Life Imitates Art: An Excerpt From ‘Wandering Stars’

Published February 11, 2009, issue of February 20, 2009.
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If you live long enough, you achieve your goal. The day of the big test arrived for the “Yiddish Star from Bucharest,” whom the press had elevated to a place among the greatest actors like Sonnenthal, Schildkraut, Irving, Possart, and Rossi.

The magnificent, vast Nickel Theater was packed to the rafters and beautifully decorated. From the directors to the ushers, everyone was elegantly decked out for the occasion. The audience radiated confidence. It felt more like a benefit, an award-giving evening, than an actor’s debut. And it was indeed a large audience. In addition to the usual crowd that filled the galleries every night, a large number of new faces appeared in the boxes as well as the orchestra, among them many of the New York Jewish intelligentsia and a number of Gentiles. Nickel attended to them personally with great respect and humility, showing them to their seats and providing them with programs, a task usually left to ushers. But after all Mr. Nickel was a Jew, and a free citizen in America, yet he felt more respect for a Gentile than for a Jew, especially when the Gentile treated him as someone special by lowering himself to attend his Yiddish theater.

Naturally, Mr. Klammer used the Gentiles’ attendance as good publicity for the Nickel Theater. He whispered made-up names into people’s ears — except for the names of two brothers who were managers of a large American dramatic theater.

The New York newspapers trumpeted the advent of the “Star from Bucharest” so loudly and insistently that those two well-known managers became interested in the young Jewish star, thinking that if even half of what was said about him was true, they would “kidnap” him. Why did Jews need a Sonnenthal, a Schildkraut, an Irving, a Possart, or a Rossi? Jews themselves wouldn’t deny that they were a people of contractors, not connoisseurs, who somehow knew how to put under contract and present to the world the best and finest they could afford.

Obviously, reporters abounded at the Nickel Theater that night, American as well as Yiddish. They were fine young men, every one of them, clean-shaven, with lively eyes, ambitious, smoking pipes. They wrote and ate on the run, and they slept sitting up with a fountain pen in hand.

Amid the army of reporters were our acquaintances from the kibitzarni, noted headliners, politicians, poets, publicists, and newspaper editors, armed with weapons to wage war against the new star. Some might think him a genius, but others knew he was an amateur. Some might consider him a Sonnenthal, an Irving, a Possart, and a Rossi, but others were certain that he was a greenhorn, a “Chaim-Yenkl,” a Romanian shepherd, a funny little nobody.

Indeed, Rafalesco’s debut really got things hopping in New York’s Yiddish theater world. On one side were the supporters of the Nickel Theater, and on the other were the supporters of competing theaters. All had arrived with already-written reviews, ready for the morning papers they represented.

For these special occasions, editors generally take on the role of reviewers. Here is one newspaper review that was to come out the following morning:

It has been a long time since the walls of the Nickel Theater thundered with such extraordinary applause. The enthusiasm of the enraptured audience was something to behold and proved to our bought-and-sold adversaries that…

Another editor began his review with these words:

Last night’s terrible failure at the Nickel Theater will be a good lesson for the two-legged jackasses who made so much out of so little, taking a penny for a dollar.

In a word, people at the Nickel Theater were in a state of heightened expectations and high spirits. All eyes were focused on the curtain, waiting for it to rise. Then all the lights went down, and the curtain rose.

At that moment three elegantly dressed people, who had been driven to the theater entrance in an elegant chauffeured automobile, silently entered and asked to be taken to Loge Three — the most expensive in the Nickel Theater.

The three were an older man with a substantial paunch, a rather young man wearing a wide-brimmed hat pulled down over his eyes, and on his arm, a young woman heavily veiled. The young couple led the older man to the door of Loge Three. While a black driver stood to the side of the door, holding a woman’s coat and a lap-blanket, the couple entered the loge. The older man turned and made his way down the vestibule to the orchestra.

