A Life on the Stage: A Memoir

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A rediscovery. A lost document of theatrical history written more than seven decades ago is now translated for the first time into English -- the autobiography of the great Yiddish actor Jacob Adler. It is, as well, a history of the Yiddish theater -- for which Adler himself was almost single-handedly responsible--in Russia, England, and the United States.
"The man's size -- I do not refer to his physique -- imposed a sense of peril," Harold Clurman said of Jacob Adler. "Grandeur always inspires a certain shudder at life's immeasurable mystery and might."
Adler's astonishing career as an actor took him from tsarist Russia in the late 1800s to London, and to New York at the turn of the century, where he was applauded and lionized (he was called Nesher Hagodel, "The Great Eagle") in role after role. We see Adler's powerful and revolutionary portrayal of Shylock; his Yiddish King Lear; his Uriel Acosta, from the Yiddish drama set in Spain under the Spanish Inquisition ("A classic dream, a truly great role . . . My soul was full of Uriel"); his great success in Tolstoy's posthumously discovered play, "The Living Corpse.
The only son of an Orthodox Jewish wheat dealer, Adler was taught the Talmud by his rabbi grandfather, and introduced to the stage by his theater-loving uncle. We follow Adler from his school days in Odessa to his youthful boxing career, which lifted him out of anonymity, to his apprenticeship with "a hole-and-corner lawyer," to his chance meeting with a group of Yiddish folksingers whom Adler -- now an official of the Department of Weights and Measures -- brings to Odessa, thereby launching the Yiddish theater in Russia.
We see their first performance beforea paying audience, their first production in which a woman appears, their first full-length play, called "Schmendrick. And then on to the provinces of Minsk, Vitebsk, and Lodz, playing everywhere and anywhere -- in granaries and stables -- with stowaways who sneak up to the roof to watch between the rafters (as Adler says his lines "Birds in the heaven, tell me, pray, where is my beloved?" he looks up to see hens, roosters, and bearded men peering down at him).
We watch as Adler begins to understand the work of the actor, not to imitate but to play the part as he feels it ("The gifted artist will always give it another nuance because he lives it through in himself, in his temperament, in his life experience"). And always, in the background, the large Russian drama -- the assassination of Tsar Alexander II by the revolutionaries; Alexander III's coming to power and overturning the reforms of his father, denying the Jews due process under the law, confiscating their land, shutting down their schools, outlawing their press. Adler recalls the pogroms of his childhood. And, in his adult life, the mobs destroying the synagogues and houses of study, the thousands trying to escape at the railroad station, being pushed back as Adler and the other actors in their fine clothes are taken for Christians, while old men bend low and cry out to them to "save us from death."
We see Adler forced to leave Russia, immigrating to London, facing poverty and worse, with no place to perform . . . finding a theater in a Whitechapel club, and remaining for seven years, playing first to Russian immigrants, then to London Jews.
And coming to America in 1889, taking over the Union Theatre on LowerBroadway, now embraced by the whole population of the Lower East Side.
We watch as Adler is invited twice by the producer Arthur Hopkins to perform his Shylock on Broadway: the cast would be American; Adler would speak in Yiddish (he refused both times until a friend said, "Do it. You owe it to the Gentiles. Let them see how a Jew plays Shylock"). And finally the building of the Grand Theatre at the Bowery and Canal -- the first house specially built as a Yiddish theater for the more than half a million immigrants who came through Ellis Island from 1905 to 1908.
We follow Adler's passions, his three marriages to dramatic actresses -- only the last, Sara, his equal on the stage -- his many affairs, the lives of his children, his friendships, scandals, and rivalries.
His memoir is a revelation of a man and a world. It is brilliantly translated from the Yiddish with commentary throughout by his granddaughter, Lulla Rosenfeld.

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User Review  - Kirkus

The legendary actor's juicy memoirs, nicely fleshed out with his granddaughter Rosenfeld's explanatory commentary. Jacob Adler (1855—1926) was Yiddish theater's greatest star, first in London and ... Read full review

A life on the stage: a memoir

User Review  - Not Available - Book Verdict

Adler (1855-1926), probably the greatest and most popular of Yiddish theater actors, is remembered for his Shylock, Yiddish King Lear, and numerous roles in plays by his friend Jacob Gordin. Melodrama ... Read full review


Growing Up in Odessa
Russian Theater in the Years of My Youth

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About the author (1999)

Lulla Rosenfeld is the author of a history of the Yiddish theater. She lived in New York City until her death in 1999.

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