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Jacob Adler, actor, director and king of Yiddish theatre

He was a boxer, peddler and wedding crasher; married three times and with at least ten offspring; a failed singer from Odessa who became one of the great actors of the American stage. By the time he died in 1926 in New York, Jacob Adler had lived lives enough for a dozen men.

Yet it was his arrival in Whitechapel in 1883 that was to prove most significant. For Adler would transport Yiddish theatre from an Eastern European curiosity to Broadway success. As he would write in his memoirs years later: “If Yiddish theatre was destined to go through its infancy in Russia, and in America grew to manhood and success, then London was its school.”

Jacob was born in Odessa in 1855, the son of an unsuccessful grain merchant, and his early life was spent ducking, diving and picking his way through a chaotic home life and a sporadic education (“a little arithmetic, some Russian grammar, and a few French phrases”, according to Adler). Aged 12, he started making his own entertainment, going along to public brandings, floggings and executions of criminals. There were plenty of them: Odessa was a dangerous and violent place, and simply being Jewish was risky enough. One of the city’s many pogroms took place in 1859, another in 1871: thousands of Russian and Eastern European Jews were already heading for the safety of Whitechapel, either to settle or en route to New York.

The young Jacob still had a turbulent Russian adolescence to endure before he would make that trip. There was money in the extended Adler clan, yet at 14 he was working in a textile factory, soon rising to a good white collar job at 10 roubles a month (good pay even for an adult). But Jacob was drawn to the wilder side of life, hanging out in the rough Odessa district of Moldovanka, and becoming a boxer (his tagline was Yankele Kulachnik or ‘Jake the Fist’). He was a fine dancer too, becoming renowned as Odessa’s best can-can dancer, and crashing weddings with his gang. He left the factory, earning a living peddling goods doors to doors. It was a life of “back door assignations with servant girls and chambermaids” sailing very close to the law. He had now dropped the boxing but became obsessed with theatre – and here occur the meetings which would change his story, and that of theatre, forever.

Yiddish theatre was enormously popular, if derided by the more traditional members of the Jewish community, and Jacob was inspired by the improvisational performances of one of its founders, Israel Grodner, one of the stars of the Odessa theatre. Adler determined that he too would be an actor (an ability to sing had shattered his dreams of opera) but he had to fit acting within the increasing chaos of his life. After a late night at the theatre and in the taverns, he rose each morning to work in turn as a document-copyist for a lawyer, a medical orderly in the Russian army, a market inspector … and a paperboy (6am starts didn’t sit well with staying out till dawn). But by the early eighties he was making a solid reputation in Yiddish theatre, in plays such as The Witch of Botosani and Uriel Acosta.

His nascent stage career ended overnight with the assassination of Czar Alexandar II. A period of mourning meant a ban on theatre performances and Russia’s simmering anti-semitism overboiled. A total ban was declared on Yiddish theatre in Russia. Adler’s troupe, which now included his wife Sonya (as well as Israel and Annetta Grodner) were stranded in the port of Riga; they decided it was time to get out, and boarded a ship to London.

Ironically, though Whitechapel was one of the Jewish capitals of Europe by now, Jacob arrived with few useful contacts. The Chief Rabbi, Dr Nathan Adler, was a relative and Jacob’s father had written a letter of introduction, but the rabbi had no interest in helping Yiddish theatre. To Dr Adler, it was English the new arrivals needed to progress in their new home. A theatre specialising in “slang and jargon” might only harden anti-semitism.

But for Yiddish theatre in the East End, the arrival of Adler and Co heralded a major change, bringing the form to bigger stages and bringing more professional performers – though still no more than starvation wages. The Adlers and Grodners took over the Prescot Street Club, playing to audiences of 150 or so. By November 1885, Adler had his own club, the Princes Street Club (now Princelet Street), purpose built and seating 300. Shows included Fiedler’s adaptation of Schiller’s The Robbers and The Odessa Beggar. And stars of Yiddish theatre, including Sigmund Mogulesko, David Kessler, Abba and Clara Shoengold, would perform at the club when they passed through London.

But just as Jacob’s fortunes seemed made, tragedy struck. In 1886 his daughter Rivka died of croup, and wife Sonya died after giving birth to baby boy Abe. Adler’s private life was in turmoil, as he was pursuing affairs with Jennya Kaiser (who turned down his offer of marriage though she was carrying Jacob’s baby); and with DInah Stettin (whose father pressed the newly widowed Adler into matrimony). Then in winter 1887, an audience at the Princes Club panicked, believing a simulated on-stage fire was real. In the stampede, 17 died. Adler was absolved of blame, the club reopened, but the crowds failed to return.

A broken Adler cut his losses and, with a loan from the Chief Rabbi, headed for New York with new bride Dinah. There, as he later wrote, Yiddish theatre graduated from school to huge popular acclaim. By the early 90s, Jacob and Dinah were divorced and new wife Sara starred alongside Jacob on stage. He set up a new troupe, touring Philadelphia, Chicago and beyond with plays such as Samson the Great and Gordin’s The Yiddish King Lear. It was the latter play that really changed things. Until then, it was a given that Jewish Broadway had to focus on sensational melodrama to pull in the crowds. Adler proved that ‘serious’ theatre could also get bums on seats.

In his declining years he wrote his memoirs (in Yiddish of course) and they were published in the newspaper, Die Varheit (The Truth). By then, Yiddish was already in decline among Londoners and New Yorkers – a natural, if sad, consequence of assimilation. Yiddish theatre would disappear altogether by the later thirties, but Adler was in no doubt how important it had been, writing: “Only dipped in blood and lit with tears of a living witness can the world understand how, with our blood, with our nerves, with the tears of our sleepless nights, we built the theatre that stands today as a testament to our people.” Jacob died on 1 April 1926 in New York. He was 81.

References: Adler, Jacob P., A Life on the Stage: A Memoir, translated and with commentary by Lulla Rosenfeld, Knopf, New York, 1999, ISBN 0-679-41351-0

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