Lives in the Yiddish Theatre


Morris Moshkovitch


Born on November 23rd 1871 in Odessa, Ukraine. His parents owned an inexpensive restaurant. His father was illiterate but with a natural inborn intelligence and with a good ear for music. He studied in a religious elementary school (cheder), and then in a primary school. Still, as a child of four or five, M. would often wrap himself in a quilt or a blanket and smear his face with make-up and put on presentations for his own enjoyment. Later he used to read and recite for himself too. At the age of ten years he wrangled his way into a performance in the Russian Theatre and was so enchanted by it that he quit school and became a messenger boy for the actors. His parents placed him under the guidance of a watchmaker, but even then he spent his free time in the theatre.

At sixteen years of age he had the opportunity to appear in a performance of the Russian Mariinsky Theatre playing the role of a child. Here, he caught the attention of the Russian actor, Andre Burlak, who taught him the art of make-up. Two years later he became a member of a Russian-language amateur performing group in Odessa. This is how M. describes himself in his memoirs – “This was the reason my parents decided to immigrate to America."

In New York M. found work as a clock maker. At the same time he performed with various Russian dramatic clubs. While he was appearing in one of their presentations (1893), Jacob Gordin and Jacob P. Adler saw him perform and offered him the opportunity to become a professional Yiddish actor.

M. debuted immediately after this in Adler’s Poole's Theatre as “Samson’s Father” in the historical operetta “Samson the Hero." But since he was still not proficient in the Yiddish language, and since he also couldn’t stand the atmosphere therein, he returned immediately after the third performance to his old trade. He started to visit the restaurants and coffee-houses where actors got together. There he literally swallowed every word about theatre.

Now he started to renew his connection to Yiddish theatre and he returned to Adler’s Roumanian Opera House, where he once again made a debut in Gordin’s “The Jewish Priest."

About those days M. tells us in his autobiography: “The actors performed according to the 'mark' system (meaning that they received percentages of the ticket sales).  They received no wages, which in those days wasn’t the accepted thing, and in-as-much as the Roumanian Opera House was a very small and poorly endowed theatre, usually my share came out to five or six dollars a week. Adler would personally bring my money to me wrapped in a cloth and would count it out for me in nickels and dimes, so that I would have something to count and to occupy myself with. I began to look with practical eyes on my life and specifically at theatre. It was then that I began to understand that one has to climb up the ladder of life one step at a time. This gave me the courage and motivation to endure and to fight my way up, while I was on the Yiddish stage, in order one day to become a 'star.' I would learn my roles enthusiastically and with great pleasure, in order to excel each time. I also started to fall in love with those small windfalls that Yiddish theatre periodically brought to me, because I continued to long for and yearn to one day be a 'star.' However, the longer I appeared on the Yiddish stage, the more dismal was the outlook, for me to one day become such a star. Not because I wasn’t making progress with my performances, but for a completely other reason: The Yiddish 'star' in those days and even the other players were fat, obese, massive Jews, with round bellies, fat necks, and puffy cheeks. So that when they came onto the stage, there was what to look at. Very often their appearances had much to do with the impression they made on the stage, especially when they played highly respected, honorable roles. I, on the other hand, was tall and thin like a stick. I was six feet tall. Despite this I only weighed 125 pounds, even in my heavy winter clothes. Even if I was playing the role of a detective or of a criminal, or other such roles which the audiences, in those days used to boo instead of applaud, my physical appearance was very harmful to my popularity."

As Reb Shulman

The first two years that M. played in the Yiddish theatre he also worked during the day in a factory. Later he opened a coffee-house. In those days he played in a wide variety of roles. In 1896 he starred as Beinish Wasserman” in Jacob Gordin’s “Shloymke Charlatan” with Adler-Kessler, in 1898—“Reb Shulman” in Gordin’s “Mirele Efros” with Lipzin, Kessler, Tornberg, Dinah Feinman, etc., in 1899—“ Elkanneh” in Gordin’s “The Slaughter” with Lipzin, Kessler, Mogulesco et al.

He won his personal popularity on stage, first of all in the role of “Uriel Mazik” in Gordin’s “ God, Man and Devil” (September 21, 1900) in the Thalia Theatre with Kessler, Bertha Kalich, Leon Blank, Tornberg, Dinah Feinman, Mary Wilensky and Sonia Nadolsky.

