Lives in the Yiddish Theatre


Sarah Kranzfeld

Without a doubt, the first woman who, in 1882, performed Yiddish theatre in New York, America.

All the information about her comes from Boris Thomashefsky, who wrote about her several times, but in fact, he changed her story each time, so the accuracy of his information is questionable. In his book, Thomashefsky’s Theatre Writings (New York, 1908), Thomashefsky recounts how, working in a cigar factory, one of the workers, Abraham Golubok, while singing theatre songs, described how his two brothers acted in the London, England Yiddish theatre, and it displayed in an advertisement, on which was written, “the role of Mirele in The Sorceress will be sung and played by the one and only, world-famous Jewish Sara Bernhardt, Madame Kranzfeld” Later, Thomashefsky describes how a well-known man, N.G. [Frank Vulf] owner of a beer saloon, sent eight ship’s tickets to London, and all the actors were brought to New York where on August 12, 1882 they gave the first Yiddish performance, playing Goldfaden’s Caldonia, or, The Witch [The Sorceress] in “Torn Hall” (New York, Fourth Street between Second Avenue and Third Avenue) [for details about the performance, see Thomashefsky’s biography in the Lexicon, second volume, pages 805-07] with Madame Kranz (Kranzfeld) as “Mirele.”

But as Thomashefsky recounted (in the first version): “All the actors, singers, and understudies arranged themselves in their places [on the stage], as they were instructed in rehearsal. Everyone was in place but one was missing, and that was the leading lady, Madame Kranzfeld. I go to her dressing room, knock on the door and call her—no one answers. I open the door—it’s dark. I turn on the gas and I see that the white dress that the leading lady must wear in the first act is hanging on the wall. The wig—on the mirror. The white shoes lie on the shelf. The powder and the rouge are untouched—everything stands packed, and the leading lady is not there. A cry, a scream, an uproar—the leading lady has not come to perform. Madame Kranzfeld is not there. The play cannot begin without her. She must play Mirele, a major singing role. Maybe she is sick? Maybe she is outside and cannot pull herself together and face the audience? I ran, I shouted, I searched, I called outside, “Madame Kranzfeld!” Madame Kranzfeld was not there … The orchestra ended one number. It had already played a second, a third. The hour was already nine—no leading lady. Meanwhile, the public was becoming restless. They were shouting, whistling, and clapping their hands and stomping their feet. All we could do was to beg the public to be patient a few minutes, which we did. But, the leading lady did not come.

G.N. and I grabbed a conveyance [wagon] and we went to the leading lady’s home. There, we met her lying in bed with her head bound. She was sick—she said—and could not perform today. ‘What do you mean, it’s the first performance! The theatre is packed with people! The existence of so many families! The shame!’ She lay in bed and said she was sick and hoarse, and would not perform. I simply began to cry before her, fell at her feet, begged, told her what it would mean if she didn’t perform today. We would go without bread, they would lynch us. G.N. begged and cried, too. It didn’t help. She didn’t want to perform. She was hoarse. She could not sing and she didn’t want to suffer the shame.

Madame Kranzfeld’s husband did not understand our dilemma and he spoke up: "Listen to me"—he burst out—"Mister G.G. [surely a misprint] has promised to buy a soda-water stand [place], and then to give a couple hundred dollars cash [ready money] when my wife does not perform. I am a poor Jew and a greenhorn too, and I don’t often meet with such luck. All the songs were sung in the rehearsals. I know all the music from the operetta, because I studied with the chorus.”

Again, Thomashefsky described how the auditorium was sold out and the tumult in the packed streets around the hall, and there he repeats exactly what he describes in the first version. He did not find the leading lady Mrs. K. in her dressing room, but then he gives a completely different picture:

"The Kranzfelds didn’t live far, somewhere in Forsythe Street. I ordered the orchestra to play the overture again, and then ran to their home. I found her sitting with a cloth bound around her head. "Kranzfeld," I cried with all my strength, "what is happening? It’s time to begin performing. The orchestra has already played the overture two times! Why are you sitting here? Come on!" She answered me calmly, that she was sick, her head was hurting her, her teeth ached, and she was hoarse as well. In short, today she could not perform, we must postpone the performance until she felt better. I spoke, I screamed, I begged, but I was talking to the wall. I left her with her headache and her toothache and ran back to the auditorium. I informed my colleagues what Kranzfeld had said to me and ran quickly up to her dressing room and put on her clothing, and then I was up on the stage and the production began—the first Yiddish theatre production in America. I played the role of Mirele. In the third act, I put on the clothing of a young boy and sang the little song, “Money."

The production went smoothly, but the audience was not satisfied because they expected to hear the leading lady Kranzfeld, whom many knew from Russia, Romania, and Galicia. The whole troupe was a big hit with the public, but this was not what they were expecting. All our relatives, even my parents, walked around with their heads down. Frank Wolf left the theatre without a goodbye.

Later, we discovered that Kranzfeld received from the Immigrant Committee [which was opposed to Yiddish theatre] three hundred dollars so that she would not come to perform in the production, and they bought her husband a soda-water stand at the corner of Division and Bowery, which is why he persuaded his wife that she should betray us, the artists.

