Lives in the Yiddish Theatre


Matisyahu Kovalski
(Mates; Koval)

K. was born on the 15th of January, 1880 in Lubitz in Minsk Province in Belarus. His parents were flax merchants. He studied in a cheder and later in the Vashilishok Yeshiva.  At the same time as a musician he sang with various cantors. He also took part, unknown to the yeshiva in the town of Vashilishok, in a performance of "Shulamis." The head of the yeshiva, Rabbi Leib found out about this and dismissed him from the yeshiva. He left for Radin to enroll in the yeshiva of the Chafetz Chaim. After that he moved to Oviya to study on his own, and at the same time he took part in amateur presentations.

1899—He was drafted into the Russian army returning in 1900 to the town of Lida. There he met up with the Becker’s troupe and joined them. His made his debut by singing "Hot Potatoes" in Goldfaden’s "Bobe yakhne." For a year K. traveled around with this troupe playing in various small towns. After that he joined up with Bernstein and still later he became an accompanist to Fiszon, Zhitomirski, Bernstein, Becker, Genfer and Bernstein once again. In 1905 K. joined a member's troupe that performed throughout Crimea. Following this he joined up once more with the following performers in this order: Zhitomirski, Genfer, Sabsey, Genfer, Zandberg, Genfer again, Kaminski, Adler,  and with a few other small troupes. He then worked together with Genfer. Finally he joined Lipovski.


In 1911 K. started to perform with the actor Shumsky, in Sholem Asch’s "Going and Coming" in Hebrew. At the start of World War I, when it was forbidden to perform in Yiddish theatre, he played in "Uriel Acosta" in Hebrew, in the title role.

When the Germans occupied Vilna, K. became a professional actor with permission to play Yiddish theatre. He put together his own ensemble comprising both professional actors and amateurs. They started performing under the name "FAD"A," which would later become famous as "The Vilna Troupe." With this troupe he traveled all over Poland, Lithuania and Western Europe.

About this Zalmen Zylbercweig wrote:

During World War I, Vilna was occupied by the German army. A small circle of amateurs from the Yiddish Theatre (that at the time, during the war, was absolutely outlawed by the Russians) were given permission to stage Yiddish drama in a permanent Yiddish Dramatic Theatre.  ...By the way, at first they went through many bureaucratic difficulties placed on them by the occupiers (caused by other troupes wanting to be granted permission to perform in Yiddish, as in former years. Finally they all were able to receive permission to perform. This permission was granted under the name of the professional actor ‘Matisyahu Kovalski.' In Vilna, in those days, apart from Kovalski there remained no professional Yiddish actors. The troupe was therefore established with amateurs.  The business side of the Yiddish theatre remained under the supervision of the so called "Equality Organ," whose executive changed frequently. ...At the very beginning Kovalski was involved along with Kadison, Shneur, Azro and the business director of the troupe M. Mazo.  The newly organized group gave themselves the long name "Union of Yiddish Dramatic Artists I n Vilna under the direction of M. Kovalski" (FAD"A).

Chaim Shneur who was one of the first members of the "Vilna Troupe" wrote in a letter to the editor of the "Lexicon of Yiddish Theatre":

"Till World War I, there was no stable Yiddish theatre in Vilna. From time to time there were merely guest actors for the Yiddish theatre. These were wandering troupes that would, upon arrival, perform ten or fifteen performances. When the war broke out, Genfer’s troupe was playing in Vilna. It was then that he discovered the actor Kovalski. When the Russians, in 1915, evacuated Vilna K. remained behind and was the one and only professional Yiddish actors remaining in town. The organizers of what was to become the "Vilna Troupe" wanted their troupe not to hire any amateurs. They wanted only professionals. They turned to Kovalski asking him to join the troupe. His heart was not in it. So they gave him a great honor that was that on every poster for every performance there would be written "Kovalski, Director." Moreover, that he could select for himself roles that appealed to him. That is why the troupe in its first year played with the words "Under His Direction," and in that first year Kovalski played almost all of the leading roles. He played the "Landsman" in Sholem Asch’s "Todros," and in "The Faraway Corner" by Hirshbein, and "Yankel Boyle" in Kobrin’s "The Country Boy." Since the "Vilna Troupe" soon became very well-known, not as a "star troupe," but as an "ensemble troupe," Kovalski adapted himself. He was a very talented actor, an honest person with a fine attitude to every undertaking in which the troupe performed. He was famous as a very good ensemble actor in all of his roles (especially as "Senders" in An-sky’s "Dybbuk"). He was also outstanding in the title role in Orenstein’s "The Vilna Landlord."

1924 – K. came with the "Vilna Troupe" to America, and he played there till 1929. 1930 – He traveled to Europe with "Ezra’s Troupe," and then he returned. From time to time he continued to perform. He remained in Los Angeles, where on 7th October 1936 he died without any mention of him in the Yiddish press.

K.’s wife is the Yiddish actress Pola Walter.

M.E.; Sh. E. from Chaim Shneour.

  • Zalmen Zylbercweig -- The "Vilna Troupe" in the Vilna Collection, edited by Yefim Ishurin, N.Y., 1935, pp. 572-86.






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Adapted from the original Yiddish text found within the  "Lexicon of the Yiddish Theatre" by Zalmen Zylbercweig, Volume 4, page 2601.

Translation courtesy of Paul Azaroff.

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