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Theater & Opera

Boris and Bessie Thomashefsky - Parents of the Yiddish Theater
 
Boris Thomashefsky (1866-1939) was born in a small shtetl named Tarashcha near Kiev (modern Ukraine, then - Russian empire). He immigrated to America, settling in New York City, at the age of only 12, and earned his bread working in a tobacco sweatshop and singing in a local synagogue.  
 
The teenager started his professional career the very next year: he managed to convince the owner of a tavern to invite a troupe of Yiddish actors for a performance that would, according to the young entrepreneur, attract a lot of customers. The performance was mostly a disaster because of active sabotage from pious German Jews, who despised the idea of a Yiddish theater...
 
Interestingly, the following year Yiddish theater was banned in imperial Russia.
 
Nevertheless, this was the start of a successful career for Boris, who went on to help create the famous Yiddish Theater District, and play a very important part in the entertainment of the so called Borscht Belt of America.
 
During one of the performances in Baltimore, in which Boris took part, the 14-year old Bessie Baumfeld-Kaufman (1873-1962), who happened to have come to America from the same shtetl in Ukraine, came to the backstage to meet the girl who played one of the roles. Unknown to her, the role was performed by Boris - the teenagers fell in love immediately, and soon Bessie eloped with her young lover to New York, away from parents who strongly discouraged their daughter's relationship with an actor.
 
In 1891 Boris, then manager of the Thomashefsky Players theatrical company, and Bessie got married, but the marriage did not go well... Despite being a star romantic duo in their plays (one of the reasons behind their successes - in addition to Boris' inspired scripts), in real life the husband would have multiple affairs with other women and secretly squander money on his amorous exploits. As a result, in 1911, despite having four children and a stage career together, they split and started on their own paths, with Bessie taking over the People's Theater and renaming it to Bessie Thomashefsky's People's Theater.
 
The split did not do good to Boris... By that time he had become a very rich man and owned a 12-bedroom house, a summer house and a large land lot in New York, plus bought an arabian horse for each of his sons. This, however did not save him from bankruptcy, with his debts almost triple of his wealth.
 
Boris died in 1935, leaving behind three sons (his daughter died in infancy), who would become famous producers, actors and movie directors, as well as an extensive Yiddish repertoire, including unique (even controversial) remakes: Uncle Tom's Cabin, Goethe's Faust and, the most unlikely piece, a tale about a crusading knight, Wagner's Parsifal.
 
One of Boris and Bessie's grandchildren, Michael Tilson Thomas, grew up to become a famous American conductor, pianist, composer, active promoter of classical music in the Internet era. Currently, he is the music director of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, and the artistic director of the New World Symphony Orchestra.
 
After playing a large part in the shaping of contemporary theater and, to a certain extent, Broadway, Bessie moved to California, where she made an impact on the movie industry. She died in 1962, and was interred near her former husband in New York.
 
Sources:
The Thomashefskys: Music, Memories and Life in the Yiddish Theater
Los Angeles Times, 6 February, 1993. Harry Thomashefsky; Star, Director of U.S. Yiddish Theater

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