Lives in the Yiddish Theatre


Zigmund Shenkman


Born as he reported May 28th 1866 (this cannot be true regarding his real age) in Warsaw, Poland. His parents were religious restaurant owners. He learned in a cheder, and in a yeshiva and completed secondary school. As a soprano he sang under the cantor Gritshendler, and later on when he got his tenor's singing voice, Jacob Spivakovsky had come to Warsaw in 1879 to stage at the Eldorado Theatre. When he heard him singing, he brought him into his troupe, where he performed without any disturbances from his parents for four months, and soon he played "Absalom" in "Shulamis." After that he went to Lodz, where he acted in the play "Joseph and his Brothers." There Adler saw him performing and took him to London with him, where he acted. When the troupe was send to the United States with the help of the Grand Rabbi Adler, S. joined them, and in 1887 he performed in the Thalia Theatre as "Absalom."

Bessie Thomashefsky reports in her memories that Thomashefsky brought him in 1888 to Boston with his brother, the older Shenkman. One of them "sung," the other one "acted."

As Gorin reports, Shenkman also dabbled as a playwright, and in 1890 his plays ,"Dos lebn in nyu york, or, 2 cats in one sack," and "Der idiot, oder, Di gloke," were staged in New York.

Drosdovich took him to Chicago, where S. acted with Adler at Madison Street Theatre. S. also played with Adler at the Oriental Theatre, with Kessler in Pittsburgh, and under Glickman at the Metropolitan Theatre in Chicago, traveled with Sam Adler to San



Francisco, where they labored for the Yiddish theatre for almost a year, returned to New York and was engaged in the Yiddish vaudeville houses, and Thomashefsky engaged him for the legitimate theatre in Philadelphia, where they labored for the Yiddish theatre for almost a year, returned to New York and was engaged in the Yiddish vaudeville houses, and Thomashefsky engaged him for the legitimate theatre in Philadelphia.

Thomashefsky recalls that S. came to him on his theatre in Philadelphia from Europe. He performed as "Absalom" in "Shulamis," and the title role of Goldfaden's "Bar kokhba," and had a huge success. Soon theatre managers wanted to engage him, but he set certain difficult conditions. Even Thomashefsky could not hold him at his theatre, because he would be taking similar roles as him, and he was a big competition for him. S. left for California with the actor Abraham Tanzman and performed there as "Absalom." At the same time the to that time greatest Italian singer Gigli was guest-starring there, but the English press ranked S.'s voice higher than that of Gigli. S. toured throughout the province for seven to eight years, and meanwhile was forgotten in New York. When he came back, he changed to character-comedian roles. He performed quite seldom in New York, trudged through small towns for several years, came back with a paralyzed foot and generally had to withdraw from stage.

Thomashefsky recalls about this, that S. suddenly fell seriously ill. His first wife passed away, and he had married once again, but his second wife abandoned him and left him. From his illness S. emerged as a cripple with two half-paralyzed feet. However, in spite of his tragic situation, he kept the same good humor and told jokes.

The last years he sang arias and songs composed by himself in the Yiddish vaudeville houses, he also tried to stage in the province, but without material success.

In 1922 Thomashefsky heard him singing in a Jewish hotel, still in a full voice.

S. reported to Z. Zylbercweig that he also used to write couplets, the words with the music, and he used to characterize the the songs, while singing in his make-up. There was also a time when people wanted to engage him at the opera.

Boris Thomashefsky writes about S. as actor and singer:

"A huge tragedy happened to the second brother, Zanvil Shenkman. Nature had blessed young Shenkman with a wonderful tenor voice. You could say with certainty, that as a singer he was the very best Yiddish tenor that the Jews possessed. If the young Zanvil Shenkman had studied, today he maybe would have been the greatest tenor in the world. He has a quiet nature, and he cannot push him to the front, you cannot flatter him, you cannot beg him, and this had put a halt to his great career, which he had lost."

Zalmen Zylbercweig characterizes him this way:

.".. Shenkman played a role several years ago in New York, but more so 'on the road.' where he created the first theatre audience, because Shenkman started to play in Yiddish Theatre in America in cities where Yiddish Theatre had never been seen before. There Shenkman sang for the first time Goldfaden’s original Yiddish songs and melodies. He was the heroic "Bar kokhba," the enamored "Absalom," and with his sweet heroic tenor voice he enthused the first Yiddish theatre attendees and bound them as steady and frequent visitors of the Yiddish theatre. And when later on he went over from lover roles to comedic roles, when he joined the variety theatres, people truly did not let him leave the stage because of his comic couplets... There have surely been and there are surely nowadays greater actors than Shenkman. However I doubt that there have ever been greater comedians than Shenkman, among the Yiddish actors, pranksters, brats. Shenkman used to play jokes that made people gasp with laughter, very often on actors or theatre managers. [Several of this jokes describes Z. in his book "Teater-Figurn"]. He was an odd clown, prankster and many Vaudeville-jokes, that are told by comedians on stage, were created by him. He was the one who played jokes. From this point of view he was a kind of "Hershele Ostropolier," or "Motke the Swine." The latter played jokes on the Jewish community, the Rabbi or in the next place the bathhouse attendant, that means, people from his surroundings, people he came into contact with. Shenkman came into contact with actors. His environment was the world of the Yiddish theatre, so he played his jokes on them.

In his last years, when Shenkman was already lined up to live from so-called concerts or from loans, he could be met very often for entire days, but especially at night, hanging around in the Café Royal or at the Second Avenue, several blocks around the coffeehouse. He seldom used to go inside the café, except for this one time, when his situation was very bad, and he went in and stood singing between the tables. Several actors collected for him a small amount [of money] and handed it out to him. When Boris Thomashefsky returned from Europe and met Shenkman, with whom he had performed with in the first years of the Yiddish theatre in America, he supported him, but Shenkman could not calm down. Quite often he stood there with a pack of documents in his hands, arguing. This was a pack of copies of letters and telegrams, sent from "HIAS," with his demand, that were sent to the town where his son, the English vaudeville actor [Al Shenk], had been, that he should send financial support to his father. Due to the course of fate the letters and telegrams never reached the wanted. Shenkman fell into a terrible melancholy. He desperately walked around, melancholic, and he cried very often. Occasionally he fell ill and in his tight room, on 12th Street, where I used to come very often, he used to lie lonely in his bed and asking for his death. In several cases he threatened to commit suicide... and finally he... found his son and the son sent him to a summer place to improve his health."

At the summer place there was a benefit for the older actor Abraham Fishkind, who was introduced as the oldest still-living comedian. S. succeeded in his persuasion, that people should allow him to go onto the stage and show that he was still alive. This was his last "performance." A bit later, on 18 September, 1932, he died in New York.


  • B. Gorin – "History of Yiddish Theatre," Volume II, pp. 66, 276.

  • Bessie Thomashefsky – "Mayn lebns geshikhte," New York, 1916, p. 63.

  • Boris Thomashefsky – Di brider Shenkman, vos habn gehat erfolg als yidishe aktiorn un farlozn die bine, "Forverts," N.Y., Nov. 10, 1923.

  • Zalmen Zylbercweig – Hot frelikh gemakht toyzntermentshn, un aleyniz er gevender grester moreshkhoyre, "Di yidishe velt," Phila., 11, 12, 13 October 1932 [reprinted in his book "Teater-figurn," Buenos Aires, 1936, pp.48-63.]






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AEnglish translation courtesy of Silvia Hoffman. Edited by Steven Lasky.
Adapted from the original Yiddish text found within the  "Lexicon of the Yiddish Theatre" by Zalmen Zylbercweig, Volume 4, page 2577.


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