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January 31: The First Lady of Yiddish Theater

January 31, 2013

Yiddish actress Celia Adler died at 89 on this date in 1979. Adler’s father was the great Jacob Adler, the foremost actor on the Yiddish stage, and she began her career at age 4 with a part in the Yiddish King Lear written explicitly for her by playwright Jacob Gordin. Adler spent a year working with Maurice Schwartz’s Yiddish Art Theater before breaking away to form the Jewish Art Theater (Naye Teater) in 1919. This troupe was inspired by the Moscow Art Theater and developed a realistic, literary repertoire that was considered by critics to be the high point in sophistication for the American Yiddish theater. The company lasted only two years, however, and Adler returned to Maurice Schwartz’s direction as his leading lady. According to Radical Yiddish, a book by Joel Schechter that will be published by Jewish Currents this March, when Celia Adler went to Schwartz to ask for a raise for the troupe’s actors, “Schwartz told her: ‘Gelt viln zey? Mayn puts vel ikh zey gebn!’ (Roughly translated: ‘They want money? I’ll give them dick.’) According to her son Selwyn, the actress herself never employed vulgar language, which is why, when she left the theatre director’s office, and actors outside asked what Schwartz had said, she told them: ‘I don’t know what he’s going to give, but we’re going to get something.’ ”

“This off-stage theatre dialogue subsequently became famous in the Yiddish-influenced labor movement. A leader of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union retold the anecdote to workers when they were going to open negotiations with management.” —Joel Schechter

Watch Celia Adler in an excerpt from a 1961 episode of the TV drama Naked City: