Boris Thomashefsky

Boris Thomashefsky (18681–1939, sometimes written Thomashevsky, Thomaschevsky, etc.) was a Ukrainian-born (later American) Jewish singer and actor who became one of the biggest stars in Yiddish theatre; born in Tarashcha ("Yiddish":Tarasche), a shtetl near Kiev, Ukraine, he emigrated to the U.S. at the age of 12 in 1881. A year later, barely a teenager, he was largely responsible for the first performance of Yiddish theatre in New York City and has been credited as the pioneer of Borscht Belt entertainment.

Although Thomashefsky left Imperial Russia at a time when Yiddish theater was still thriving there (it was banned shortly after, in September 1883), he had never actually seen it performed prior to the 1882 performance he brought together in New York. Thomashefsky, who was earning some money by singing on Saturdays at the Henry Street Synagogue on the Lower East Side, was also working as a cigarette maker in a sweatshop, where he first heard songs from the Yiddish theater, sung by some of his fellow workers. [JVL]

He managed to convince a local tavern owner to invest in bringing over some performers. The first performance was Abraham Goldfaden's operetta "The Witch". The performance was a bit of a disaster: pious and prosperous "uptown" German Jews opposed to Yiddish theater did a great deal to sabotage it. Thomashefsky's performing career was launched partly because part of the sabotage consisted of bribing the "soubrette" to fake a sore throat: Thomashefsky went on in her place. [JVL]

Shortly after, the teenaged Thomashefsky was the pioneer of taking Yiddish theater "on the road" in the United States, performing Goldfaden's plays in cities such as Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Boston and Chicago, all in the 1880s; for much of the 1880s, Chicago was his base. After Yiddish theater was banned in Russia, his tours came to include such prominent actors as Siegmund Mogulesko, David Kessler, and Jacob Adler, with new plays by playwrights such as Moses Ha-Levi Horowitz. [Adler, 1999, 312-314]

In 1887, playing in Baltimore, he met 14-year-old Bessie Baumfeld-Kaufman, who went backstage to meet the beautiful young "actress" she had seen on stage, only to discover that "she" was a boy. Bessie soon ran away from home to join the company, and eventually took over the "ingenue" roles, as Boris moved on to romantic male leads; they were married in 1891. [JVL]

In 1891, with Mogulesko, Kessler, and Adler all engaged in starting the Union Theater, Moishe Finkel brought the still relatively unknown Thomashefsky back to New York to star at his National Theater, where Thomashefsky became such an enormous popular success in Moses Halevy Horowitz's operetta "David ben Jesse" as to force the Union Theater temporarily to abandon its highbrow programming and compete head on. [Adler, 1999, 318 (commentary)]

After Adler recruited Jacob Gordin as a playwright and found a way to draw the masses to serious theater with Gordin's "The Yiddish King Lear", and then turned to Shakespeare's "Othello", Thomashefsky decided to show that he could compete on that ground as well, and responded with the first Yiddish-language production of Shakespeare's "Hamlet", in which, by all reports, he acquitted himself excellently. [Adler, 1999, 329, 330] These productions ushered in what is generally seen as the first great age of Yiddish theater, centered in New York and lasting approximately until a new wave of Jewish immigration, in 1905—1908 once again resulted in a vogue for broad comedy, vaudeville and light operettas, which the Thomashefskys embraced wholeheartedly, especially in performing Leon Kobrin's plays about immigrant life. [Adler, 1999, "passim", 359 (commentary)]

Other notable Thomashefsky productions included Yiddish versions of "Uncle Tom's Cabin", Goethe's "Faust" and, unlikely as it may seem, Wagner's "Parsifal". According to the Jewish Virtual Library, [ [ Boris Thomashefsky ] at] in an adaptation of "Hamlet" called "Der Yeshiva Bokher" ("The Yeshiva Student"), "a wicked uncle smears [a] rabbinic candidate’s reputation by calling him a nihilist and the young man dies of a broken heart." [JVL] (They don't say whether this was the production that went head to head with the Adler/Kessler "Othello".)

By 1910, Thomashefsky owned a 12-room home on Bedford Avenue in Brooklyn, plus a bungalow by the sea, and 20 acres (81,000 m²) in Hunter, New York which included an open-air theater, Thomashefsky's Paradise Gardens. Each of his three sons had an Arabian horse. [Adler, 1999, 359 (commentary)]

With his wife, actress Bessie Thomashefsky, he had a son Ted, who changed his name to Ted Thomas and became a stage manager; one of Ted Thomas's sons is the noted conductor Michael Tilson Thomas.

Thomashefsky is buried with his wife in the Yiddish theater section of the Mount Hebron Cemetery.

In the first Marx Brother movie "The Coconuts", Groucho Marx (in doing a double-talk speech to his angry hotel employees who want their wages refers to, "Thomas Jefferson, mighty President, Thomas Edison, mighty inventor, and Thomashefsky, 'mighty like a rose'!"


1Date is from Jewish Virtual Library [] . [Liptzin, 1972, 78] says he was born in 1866, which would make him approximately 14 rather than 12 when he emigrated and 16 rather than 14 at the time of his stage debut.


* Chira, Susan, "100 Years of Yiddish Theater Celebrated", "New York Times", October 15, 1982, C28.
* Adler, Jacob, "A Life on the Stage: A Memoir", translated and with commentary by Lulla Rosenfeld, Knopf, New York, 1999, ISBN 0-679-41351-0.
*Liptzin, Sol, "A History of Yiddish Literature", Jonathan David Publishers, Middle Village, NY, 1972, ISBN 0-8246-0124-6.
* [ Boris Thomashefsky] from the Jewish Virtual Library (JVL), retrieved February 28, 2005.

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