Lives in the Yiddish Theatre


Jacob Katzman


Born in 1858 in Odessa, Ukraine. At age three he lost his father, and his mother, laden with three sons, later married. Due to poverty he learned in the local Talmud Torah and a little Russian in the Odessa Kazioner school. As a youth of twelve or thirteen years of age, he already had to earn an income and had worked in a tobacco factory of a certain Chaim Zinger, who used to sing at night with the folk singer in the wine cellars. Enlisted by his boss and possessing a beautiful alto voice, K. soon became a singer there. Here he also presented himself from time to time as a Chasid, singing and then becoming an understudy in the local Italian opera. At the same time he also sang with a cantor.

In 1876 He returned to folk singing and prepared himself to perform in Goldfaden's "Aunt Sosye," studied with a certain Bernstein, but it came to nothing. Several months later there returned to Goldfaden's troupe in Romania Israel Rosenberg, united himself with the folk singer, and they played in the wine cellars on laid-together boards placed over tables, Goldfaden's "Di bobe mitn eynikl," "Shmendrik," and "Dos bintl holtz" (the last with Rosenberg, without a text, "Arbl-proze"). In the productions K. played, "a young widower" in "Bintl boltz," "the grandson" in "Di bobe mitn eynikl," and the title role from "Shmendrik."

B. Gorin writes: "The main role, "Shmendrik," had been played by Katzman, and he had excelled and immediately received high recognition."


Shortly thereafter when Jacob Spivakovsky arrived in Odessa, he received permission to put on a "musical-literary evening," and put on with K., Goldfaden's "4 portseleyene teler," "Di dray toybe" and "Dos bintl holtz." Then Sonia Michelson-Oberlander (later Jacob P. Adler's first wife) received permission to play official theatre and put on, with K., Goldfaden's "Breindele kozak," "Shmendrik" and "Koprizne tokhter" (here K. took onto the stage as an understudy, the future famous actor Jacob P. Adler.)

About K.'s first performance on the Yiddish stage there is recalled, vi an ed raih, B. Weinstein, in his future memoirs, where he portrayed a Shabes tsu-nakht in a wine cellar on the fish street of Odessa in 1877:

"Not far from us stood such a type of wooden platform for the singer and actors. Thereby there were a pair of Yiddish klezmer and they had tsugeripet. It had taken a long time and the comedy began. On the balemer-platform there were three to four Jews, youngsters. Previously they had sung two and at time and later solo. They sang mostly Yiddish folk songs, which were already popular with the public. The audience gave out strong claps and shouts: 'Bravo! One more time!' The singers had not gefoylt and continued to sing. Suddenly there were two of those singers presenting themselves up on the stage-- one as a butcher with a large beard, and the second, an entirely young man, as his assistant. They began performing the comedy. During those times acts had the younger singer strongly oysgenumen with his songs and couplets. The audience at our mishmash had said about the singer that they knew him: He is a clown-maker. For the entire time I am standing at the platform and had looked at the young singer. I knew he was jealous. When he stopped singing, the older singer presented a plate to him, with which he tread between the mishmash, and each had with pleasure threw coins onto the plate."

Further, Weinstein recalls that years later the first Yiddish theatre troupe came to Odessa under the direction of Rosenberg, and:

"Here suddenly arrives one of the younger singers who I have heard sing, 'Mekhl dem vaysn' in a wine cellar. 'Here this is Katzman-- ruft zikh emitser op-- he plays this today, the role of 'Shmendrik.' This evening, seated with my friend in the balcony, we had with all our effort applauded Katzman, who had acted exceptionally as 'Shmendrik' in Goldfaden's play with the same name. Following afterwards they played a one-acter, which at the time they used to call 'vaudeville,' in which the younger actor Katzman had deeply oysgenumen with his couplets and folk songs, virtually the same, which I had for the first time heard him sing in a wine cellars."

In 1879 Avraham Goldfaden arrived in Odessa with his troupe, and here K. was taken into the troupe (brought in with the future well-known comic Abraham Fishkind.) K. acted but soon joined Naftali Goldfaden's troupe, with whom he played in the province in "Shmendrik." He went over to Moshe Finkel's trope, returned to Odessa and again was taken in by Avraham Goldfaden's troupe in the Mariinsky Theatre and later across the province. Returning to Odessa, K. joined Gradner's troupe, and then into the troupe of Krug, who toured across the Crimea. There the troupe was taken in by a Caucasian baron, and three times a week played in Yiddish. K. and Gradner also played important roles in the plays, which were performed in Russian. Both also translated the Russian play, "Dos tseshterte lebn."

