her. For the cross scene, the playwright wrote a long monologue of several pages. K. had toiled several days and nights to learn the monologue, and she simply cried that for her they should cut out the monologue because it was too long. But the playwright would not hear of any change. Given that she could not learn the monologue, Thomashefsky insisted to the playwright that instead of the monologue he should write a song that the heroine would sing. T. took a verse from the prayer, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” and added Yiddish text. The choirmaster of the troupe, Yankev-Kopl Sendler, wrote the music, and thus was created what was later the famous song, “Eli, Eli”. As to how far this song became the center of the play, Thomashefsky writes later that when Dina Feinman took over the role of “Brakha” and instead of singing began to declaim, a scandal broke out in the theatre and they had to bring in K. to sing the song.

In 1902 K. played in Shomer’s "Golden Land." K. was also instrumental in building the first Yiddish theatre stage in New York, the Grand Theatre on Grand Street, in the very heart of the Jewish neighborhood. The partners in the theatre were: Sophie Karp, Morris Finkel, Yosef Latayner, Louis Gottlieb, Berl Bernstein, and Louis Friedsell. The theatre was built by Harry Fishel and was opened on February 5, 1903 with Latayner’s "Zion, or, by the Rivers of Babylon."

Regarding that, the historian of Yiddish theatre, B. Gorin, wrote:

“In this theatre, the company sought to defend against the new stream that was just then flooding the stage … but they did not make much headway, and the company realized that they could not hold back the stream. The consequence of the unfortunate undertaking was, that the company did not endure, and Sophie Karp soon died of a broken heart.”

K. passed away on March 30, 1904 in New York. She left a daughter, Rose [“Rokhl” from the name from her first role, “Rokhl” in "Deborah the Gossiper"], who is also a Yiddish actress.

A necrology in the Yiddish press said, in the name of K., that this theatre was her soul. She wanted to have her own place, and therefore she had invested a great deal of money and effort for her own theatre. “In the other theatres—so she said—they oppressed her. Therefore, she decided to have her own place.” But fate would have it, that she would not have the theatre for long.

About this matter of the Grand Theatre, the composer Joseph Rumshinsky wrote:

"Her death was bound up with a struggle, and it was conjectured that the struggle brought about premature death. The opposition emerged over the partnership of those who built the Grand Theatre, of which she was one of the partners. They were undecided about who should remain in the theatre—Sophie Karp or Jacob Adler. Sophie Karp, fearful of being dispossessed [taken out], did not leave the theatre, ate there, drank there, she even slept in the theatre. In the theatre, she caught a bad cold and contracted a lung inflammation (pneumonia), lingered two days, and died. It was the first great funeral on the east side. People were hanging over the rooftops. They were following each other. It was not a quiet funeral, because her admirers, who numbered thousands, were crying loudly. You could hear such cries as: 'How can such a beautiful body and such a bright face lie in the earth?' There was no order … There were few police. There was never such a scene. The Jewish street was in turmoil.”

Max Rosenthal says that she was a charming actress, very delightful on the stage. The public loved her very much. She used to sing a song with taste and heart. In the New York Yiddish theatre, she played an important rol,e and it was many years before the audiences forgot her.

In her memoirs, Bertha Kalich says:

“Sophia Karp was beautiful, luminous, and an excellent actress. She had a great fan base among theatre audiences. When I became the star, and she—the second fiddle, she brought her glitter with her from the Windsor (Edelstein's theatre) to our theatre. … Her family life was not as happy as she wished, and very often she was very bitter because of it. … She performed with Adler in the Grand Street Theatre and caught a cold, contracted a lung-inflammation, and was gone from the world.”

Boris Thomashefsky characterizes her thus:

“A whole world of charm was in her smile. Sophie was a weak actress but with her charm, with her beautiful singing, she captured the hearts of the theatre audience. She had no musical training, we had to study each song with her as though she was a schoolchild, but nature endowed her with a wondrous, beautiful voice and with a temperament.”

And Bessie Thomashefsky expressed herself thus:

Sophie Karp suffered from one weakness and that was, that she spoke deytshmerish, a deytshmerish that reminded the listener of the famous “Kalvarier German” which the immortal Morris Rosenfeld so bitterly ridiculed … the roles of “Shulamis,” “Dina,” and other such Jewish daughters, Sophie spoke in “Germanish.”


M. E. from Max Rosenthal.

  • B. Gorin –History of Yiddish Theatre, Vol. I, pp. 192-194, 199, 229, 238, II, pp. 52, 170.

  • Julius Sand – He recalls how Mogulesko became an actor, Forward. NY, January 7, 1910.

  • Bessie Thomashefsky – My Life Story, New York, 1916, pp. 132, 262.

  • Bertha Kalich – [Memoirs] The Day, NY, September 9, 16, November 7, 1925.

  • Zalmen Zylbercweig – Behind the Curtain, Vilna, 1928, pp. 101-103.

  • Zalmen Zylbercweig – Theatre Memories, Dort, pp. 27-31.

  • M. Osherowitz – “A Quiet War Between Two Yiddish Leading Ladies Because of a Role,”  Forward, NY, Nov. 1, 1931.

  • Archive of the History of Yiddish Theatre and Drama, Vilna-New York, pp. 254, 263, 282.

  • Boris Thomashefsky – His biography, Forward, NY, April 1, 2, 6, 7, 8, 1936.

  • Boris Thomashefsky – My Life Story, New York, 1937, pp. 276, 334-35.

  • Joseph Rumshinsky – Sounds of My Life, New York, 1944, pp. 284-85.






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Adapted from the original Yiddish text found within the  "Lexicon of the Yiddish Theatre" by Zalmen Zylbercweig, Volume 4, page 2588.

Thank you to Beth Dwoskin for the excellent translation.

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