The Great Eagle
by Gad Nahshon
In our modern Jewish history in the modern Jewish culture there was only one 'Great Eagle.' He was the great Yiddish actor, a legend, Jacob Adler. (Adler in German: Eagle). Adler is also famous as the father of a unique dynasty, the 'aristocratic' family of the Yiddish Theater. He had only two wives and many love affairs. He had nine talented children. Adler died in 1926 but his wife, the great actress, Sara Adler, died in 1953. Among the couples famous children were: Stella Adler, Luther Adler, Ciela Adler, to mention a few. They were successful in the American theater as well as in Hollywood.
Lulla Rosenfeld Adler's grandchild became his biographer. She dedicated her life to preserving the legacy of the 'Great Eagle.' She also translated and edited Adler's memoirs which were published in Yiddish from 1916 to 1919 and in 1925 in the socialist newspaper Die Varheit (The Truth). We should praise the new publication of this illuminating memoir by Applause Theatre Books (212-575-9265) entitled Jacob Adler - A life on the Stage, a Memoir.
Lulla Rosenfeld, in this book, enriched the reader by her commentary. She provided the reader with history and background of the Yiddish theater since the 1880's until 1930's. We also were enriched by Stella Adler's introduction. Certainly it is a marvelous fascinating life story. It is a story of a giant. It is also the story of the Golden Age of the Yiddish theater. It is a great contribution to our cultural history. It is a unique story because it is also a story of Jewish survival in an anti-Jewish world.
It is the life story of Jacob Adler's survival. Adler was born in Odessa. As a teenager he was attracted by the Russian theater. Then he joined one of the Yiddish theater groups which were active in the 1870's. Adler was a great actor, a great dancer, but a bad singer. He understood that he must be a quality actor. He gained experience by acting with his troupe in various Russian or Polish cities. He also married Sonia Oberlander, a member of this troupe, the 'Rosenberg Troupe.' There were, up to 1882, two more active troupes in Russia: Goldfaden's and Sheikevitch. Adler met the 'King' Goldfaden but he worked with Rosenberg, his mentor.
In Lodz, Adler gained his fame by playing as 'Uriel de Acosta' (a play by Karl Gutzkow). It should be noted that Lulla Rosenfeld argued that the theater was a brainchild of the Jewish enlightenment movement (Haskala) and not of the 'Purimspiel' (Purim Pageants). Acosta (1585-1640), a 'marranos', fought for enlightenment in the Jewish community of Amsterdam. So many 'Maskilim' came to see the play. The pogroms of the 1880's almost destroyed the Jewish life in Russia. Jews started to emigrate from Russia and on Aug. 7, 1883, the czar, Alexander III, published a specific edict against the Yiddish theater. Adler had to leave the country and at the end of November 1883, he came to London. He acted in various London 'Dramatic Clubs' and among his successes was the play The Odessa Beggar (Felix Pyat-Herman Fidler).
After seven years, Adler decided to come to America for good. He played in various Jewish theaters on Second Avenue and later established his own theater. He was active in America from 1889 to 1926. Adler's success in London's The Robber, by Schiller, contributed to his fame: "...when I came to America in 1889, I was already known by the proud name Nesher Hagadol (The Great Eagle) and was an actor famous throughout the Yiddish theatrical world," wrote Adler. And that was the truth!
In 1891, Adler formed his own company, Union Theater on Broadway and Eighth Street. He was looking for dramatic plays, his love. He was not successful in the operettas. Then a miracle was born from God, the playwright Jacob Gordin. He revolutionized the Yiddish Theater. He wrote Sibina, The Wild Man, and then The Yiddish King Lear. The role of Adler (Nov. 1891) as King Lear turned him into an international star. America praised him as a unique, great actor. His second wife, Sara Adler, wrote in her memoir: "He was not an actor that night, but a force. All of us played with inspiration but the great figure that night Gordin had given to Adler and the triumph was his own."
This success meant the victory of the better theater. It was the integration of the classics into the Yiddish Theater: Shakespeare, Schiller, Lessing, Tolstoi, and Gorky, as well. It was a victory of the so called 'Shund' tradition of the Second Avenue theaters which looked only for cheap, sensational melo-dramas, the cheap stuff which attracts the Jewish masses. It was their daily entertainment. It was their place to escape from their reality as immigrants. They admired their 'stars.' It was a social event for these masses. They ate their food, they cried or they sang with these 'stars' on the stage. The King of this 'Shund' was Boris Thomashefsky who behaved, on the stage and in his real life, as a Mikado - a God on earth. He mocked Adler as a failure because he made more money from his shund than Adler from the better theater. But Adler won the battle: "The whole profession caught fire. Good theater apparently could 'make it'... Every actor wanted to play Gordin. Every actor wanted to play the classics, and the people came..." wrote Stella Adler on her father's revolution: "...it was Jacob Gordin who gave him his career, who in a sense created him..." Stella Adler explained.
In 1903 Adler became an international superstar because of his success in a production on Broadway of The Merchant of Venice, as Shylock. Adler produced on the stage a new Shylock, a Yiddish Shylock. In 1922, Adler became ill. Many people helped him to recover. He tried to play in Gordin's The Stranger. He did well but is was clear that he lost his stamina. He died in 1926.
Adler left a legendary legacy. He left his talented family but we must remember that he pushed the entire Jewish Theater into a new world of quality theater. He also pushed to excellence many other famous stars, such as Dinah Feinman, Keni Liptzin, David Kessler, Siegmund Mogulesko and the legendary Boris Thomashefsky. These actors influenced the coming of a new generation of actors in the 1920's and 1930's such as Paul Muni, Molly Picon, Aaron Lebedeff, Menashe Skulnick, Ludwig Satz and Maurice Schwartz, all committed to the survival of Jewish theater in America. But the masses left the Yiddish world before World War II. Furthermore, they replaced the theater with the world of movies and films.
In the last chapter of his memoir, Adler, at 70 years old, wrote about his friends of the past who died such as Avrum Goldfaden (my Rabbi, my father, the teacher who taught me my art), Jacob Gordin, the playwright or David Kessler, calling himself the 'last of his generation'. He expressed a sense of relief because he left us his memoirs and explained: "Only dipped in blood and lit with tears of a living witness can the world understand how, with out blood, with out nerves, with the tears of our sleepless nights, we built the theater that stands today as a testament to our people."
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