Again returning to Odessa, K joined the Shomer-Sheikowitz troupe and put on his play, "Der lebediker toyter," or, "A klap far a klap" [Sh. wrote that the play was staged in Odessa by Goldfaden), also Sheikowitz's play "Der blutiker idie" and traveled with the Shomer-Sheikowitz troupe across the province. Due to military conscription he managed a bakeley store. Later at first, being free from military service, and due to the ban on Yiddish theatre, together with Aaron Schrage, Gorodetzky and his sister from Schwartz-Kvartet, they wandered in 1885 to London, England, where they encountered acting in clubs two Yiddish troupes under the auspices of Adler and Gradner, and they joined them in another club. In 1886 K went over to Gradner in a troupe, later to Smith, but, due to the fire, which had cost nineteen lives, the productions were interrupted. K. decided in general to withdraw from theatre, but a little later he organized the remaining actors (the others had sailed to America), and renewed the productions in a Princess Street club. Business was very good, and Gradner came to the troupe with his wife, along with Goldschmidt, Max Rosenthal, Bernstein, Nadolsky and his wife. Here K. dramatized Dinezon's "Der shvartser yungemantshik."

During the Paris Exposition in 1889, Smith took the troupe over to Paris and then returned to London, but a little later was forbidden from playing in the Princess Street club. K joined Goldfaden's troupe in Paris. Not having any income from acting, he returned to London, where he opened a photographic studio, acting only from time to time in small places.

In 1893 the actor Kurazh came to London to hire Yiddish actors for American Yiddish theatre, and K., together with his wife and six children, traveled to America to Adler in a theatre on the Bowery. Not being able to earn enough to make a living from acting, K. opened a photographic studio, where he worked by day and played in the theatre in the evening.

K. soon excelled as a character actor in the role of "Feivl khaldik" in Gordin's "The Russian Jew," as "Rabbi" in Gordin's "The Brothers Lurie," "Chaim Yekl" in Gordin's "Der shvartser yid." For the second season Adler intended to engage him, but as K. writes in his autobiography, Gordin told Adler that he would give him plays if he would not engage him. After acting the second season with Adler, K. went to play in London with Sigmund and Dina Feinman in the Standard Theatre. From London K traveled in1896, with several actors (among them Saul and Esther Wallerstein), to his brother Sam Dayan to play Yiddish theatre in South Africa. The first production, "Chaim in America," was given by K. in a circus building. After acting for a year in Johannesburg, K. traveled back in the middle of the theatre season to new York, where he however could not receive any position, so he performed once as "Khaldik" in "The Russian Jew" and received the warm compliments of Mogulesco (who was the first to act in the role.) K. became engaged to play in the Windsor Theatre, but before the season began, he again traveled to South Africa with the idea to stay there., because they begin to build a theatre for him. Meantime he played with the actor Wallerstein and his wife, Charles Nathanson and his wife et al, but due to the noise about the war, he returned again to New York. Not being able to find a place in a theatre, he again opened a photographic studio.

The historian of Yiddish theatre, B. Gorin, writes about this important chapter in the history of Yiddish theatre in Africa:

"The first actor who came to Johannesburg was Yankel Rosenfeld from Goldfaden's Romanian school, and he brought together dilettantes and acted with them. Later there came from London to America the actors Sam Dayan, Greenberg, and in 1896 Yankel Katzman came thither, together with (Saul) Wallerstein and his bride Esther. They gerungen a circus and began to play three or four times a week. The first piece that he had staged was 'Chaim in America,' and the circus was adopted. Several months later Moshe Zilberman arrived, who already in that time entirely was pushed out of the Yiddish theatre in America, together with the Mandeltorts, and he took the circus. Katzman joined the small Royal Theatre, and the began a competition between them. Both companies didn't do good business, and in several weeks they united, with everyone then acting in the Royal Theatre.

They played partly Goldfaden's, but more the American repertoire, and after a season the company went away to other cities, and when the summer had ended the company turned back to Johannesburg. Already there was (Charles) Nathanson with his wife. They had come from London, where they had acted for a season with success. With all their effort, until that time, they had played in Johannesburg, and the Nathansons were the important ones there, and a part of the previous company, as well as the younger actor Gustave Schacht had joined them. The public now had more interest in  the theatre, but soon the Boer War broke out, which had displaced all the arriving actors."

According to K.'s account in his autobiography, the union had excluded the members whose acting in theatre was only a part of their livelihood, and in that way he was not called to any meetings and did not know about a strike that went on in the People's Theatre, where he became engaged and [subsequently] declared to be a strike-breaker by the union.

