Lives in the Yiddish Theatre


Bessie Thomashefsky
(Brukhe Baumfeld-Kaufman)


Born [according to T. alone] in the Winter of 1873 in Tarasche, Kiev Gubernia, Ukraine. Her father was Shlomo Baumfeld, a merchant, a Talner Khasid, She learned in a cheder. Her father later became an epicure and eventually had to, as a nihilist, flee from the town. He took her and Schwartz to the frontier by Brody, and a half-year later they migrated (with the arriving family) to America under the name Kaufman.

With a group of immigrants, her father became a colonist in Fisgill [sp] County, not far from Washington. T. learned there in school for two years. Later she moved with her family over to Baltimore, and there at the age of twelve she became a worker in a stocking factory, then attended a school once again, became a worker cutting tobacco, sold fruit in the streets, and again studied in a school

T. visited the "Dime Museum," where she heard for the first time black people singing, and the first production that she saw was Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet."

At the age of fourteen T. became a seamstress. At that time there arrived in Baltimore Boris Thomashefsky, with his troupe, and T. attended his productions.

About the impression that it made in her, the first Yiddish theatre production that she had seen, Bessie recalls in her memoirs:

"That I am aheymgekumen for the first theatre production, which I had ever seen in my life, I was a newborn. I felt in me something that I had never felt before. Something had spoke to my heart. I dealt with it as if it was a dream. For us at home we became sad, for my father I bore an anger why he laughed at the Yiddish actors, and day and night I used to think about my sister Clara in our house. There I thought about the actors when I had seen them in Concordia Hall."

When the troupe left Baltimore and Thomashefsky remained by himself in the city, there became a more frequent entrance of T.'s brother (shvager), releasing in T. a desire to become a Yiddish actress.

T.'s first performance was as "the bride" in Pinkhas Thomashefsky's play, "Rothschild Biography," which Boris Thomashefsky staged with a dramatic club that he had founded in Baltimore.

T. describes her first performance: "On the stage stood 'Rothschild,' Thomashefsky, who sang a sad song, and the audience applauded so strongly that he had to sing the same song more than once. Rothschild's mother Poret goes around in rags. They both speak and 'the bride' should enter by herself. That means, however... I stand behind the curtain because I will go onto the stage and cannot, just like someone here had coveted. I listen as Thomashefsky says: 'Where is by beloved bride, for she has not entered?' I stand but still cannot move from my place. Somehow his last words were very strange to me. Bay prube I never heard that he should say this (I didn't know then that one could say an 'ad lib.'), and I stood. Suddenly I hear him cry out: "Ah, mother, behold, here comes my bride, I have to akegnloyfn' -- and he came down from the stage, grabbed me by the hand and led me into the scene.

"The stage was lit with candles, but we who were in the light became dark and could not be seen. I remain standing like a wooden Indian at a cigar store and lost the language. I stand and sweat, he goes to us and says: 'So, my dear bride, have you nothing to say? Say, shem dikh nist!' As if by witchcraft, speech came to me. I mitamol began to speak."

Several weeks later T. performed as "the pioneer," and then she (together with Thomashefsky and her sister Rachel) performed with couplets in Shlegel's Hall in Baltimore. Thomashefsky now became a member of the household in her home, and T. received permission  from him to travel to Boston, where she performed in Boston Music Hall in the title role of "Shulamis" (together with Boris Thomashefsky, Marienstras, the older Shenkman, Zanvil Shenkman and Morris Weissman.) Soon thereafter Thomashefsky brought a group of well-known actors from New York, together with Avraham Golfaden and staged, "The Two (Both) Kuni Lemels," with T. as "Libele." Then T. played the role of "Reuben" in Karp's offering  of Gutzkow's "Uriel Akosta," and soon she traveled to Philadelphia to Thomashefsky, who staged in a dramatic hall (Gaskill Street) his father's play, "Yankele yungatsh," with T. in the role of "Yankele's wife." So that there shouldn't have to return to her parents from whose auspices she wanted to be free of, T. married Boris Thomashefsky, and since then performed on the stage under the name of Bessie Thomashefsky. Going over to the local Thalia Theatre, T. acted in the role of "Yehudis" in "Uriel akosta."

About the state of the material in the Yiddish theatre at the time, T. recalls in her memoirs:

"We had rejoiced very much over the great moralistic success, for there was no money to cause us to rejoice. We were aroys "Iven" [a loss and a spirit], therefore Mr. Best [?] had also given us permission to play in the Thalia Theatre, and it was for us a great joy, when we were going home, to become a bit of a krigerei between old porl. My mother-in-law wrote: '"Akosta" wants him. "The Spanish Inquisition" had yet brought in a dollar, there was after all [something] to eat." And the eldest had written: "Children, we have acted first-class, this time we are not deserving, but we have made a name, a great name."

