Lives in the Yiddish Theatre


Sonie Badkhan
(Yisroel Zandrunski)

Born 1850 in Bialystok, Poland to poor parents, who had there only child; named him Sonie, a strange name so that no evil eye should recognize him. He studied in a Talmud Torah and later in a secular school, where he was also an assistant. For fourteen years he served as teacher of Yiddish, Russian, German and a teacher of accounting. This income enabled him to support himself and his widowed mother. At age seventeen, he had to flee in order to avoid a "catcher" (a person paid to kidnap children for the Czarís army with service up to twenty-five years). A group of Populists (a political movement in the 1870ís), fortuitously, hearing singing coming from a wine cellar, discovered his beautiful voice. He became a helper to these militants, singing his own songs that he adapted to their melodies.

When Goldfaden came to Odessa, he invited Sonie, who had just returned from Bucharest, into his troupe. But since Sonie did not have an exit visa, he had to remain in Odessa, where he wandered around for a few years singing with folk singers and Brodersingers (singers  from Romania and Galicia who were the forerunners of the Yiddish theatre), until he came to Bialystok.

There he arranged Purimshpiels, stealing songs from the operetta "Samson Hagibor." Sonie played the role of Samson Hagibor; but since business was bad, Sonie, who in the meantime had become popular, had to travel around, working as a singer at weddings. He continued as an artist, satirist, and comedian. With wedding themes, he did not have much success. Nevertheless, he bestowed the name of Badkhan on himself, to which he later


described himself both in his name and in any written correspondence, both in books and songs.

In 1904, Sonie came to America, where he was warmly welcomed by his countrymen already living in America. Over a few years, he brought to America his entire family. Kessler, the American, producer, begged him to play in his theatre, but he insisted on being the "star" of the performance. Nevertheless, Sonie grabbed the invitation, not willing to make a living only as a badkhan. He opened in a New York restaurant theatre.

But he yearned for Bialystok, and after the world war, almost every year he traveled to Bialystok to see his old friend, Alter Badkhan, and then return to New York.

In 1928, he traveled from Bialystok to Warsaw to see the American Consul to receive his papers and to return to America and see his children. He became ill; and within a few days he was hospitalized and died shortly thereafter.

Sonie Badkhan was a director after the style of Aliechem Sunsor. His song compositions have a bit of a poetic sense. His satirical characters were a lot weaker than those of Sunsor, Zabarzer and Goldfaden; but he was a very intense performer. It was his style that each character he played, and of whom he sang had a specific and identifiable costume..

A.Litvin submits, based upon a  biography in a Bialystok journal, that when he used to sing his songs: "The Father and Son," "The Son-in-Law, the Father-in-Law and the Grandfather," "The Two In-Laws with the Foolish Groom," in which he played all the roles.

He had rapid costume changes on the stage or in the hall behind a curtain, a scandalous behavior.  As soon as he finished the costume change, he was already acting as the next character with new facial expressions and language. He used a group of pictures to add personal touches to his performances of the song, "The Young and the Old From Crib to Eighty Years Old."

Speaking about "Sonie Badkhan," the Vilna Badkhan, Y. Zizmer, opined that when "Sonie Badkhan" sang, "Badkhans is in the Shoemaker's Street, perfectly impersonating boorish people," ( "From My Memories about Badkhans," in the Annals of the History of Vilna in the Years of War and Occupation, Vilna:1922):

"Interspersed with these badkhans mimicking of boorish people were other acts, focusing on such things as rope tricks, swallowing fire and many other such skills, which they learned from magicians.

Some of this group of badkhans, knew him as 'Sonie the Bialystoker.' He had a lot of talent, both as a mime and comedian. If he would have only concentrated on those arts, he would have been a famous artist. But in his youth he was a womanís shoemaker with no formal education, either in Yiddish or in secular education. As all badkhans, he learned the tricks of the trade, and only what he needed to know in his personal life, to marry and have a family. He was self- taught and had the creativity to write his own performance plays, for example, "The Frugal Young Man," ""The Small Town Cantor," "The Widow Visited Her Husband," "From Cradle to Grave" (the different periods of a person's life). For this production, he appeared bearded with a suitcase and in a variety of costumes, including womenís clothes, to play the different ages of life. He was a skilled mimic and comedian, a true artist. Commonly the words of the couplets were set to music, his own compositions. He wore creative masks and his makeup was artfully applied.

Basically, his creations had a very small connection to badkhans and were much more creative than the usual badkhanís plays, but still he was called, "Sonie the Bialystoker Badkhan."

  • A. Litvin -- "Sonie"was the Last Badkhan, "Tog," New York,4 May,1929.

  • B. Slutsky Ė Yiddish Badkhanim-Actors, "Periodicals," Vol. I, Minsk, 1926, P.257.






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Adapted from the original Yiddish text found within the  "Lexicon of the Yiddish Theatre" by Zalmen Zylbercweig, Volume 1, page 139.

English translation courtesy of Earle Halsband.

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