In that same year he appeared in the role  of “Aksel” in Gordin’s “The Oath” with Lipzin, Kessler, Blank, Tornberg, Celia Adler, et al, and “King Stempel” in Gordin’s “Sappho” with Bertha Kalich, Dinah Feinman, Kessler, Mogulesco, Elias Rothstein, Bina Abramowitz, Mary Wilensky et al.

In January 1902 he created the role of “Gregory” in Gordin’s  “The Kreutzer Sonata” with Kessler, Kalich, Tornberg, Nadolsky and Wilensky. October 12, 1903—in the Thalia Theatre as “Joel Trachtenberg” in Gordin’s “Di yesoyme (The Orphan Girl) with Bertha Kalich, Kessler, Katzman, Mary Epstein, et al.  In the same year he played—Herr Stegton” in Gordin’s “The Truth” with Kalich, Kessler, Sigmund Feinman, Katzman, Nettie Tobias et al. In 1905 he played the title role of Jacob Gordin’s “The Unknown One” with Lipzin, Blank, Mogulesco, Mary Epstein,  etc. In 1907 he was “Philip Weiss” in Gordin’s “Without a Home” with Sara and Jacob Adler, Samuel Rosenstein, Mary Wilensky et al. On December 32,1907 he played “Rabbi Wolf” in Gordin’s “Galicia Diaspora’ with Jacob P. and Sara Adler, Samuel Rosenstein, Gershon Rubin et al.

For the 1905-06 season M. became a partner in the New York Thalia Theatre (with Kenny Lipzin, Jacob Gordin and Mogulesco). In 1907-08 he undertook a tour of America along with Kenny Lipzin and explored the different regions of the land.

M. had an enormous success in 1908-09 in the Lipzin Theatre playing “Eliyahu Zeitlin” in I. Solotorefsky’s play “White Slaves."  In that same season he played the leading male role in  Solotorefsky’s play ‘The Sinner."  He also went on a pleasure trip to Europe. He appeared in Warsaw in several plays, and after that in some cities in Russia. As a result he became the first American Jewish actor to represent American art theatre in Europe. His trip, which was a tremendous success, was well written up and reviewed in the New York journal “The Yiddish Stage."

In the 1909-10 season M. appeared once again in New York in Lipzin’s theatre where he was able to play all the leading male roles in Solotorefsky’s play “Cards," “Children, or, On Account of the Parents' Sins” and “The Anchored Wife." On September 16, 1910 he appeared in that same theatre in “The Master Builder” by Ibsen.

In 1911 M. traveled again to Europe and visited Warsaw, Lodz and Odessa playing in “Uriel Mazik (Demon)," “The Father” by Strindberg, and in Lodz he played “Eliyahu Zeitlin” and in Solotorefsky’s “White Slaves."

About his travels, Noah Prilutzki wrote at that time: “In the role of 'Uriel Mazik' this traveling actor (M.) is helped enormously by his diction, which has no comparison in our theatres. He speaks in a simple, beautiful Yiddish. It is not a Litvak dialect and not a Polish one either. It is not Voliner accent. His is a unique, cultural expression. With a voice that he inherited, which was healthy and pure and which can be manipulated just as its possessor wishes, and just as the moment demands. …M. maneuvers with movements and voice so that one can say, he is a virtuoso.” And concerning “The Riding Master” in Strindberg’s “Father",  Prilutzki wrote: “On the stage he creates a complete, living person, his own spiritual world, a unique, original nature, which is in complete harmony with its clear, pure, expression of the idea that the author wanted to embody. …Goodness and importance are altogether, as they shine forth, features of M.’s character. He establishes endless waves of deep quiet, transparent, truth; with remarkable speed, through his innermost being which, in M. is the passage of one emotion to another."