According to Thomashefsky, the two versions thus result in the same ending, that K. did not perform at all.

Dr. Marvin Leon Singer, who received his doctorate from Indiana University, in his dissertation in English, The History of the Yiddish Theatre in New York before 1892 [mimeographed copy found in the university and at YIVO] has ascertained, based on advertisements in the Yiddish and German press of that era in New York, that the performance of The Sorceress would have been scheduled to be in the “Thalia” Theatre in the Bowery, and at the last minute, was moved over to “Torn Hall,” where it premiered on August 12, 1882. In the German newspaper, New-Yorker Staats-Zeitung, it was even noted that the performance was “a benefit for 10 poor Russian families”. Dr. Singer notes that in the subsequent performances by the troupe, which took place during Sukkos-time, K. no longer took part.

B. Weinstein, who came to New York at that time, describes in his memoirs the first Yiddish theatre performance in New York. According to him, it appears [which does not match the other accounts] that the first Yiddish theatre production in New York took place in “Bowery Garden,” and they performed Shmendrik, and the first of two productions in the same place was The Sorceress, which ran for several weeks, and the young boy singer, Boris Thomashefsky, a youth of about 17 or 18, who had a beautiful soprano voice (in his youth he was a choirboy with the cantor Nisi Belzer) played the role of Mirele and was a big hit.

The historian of Yiddish theatre, B. Gorin, after telling the story of the arrival of the first player and what happened with the first performance, downplayed Thomashefsky’s memoirs, writing:

"The other actors, who played in several performances, tell the story differently, very simply and prosaically. They say that there was no great run on the tickets. And they certainly remember that they did not find one volunteer to pay five dollars for a fifty-cent ticket as Mr. Thomashefsky maintains. They don’t remember people besieging Torn Hall, or that a squadron of police had to be called. In any case, the conquest was not so noteworthy that the entrepreneur would give three hundred dollars to the leading lady. In those days, not only would such a sum make an actor’s head spin, but his heart would race with fear. Mrs. Kranzfeld was not sick. It was only that she was hoarse and could not sing that evening. Also, they don’t think that the Immigrant Committee would make such an effort to prevent the production of Caldonia.

Mr. Zeyfert, in his history of Yiddish theatre (published in 1897, a whole five years after the performance) gives a picture of the first performance in almost the same light as Thomashefsky, writing thus:

“The official from the Jewish Immigrant Committee ([threatening?] German Reform Jews) considered that such an undertaking (the performance in Yiddish), from their standpoint, was an insult to all of American Jewry, an insult that that could bring them shame and scorn in the eyes of Americans, and, entering the theatre, they made a speech, called upon the public and the visitors to incite them to go home, and as they saw that their speech was not working on the public, these “patriots” bribed Madame Kranzfeld not to play the role. Finally, the rest of the actors convinced Madame Kranzfeld to play the role. She did, but during the whole performance she only sang one song. Naturally, the public departed in very unsatisfied mood. The troupe had no success and the actors went back to their work in the factories.”

In any case, in the later Yiddish performances in New York and in the province, there is no more mention of K.’s name, but in … an article, in which he describes, forty-three years later, an encounter with K., Boris Thomashefsky says that she had an ordinary Jewish background. She was born somewhere in a small shtetl [market town]. He didn’t provide the name. She probably sewed for a tailoress or did some other kind of work in the shtetl, for no theatre was ever seen or thought of there. Her father sang a bit and imitated all the cantorial “ornaments” and had an influence on his daughter. A Yiddish theatre troupe came unexpectedly to play in the shtetl, and through them, she was drawn to the theatre, and before long she became a leading lady. She played in Russia, Austria, Romania, and England [her name is not mentioned in any of the information about Yiddish theatre in these lands] where she acquired a reasonable name as a leading lady. In America, Thomashefsky says, she performed several years with him [?], but “suddenly, she disappeared as though she had fallen into water.” When she met up with Thomashefsky (in 1923), she told him that it was not possible to make a living in theatre, and her husband demanded that she should either perform in the theatre and bring home money, or she should give up acting and let him worry about a livelihood. She chose to give up acting. They moved to Seattle, Washington, where he opened a business selling old clothing and was successful. At first, she missed the stage terribly. She used to cry desperately on the nights she was not performing. There was even a time when she wanted to return to the stage, but she ,gave up the idea.

When and where K. died is not known.

M. E.

  • B. Gorin – The History of Yiddish Theatre, Vol. II, p. 16-23.

  • M. Zeyfert – “The History of Yiddish Theatre” (in The Yiddish Stage) New York, 1897.

  • Boris Thomashefsky – Theatre Writings, New York, 1908.

  • Boris Thomashefsky – “An Encounter with a Yiddish Actress Who Performed Yiddish Theatre 43 Years Ago” Forward, N.Y., August 11, 1923.

  • B. Weinstein – The First Years of Yiddish Theatre in Odessa and in New York,” Archive, Vilna-New York, 1930, p. 240-52.

  • Boris Thomashefsky – My Life Story, New York, 1937, p. 81-84.






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Adapted from the original Yiddish text found within the  "Lexicon of the Yiddish Theatre" by Zalmen Zylbercweig, Volume 4, page 2644.

English translation by Beth Dwoskin.

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