Due to bad business the troupe had to play across the province. Here T. had the opportunity to again move with her family, already as a professional actress and married woman. Soon however the troupe returned to Philadelphia, where T. performed at first only with the song, "Heyse bobkelekh," then as "Mirele" in Goldfaden's "Bobe yakhne." After playing for a short time in the Thalia Theatre, and then returning to the dramatic hall, the troupe separated (due to th concurrence of a second Yiddish troupe), and T. together with her husband and her sister Rachel, went to Boston, where they performed in a concert, and in a production in Chelsea and returned back to Philadelphia, where they played for a short time. Afterwards they played for a short time in Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Meikes Port [sp], again in Philadelphia, later in Chicago (where T. played "Oysa [sp]" in "Akhashveyresh"), then in New York's Poole's Theatre, and traveled again to Chicago, where T. had the opportunity to play for the firs time together with Mogulesko.

In 1890-91 T. and her husband became engaged to New York's Roumanian Opera House, where they also played the season of 1891-2, and here T. performed for the first time in a Gordin role ("Mania" in Gordin's "The Pogrom in Russia"), under the direction of the author. For the seasons of 1892-94 T. played with her husband (as a co-partner) in the Thalia Theatre, and on 15 September 1894 T. performed as "Sara Devora" in the premiere of Gordin's "The Litvak Lurie Brothers," then they went over to the Windsor Theatre, where T. had a great success as "Yitzkhok" in Goldfaden's "The Sacrifice of Isaac."

In the 1897-99 seasons T. played with her husband in the Windsor Theatre. Here T. had the opportunity to play "Spinoza" with Morrison in his "Akosta" production, "Mina's daughter" in Kobrin's "Mina," and as "Pinye" in Gordin's "Devorah'le meyukheses."

From 1899 to 1901 T. played in the People's Theatre, where Boris Thomashefsky was a partner with Edelstein, and here she created "Beinushl" in Solotorefsky's, "The Yeshiva Student."

In 1901 T. with her husband visited Europe and performed only once in Berlin's Yiddish theatre.

Returning to America, T. continued to play in the People's Theatre and represented Mogulesko (due to his illness) in his successful role as "Feitl pavolye" in Shomer's "The Immigrants." Switching over to the repertoire of "The Green Girl," "The Green Student," "The Green Children," "The Green Wife," T. began to take a top position in the theatre.

On 25 December 1907 T. played the role of "Felikus" in Goldfaden's last play, "Ben Ami," and then performed as "Khana" in Dymow's "Hear O Israel (Shma Yisroel)," with which she attracted the attention of the critics.

"Some of the critics wrote"-- T. recalls in her memoirs-- "I may toss away my soubrette roles and only play dramatic roles, so strong am I in the role "Hear O Israel," but the play itself did not have a great success."

On 3 September 1908 T. performed in the People's Theatre in the title role of Oscar Wilde's "Salome."

After acting in Gordin's last play, "Dementia amerikana," and as "Lina" in Avraham Shomer's "Eykele mazik (with Schildkraut), she separated from her husband Boris Thomashefsky and went away for a short time to Europe.

T. returned to join (on February 19, 1913), together with Sara Adler and Rudolph Schildkraut, in Brooklyn's Novelty Theatre, but soon she remained by herself as the "star" and performed there on 31 December 1912 in Rakov's "Khantshe in amerika" (music--Joseph Rumshinsky), which she made very popular.

From here she went across the province, then performed on 11 January 1914 in her repertoire in the newly opened Prospect Theatre in New York (Bronx), then in other theatres in New York and performed  (during the 1914-15 season) together with Jacob P. Adler, where she debuted in the role of "Fanny Untrey" in Rakov's "The Kingdom of Women" (music by J. Rumshinsky.)

For the 1915-16 season she took over the management of the People's Theatre and performed here on 3 September 1915 as "Eva" in Solotorefsky's " The Price of Love," on 4 November 1915 as "The Yeshiva Student," on 4 February 1916 in the main role of Moshe Richter's "Suspicion," and on 14 April 1916 as "Haike" in N. Rakov's "Forbidden Fruit."

Also during the 1916-17 season T. remained the manager of the same theatre, which was now called, "Bessie Thomashefsky's People's Theatre." Here she performed on 15 September 1916 as, "Ende" in Libin's "The Big Question," on 28 September as "Emma" in Libin's "The Two Mothers," and  on 9 February 1917 as "Suzi bren" by Solotorefsky (music-- Louis Friedsell.)

During the 1917-18 season T. opened her theatre (31 August 1917) with Moshe Richter's "The Two Mothers-in-Law." On 23 November 1917 she performed as "Minke the Servant" in Leon Kobrin's comedy, "The Doctor's Wife," which she played later under the name, "Minke the Servant Girl." On 20 December 1917 she participated in Libin's play, "The Modern Woman," and on 21 February 1918 she performed as "Sadie Flaum" by M. Goldberg (music-- Louis Friedsell.)