Dr. Mukdoni—in his memoirs—writes about M.’s travels: “This actor was for us a surprise. We saw before us an actor with a great ability that he carries with pride in his calling; an actor with theatre culture; an actor and a human being too, one who wants to make an impact and leave the impression that he has successfully done it. He is it. For example, he was, like all the other Yiddish actors a disciple of Jacob Gordin. But he knew Gordin. He knew how to bring out Gordin’s positive talents, and to make them so clear that they covered up his shortcomings. He spoke to us about theatrical questions thoughtfully and with truth, with authority but with understanding and with good, positive, facts to back him up. In short, he is a personality such as we have never before among the entire field of our home grown actors. On the stage his personality seemed to grow larger. He was tall and thin yet his figure filled up the stage. He appeared majestic among the small grown, downtrodden, and impoverished fellow actors. His first appearance was in Gordin’s “God, Man and Devil."  He played Uriel Mazik. Here we could see a real actor with talent, and with a God-given unique ability for the stage:  a seldom heard clear diction, at times even a bit too clear, without the customary voice, a wonderful mimic and using very thoughtful mobility. In short—he is an actor deserving to be seen on the best world’s stages. Well grounded, apparently, also in stage direction—according to the concepts of those times—he presented his play successfully.  However, he tormented his actors but he managed to put together, in a very short time, a very good acting ensemble. M. appeared in Strindberg’s “Father” as the riding instructor and was no less successful as Uriel Mazik. With M.’s guest appearances we had to alter our contemptuous attitude towards American theatre. …In him we found our consolation: meaning in America there are still sincere actors, who have the remnants of the “pintele Yid” (the tiniest drop of Jewishness) that had not been crippled by the American experience.

En route from Russia M. stopped over in Lemberg (Lviv) to perform and later on in London, where he appeared in in the “Pavilion Theatre” along with M.D. Waxman. There he was unknowingly dragged into a competitive battle, which took place between his and a second theatre. The other theatre starred Dinah Feinman and Joseph Kessler.

In March 1913, M. traveled to Argentina. On April 6, 1913 he began in a guest appearance in Buenos Aires, in Strindberg’s “Father."  After that he appeared in Tolstoy’s “The Living Corpse."

Regarding M.’s acting in Argentina, B. Gorin wrote: “Neiman (M.’s director whom the press had strongly attacked in the past causing the confused theatre audiences to boycott his theatre), surrendered his position in the theatre allowing M. to take over.  However, through time there arose a conflict between the guest actors and Goldberg who went over to the Garibaldi Theatre, which was arranged through “political pressure."  This resulted in a major dispute between the two theatres lasting for three months. In the end, M. left together with his ensemble for a tour of the Argentinean provinces. Almost immediately afterwards he returned to London.

In the 1913-1914 season, M. signed on as an actor in Malvina Lobel’s Royal Theatre in New York. There he appeared in Tolstoy’s “The Living Dead," in “Cain” and in Moshe Richter’s “Too Late."

January 1, 1914, M. played the role of “Aaron” in Leon Kobrin’s play “The Magician," on January 16, he played the “Rabbi” in Mark Orenstein’s “A Jewish Daughter." On February 6, 1914 he played Pinye in Morris Gisnetz’s play “Money” and on the 27th of February 1914 he appeared in Artsibashev’s “Jealousy."

In My 1914 M. traveled to London, once again,  where he performed for a short while, and then traveled almost immediately with his own ensemble back to Argentina. When he arrived, which was right after the outbreak of  World War I, it became difficult for him to perform in Buenos Aires, so he once more ventured out to perform for the audiences in the Argentinean provinces.

From Argentina, M. returned to London where he played for two seasons in the Yiddish theatre. In the 1916-1917 season, M. came back to America, where he had only a few guest appearances in Kessler’s Second Avenue Theatre. In December 1917 he appeared as a guest performer in the Liberty Theatre in Solotorefsky’s play “Sweet Dreams," and in Moshe Richter’s “The Two Weddings," and in the one-act play “The German Culture” by Davis (translated from Dr. Melamed’s original). Later on he once more acted in the Second Avenue Theatre. On January 11, 1918, he performed in Sheine Ruchel Simkoff's play “A Name for Mother." However, almost immediately after this he returned to London, where he performed in Yiddish at the “Pavilion Theatre." Later, M. said to a reporter from “The Morning Journal”: “At that time there was an agreement made which I could not sanction: The artist was no longer important because most important was the lease on the theatre, and the lead could take any role he wanted.