According to other kveln, there then broke out a strike of the union actors against Thomashefsky-Edelstein's "People's Theatre," and Thomashefsky, together with his partners-actors (Bessie Thomashefsky, Adler and wife, Paulina Edelstein) and several non-union actors, among them K., stayed to play in the struggle against all the unions, but finally the unions won.

Initially only great efforts were permitted, and K. had his audition and became taken into the union as a member.

On 10 April 1903 K. was the first to play the role of "Alter Zlates" in Rakowe's "The Beggar" in the Thalia Theatre, and after Tornberg's departure from the Yiddish stage, he began to act in the roles in Gordin's plays, and he was especially successful as "Motye Streichl" in "The Orphan."

In 1906 when Harrison Grey Fiske engaged Berta Kalich to play Gordin's "Kreutzer Sonata" in English, Katzman became engaged through him to play the role of "Ephrim fidler," and got very good reviews by the English press.

From 1908 to 1914 K. played with Keni Lipzin.

In November 1915 he played in "Mother Zalb and Son" in English vaudeville, until 1917 [1916, ed.] when Max Gabel engaged him to take part in his offering of his play, "Clear Conscience."

In 1918 [1917-ed.] he was with Adler in the Grand Theatre.

In 1919 he was again with Max Gabel, and in 1920 with Schildkraut (Sam Schorr and Schnitzer, managers.)

In 1921 he was with Berta Kalich in the Irving Place Theatre.

In 1924 he again played in English with Berta Kalich.

In 1925 he participated with Thomashefsky in English in the sketch, "The Green Millionaire."

In 1927 he played in English with Edward G. Robinson, in the role of "Yankel" in "Kibitzer."

K. wrote three English one-acters, which were never staged.

K.'s wife, Sarah Dayan, played on the Yiddish stage. K.'s son is an English actor.

On 7 July 1932 K. passed away in New York.

Boaz Young characterized him as such:

"Katzman, who had a naively innocent exterior, received the role of the 'green Jewish peddler' with the strange name, Chaldik, in Gordin's play, 'The Russian Jew in America,' which they had staged in every season in Adler's theatre on the Bowery, and Katzman, as well as the play, had great success.

Katzman then turned into a first-class character comic. Years later when K. played with Edward G. Robinson in the English play, 'Kibitzer,' an English newspaper wrote that the Jews had known no great talent like they had in him."

B. Weinstein writes:

"Katzman at that time used to play the same roles in Gordin's plays, which also were played by Sigmund Mogulesco and Mr. Tornberg. Katzman played with Berta Kalich, with David Kessler, with Madame Lipzin, with M. Moskowitz and with all the others of the Yiddish stars of that time and would strongly excel. The critics of every newspaper used to constantly praise him.

When Madame Kalich moved away from the Yiddish stage and they had to stop staging Gordin's plays so often, Katzman found it very difficult to receive an engagement in the Yiddish theatre. Katzman also was an older man when he began to act in the English tongue. His good talent there also had good ongezen, although his English was not fulkum. ...I remember how he was a few years back playing with great success in the role of 'Yankel' in 'Kibitzer,' which the well-known Jewish-English actor Edward G. Robinson had staged on the English stage in New York.

Jacob Katzman... many times complained to us that he could not find any engagement in the Yiddish theatre. They did not act well anymore-- or as he used to say it-- realistic plays. In shund [trash] plays Katzman never used to exclude them. Jacob Katzman was a very friendly person and lovely human being, a true colleague. He was much loved by everyone who were close to him."

Sh. E.

  • B. Gorin-- "History of Yiddish Theatre," Vol. 1, pp. 205-6, 209, 212, 234;  Vol. 2, pp. 49, 126, 151, 197.

  • B. Weinstein-- Di erste yorn fun yidishn teater in odes ["Archiv far der geshichte fun yidishn teater un drame"], Vilna-New York, 1930, pp. 243-44.

  • [--]-- Bavuster yidisher shoyshpiler katzman, geshtorben, "Forverts," N.Y., 9 July 1932.

  • B. Weinstein-- Farshtorbener aktor yakov katzman-- zayne ershte yoren oyf der bine, dort, 12 July 1932.

  • Boaz Young-- "Mayn lebn in teater," New York, 1950, p. 86.

  • Zalmen Zylbercweig-- "Album of the Yiddish Theatre," N.Y., 1937, pp. 28, 39.






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Adapted from the original Yiddish text found within the  "Lexicon of the Yiddish Theatre" by Zalmen Zylbercweig, Volume 4, page 2811.

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