For the 1918-19 season T. opened her theatre (30 August 1918) with Moshe Richter's "A Wife's Duty." Several days later she removed her name from the theatre, which she soon left to once again guest-star across the American province. On 15 April 1919 she guest-starred with Boris Thomashefsky in the National Theatre with Moshe Richter's comedy, "How Men Love," on 16 May 1919 she performed here as "Moshe Flaster" in M. Goldberg's comedy, "The Merry Prisoner" (music- J. Rumshinsky), and on 29 May 1919 in Liliput's translation of Ostrovsky's "Dikarka" (The Wild) under the direction of Osip Dymow.

On 3 April 1920 T. began to act in the People's Theatre in Mark Arnstein's play, "Before the Wedding" (music-- Louis Friedsell.)

For the 1920-21 season she acted in the People's Theatre, where she began on 2 September 1920 with Rakov's "The Door to Happiness," and on 22 September 1920 she acted as "Jennie Runs For Mayor, a musical comedy in four acts by Z. Kornblith, music by Joseph Brody," which played week-long with great success.

In May 1921 T. guest-starred together with Samuel Rosenstein across the local theatres of New York (Lyric, Liberty) and then traveled across the province (October 1921-- in San Francisco.)

On 17 February 1922 she guest-starred in Kessler's Theatre in Israel Rosenberg's comedy, "Berele the Tramp" (music-- Sholom Secunda), on 13 April 1922 in "Dos bintl briv" by Israel Rosenberg (music-- J. Rumshinsky), on 24 November 1922 in the People's Theatre as "Lady Khaya Tsipe, a novelty comedy in four acts by Osip Dymow," on 15 December 1922 in Kalmanowitz's comedy, "Women's Secrets," and after a short break, during which she guest-starred across the province, she performed again in the same theatre on 30 March 1923 in Richter's "The Imported Wife."

In the Summer and Fall of 1923 T. played in Yiddish vaudeville houses in New York. On 26 October 1923 she guest-starred in her repertoire in the Amphion Theatre, on 4 January 1924 in the Hopkinson Theatre, then in the McKinley Square Theatre, and in May 1924 she traveled to London, where she guest-starred in their Yiddish theatre

In October 1924 T. returned to America, and in January 1925 she guest-starred in Toronto. On 9 March 1925 sh began to perform in vaudeville in the McKinley Theatre in a sketch from the play, "The Green Student," on 27 March 1925 she played in vaudeville in the Grand Theatre. On 9 April 1925 she performed in the Lyric Theatre in L. Freiman's comedy, "Tsirl mirl from Galicia," and then again in vaudeville in Prospect Theatre.

On 16 April 1926 she guest-starred in the Amphion Theatre in Kalmanowitz's  play, "Women, Guard Your Home."

In the 1926-27 season T. was engaged in Kessler's Second Avenue Theatre, where she played for several months, and in April 1927 she performed in English vaudeville in the Apollo Theatre.

On 13 March 1928 T. performed in English in the sketch "An Actor's Wife" in the Clinton Theatre, and then with the same play in other theatres.

In April 1929 she guest-starred in Baltimore, December 1929 in Yiddish vaudeville in the Yiddish vaudeville in the McKinley Square Theatre, and since then she performed the same on the stage.

T. recalls in her memoirs the actor Elihu Tenenholtz, who she worked and published with in "Di varhayt," which later was published in her memoirs in a special book: "My Life’s History: The Joys and Tribulations of a Yiddish Star Actress, by Bessie Thomashefsky, depicted by her alone and delivered by E. Tenenholtz. Published by the Varhayt Publishing Company [New York] 1916 [304 pp., 16°].

T.'s son, Harry, acts on the Yiddish stage.

M. E.

  • B. Gorin-- "History of Yiddish Theatre," Vol. 2.

  • Bessie Thomashefsky-- "My Life's History," New York, 1916.

  • Boris Thomashefsky [memoirs]-- "Forward," N.Y., 2 9 January, 26 March, 2, 9, 16, 23, 30 April, 7, 14, 21, 28 May, 4, 18, 25 June, 2, 16 July, 26 November, 10, 17, 24 December, 1916, 18, 25 March, 1, 8, 15, 22, 29 April, 13 May, 3 June, 7, 14, 21, 28 October, 11, 25 November, 2 December 1917.

  • B. Borukhov-- In der gezelshaft fun bikher, "Di varhayt," N.Y., 18 February 1917.

  • D.B. [Sh. Yanovsky]-- Bikher, "Fraye arbeter shtime," N.Y., 25 August 1917.

  • Uriel Mazik [Alter Epstein]-- Bilder-geleree fun unzere yidishe shoyshpiler, "Der tog," N.Y., 30 March, 6 April 1918.

  • Hillel Rogoff-- Mrs. thomashefsky in a naye-alte role, "Forward," N.Y., 23 April 1920.

  • Y. Serdatsky-- Geshprekhen mit interasante mentshen, "Forward," N.Y., 20 November 1920.

  • Leon Kobrin-- "Erinerungen fun a yidishen dramaturg," N.Y., Vol. 2.





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Adapted from the original Yiddish text found within the  "Lexicon of the Yiddish Theatre" by Zalmen Zylbercweig, Volume 2, page 840.

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