In his autobiography M. tell us: “In the London Yiddish theatre we had to perform in no less than four different plays each week, otherwise there would not have been an audience. The London literary critics could not forgive me whenever I appeared in a non-literary play. I decided to open that season with three literary plays in one week in order to have good press coverage.  I presented Strindberg’s “Father," Tolstoy’s “The Living Dead” and Gutzkow’s “Uriel Acosta." On a certain evening after the last act of “Uriel Acosta” two English critics, one was Huston-Harrison and the second one was Y. B. Fagin, manager of the Royal Court Theatre.

They approached me on the stage and without  either ceremony or too much talk; Fagin asked me if I would agree to sign a contract in his theatre to play “Shylock” in English. When I explained to him that my English was not good enough to play “Shylock” on the British stage and in Shakespearean English to boot, he laughingly responded: “If I’m not afraid of you and your Yiddish, you must, certainly,  not be afraid  of Shakespeare and his English." I agreed to the invitation and began to prepare for my English stage debut after 25 years of appearing in the Yiddish theatre."

M.’s first appearance on the English stage was in Manchester (England) where the play lasted for a month. Afterwards the play went on to be performed for nine month continuously in London. M.’s name became extremely popular in England.  He then played in other dramas throughout England. After that he had guest appearances in Africa and Australia till 1929. 


As "Shylock"

In December 1929 M. came to America and here he appeared in English in Feuchtwanger’s “Jew Suss." After that (November 1930) in “Shylock’ and later he moved to Hollywood to be near his son, who was a violinist found work in sound movies. M. spent time in Hollywood and from time to time he appeared in charity performances in a variety of Yiddish theatre presentations.

 December 21-28 1929, M.’s biography was published in the “Yiddish Forverts." It was  titled “The Life Story of the Yiddish-British Actor Morris Moshkovitch, as told by himself to our correspondent in London, Y. L. Fine."  The same biography was printed in a London newspapers “The Post” (April 21-May 25 1930) and in Argentina in Di Presse” (May 20-June 1 1930).

Leon Kobrin wrote about M.’s involvement with Yiddish theatre: “We may say he stood at the cradle of very best, early, Yiddish stage. He fought for it and went hungry for it. He came to the Yiddish theatre at the same time when Jacob Gordin first appeared. His only desire was to be an actor in one of the plays managed by Adler. M. literally starved in order to appear in the theatre in one of its better plays. …He always gave the impression of an intelligent and a bit of a flirt both through his physical appearance and his manner. As he appeared in real life so was he on the stage. He was a tall, thin figure with a long and intelligent face. He had a come-hither smile, thin lips and smart, bright eyes.  His black forelock, bounced around in a sort of goodhearted youthful manner on one side of his forehead.  Even his voice which, came forth like a kitten covered in velvet fur, at times fell into soft, capricious lyrical tones. These flirtations, which by any other actor would have been repulsive, fitted him perfectly. His voice added a specific charm. It, so to speak, gave him an “artful aura."

It was the vogue to see and to hear him. After Adler M. was perhaps the most likeable phenomenon on the stage. Apart from that he was the most intelligent among all the Yiddish actors. He spoke Russian using the Odessa accent; he was steeped in Russian literature; when he read in Russian he employed a rare style of diction. In gatherings, concerts and dramatic renditions of the best Yiddish writers and even with the famous literary giants of Russian literature, he was an actor of great depth.  There was no one else on the Yiddish stage like him. Perhaps this was due to his not possessing the blazing wings of a Kessler or of an Adler.  Which at times carried them off too far…  in is acting a smart brain was more important than the immediate feeling, a good interpretation of the text rather than the the blazing fire itself. For that reason he was always liked, always made a pleasant impression; and he never burst into flames, and never shook up the spirit as did our “great ones," because M. was certain of his own portrayals as did those actors in the past of his caliber, which our stage once possessed. …Despite his intelligence and artistic appearance and despite style with that black forelock on his brow, his eyes and his smile and his lyrical voice, he seldom played the lover on the stage. If he once in a while did manage to play such a role he seldom over did it, seldom did we not believe in the sincerity of his emotions, because some fire did not appear in his tone.  Mainly, he used his arsenal from time to time; his throatiness, he possessed an almost female-cry, and often he gave the impression of one who was mocking a love scene.  Nevertheless, he surpassed in these roles where any other temperament would dare to go, in that same role. Most of all, in a character role, he was the unique interpreter, the smart artist, who had calmly in measured steps and tact formed characters like a true master

Sh.E. .

B. Gorin – Written in Yiddish Theatre, II, sides 199-201, 161.” M. Moshkovitch – How I became an actor," “The Theatre World," N.Y. 3. 1909.

Kroyze – “A Letter from Russia, The Yiddish Theatre," N.Y. Jan. 21.1910.

Benny Gilman – “Take Down the Mask” “The Yiddish Stage” N.Y. Feb. 11, 1910.

Ruben Friedman – “A Letter to the Director," N.Y.  March 5, 1910.

A. Frumkiin – “A Yiddish Theatre War in London,"  “Forverts," N.Y. Nov. 12, 1912.

A. Frumkin – “Moshkovitch Travels to Buenos Aire”s, “Forverts," N.Y. March 27, 1913.

Y. Mestel – “Moshkovitch in Lemberg (Lvov)," “Togblatt," Lemberg, July 1913.

M. Moshkovitch – “Yiddish Theatre in Buenos Aires," “Argentinian," N.Y. Nov. 22, 1913.

S. Dingol – “New York Yiddish, “Stars” in  London," “Forverts” N.Y. May 6, 1914.

Uriel Mazik – “Picture Gallery of our Yiddish Actors," “Der Tog," N.Y, 10th and 17th Nov.  1917,

“A Permanent  Guest” – “Morris Moshkovitch in the role of Shylock on the English Stage," “Forverts” N.Y. Nov. 4, 1919.

J.P.-“Herr Moshkovitch’s Interpretation of Shylock’, “Renaissance," London, Jan 1920 p. 76.

Noah Prilutzki – “Yiddish Theatre” Bialystok," 1921, sides 54-55, 29-37.

Leon Kobrin – “The Inner Being of a Yiddish Dramatist," New York, (1925) Second Edition, Sides 175-181.

William Zuckerman – “Morris Moshkovitcvh Brings Regards from Jews in Far Off Lands," “Morning Journal," N.Y. April 17, 1929.

H. Ehrenburg – “Morris Moshkovitch,  Famous Yiddish-English Actor, Who Came to America, to play Jew Suss,"” Forverts” N.Y. Dec. 17, 1929

Alef-Alef (A. Auerbuch) – “Morris Moshkovitch," “Morning Journal," N.Y. Dec. 20, 1929.

Shulamith Ish-Kishor – “The Yiddish Favorite who became an English Star," “The Day," N.Y., Dec. 29, 1929.

Ab. Kahan – “Morris Moshkovitch,"  “Forverts," N.Y. Jan. 24, 1930.

N. Buckwald – “Jew Suss” in English, “Morgen Freiheit," N.Y. Jan. 24, 1930.

William Edlin – “Morris Moshkovitch on Broadway, In the English Presentation of Joseph Zuss," “Der Tog” N.Y. Jan. 24, 1939.

Aaron Kanyevsky – “A Jewish and a Non-Jewish ‘Jew Suss’ – Played by Morris  Schwartz and Morris Moshkovitch," “Der Tog” Philadelphia, March 28, 1930.

Y.L. Fine, - “The Biography of the Yiddish-English Actor Morris Moshkovitch," “Forverts” N.Y. Dec. 21-28, 1929, “The Post” London, April 21 and May 25, 1930, De Presse, B.A., May 20-June 10, 1930.

Y. Shayak – “A Bright Ray in Yiddish Theatre History," “The Post” London, April 25, 1930.

A. “Disner – Morris Moshkovitch, Now in Hollywood," “Forverts” N.Y. May 28, 1930.

Ab. Kahan – “Morrish Moshkovitch in his Famous Shakespeare Role," “Forverts” N.Y. , Dec. 4, 1930.

Dr. A. Mukdoni –“ Moshkovitch-Shylock," Morning Journal," N.Y. December 4, 1930.

William Edlin – “How Morris Moshkovitch Plays Shylock," “Der Tog," N.Y. Dec. 7, 1930.

Dr. A. Mukdoni – “Memoirs of a Yiddish Theatre Critic--Archive” Vilna, 1930, side 396.






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Adapted from the original Yiddish text found within the  "Lexicon of the Yiddish Theatre" by Zalmen Zylbercweig, Volume 2, page 1274.
Translation courtesy of Shaul Azaroff.

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