At that moment Nissel Schwalb ran down that small corridor and bumped into the older man. Both jerked backward, stood stock-still for a moment, eyed each other, parted, and again stood still, and again eyed each other. After a few seconds of this stopping and looking and not remembering who the other was, they separated. The older man headed to the orchestra, and Nissel, pausing, said to himself: Isn’t that the same boring boaster who was trying to pull a fast one on me?

He went to the box office and found his partner, the owner of the theater, Mr. Nickel himself. A short, intense conversation followed, which we will set down word for word:

“Who is that couple sitting in Loge Three with a black man at the door?” Nissel asked.

Mr. Nickel hated to waste time thinking too long: “In Loge Three? If it isn’t Jacob Schiff, then it’s Louis Marshall.”

“If you’re not a bluffer, then you’re an idiot.”

Mr. Nickel placed both hands in his pockets and gave his companion the friendliest look — you would think he had just received the highest compliment. “Who else can it be?”

“Now you’re talking! I could swear that fellow who brought that couple to Loge Three is Stelmach.”

Mr. Nickel, confused, failed to understand what Nissel was saying. “Who is Stelmach?”

“Why are you acting as if you don’t know? Don’t you live here? Haven’t you heard the name Grisha Stelmach?

“Grisha Stelmach!?” Mr. Nickel jumped up, slapped his cheeks, and called himself an unprintable name. Then he shouted out three times, quite loudly: “I am an idiot and an idiot and an idiot!”

“That’s what I’ve been telling you.”

Mr. Nickel let this pass and was suddenly filled with joy. “If that is Grisha Stelmach,” he said, “now I know who that beauty was, may I live so long.”

“Amen. Who then is she?”

“Miss Rosalia Spayvak.”

“Rosalia Spayvak?” Now it was Nissel’s turn to slap himself on the forehead.

He left Nickel at the box office and went into the orchestra to have another look at his old acquaintance, to prove to himself that this was indeed the cheat.

When the heavy curtain of the Nickel Theater rose with a loud swoosh, the sea of heads in the dimly lit great hall seemed to sway, and a cool breeze wafted over it. For the span of a minute, with a quiet rustle, the audience prepared itself to watch and to hear. But soon that longed-for hush descended, that pleasant, gentle, blessed stillness that embraces the actor from all sides, elevates him as if he were on wings, and lifts him from the stage, sailing him over the sea of heads in the auditorium. That blessed stillness touches the noblest strings of the soul and draws out the finest overtones of talent.

That evening Leo Rafalesco dominated the New York public at the Nickel Theater.

As always for his opening nights, they performed “Uriel Acosta.” From the first moment that Uriel appeared on the scene, he was the focal point. That silky young man with the fine, noble, pallid face, the long hair, the large, tired-looking eyes, the newly sprouted blond beard, and the open-necked shirt begged comparison to Jesus Christ.

With an uncanny power, he drew the sympathy of the entire audience. Something about his demeanor and the vigor of his voice endeared him to the listener. A particular charm emanated from his every step and move, and his characterizations were the most natural and rich in color. One moment a young thoughtful man was standing before you, chatting with Dr. Da Silva as in a synagogue, the next moment he was a philosopher discussing the deepest mysteries of the universe.

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Everyone had to admit that he was a born master, a great performer, a poet, an artist favored by God, who did not so much act a role as live and create a human being before your eyes. There was no doubt Rafalesco was bringing something new to the stage.

The Acosta that Rafalesco had given the audience was his own, not one learned from a book, not a type, but a man who with much effort and study he himself had created.

Near the end of the first act, when Acosta remains alone onstage, Rafalesco was again transformed. Now the oppressed martyr was replaced by a hero who was ready to wage war, not against the heart, but against understanding.

Oh, Ben Yochanan, you are in great error! He who is accustomed to battle for the truth will not permit his golden crown to be trampled upon.”

Here Rafalesco raised his arm, seeming to wear not a golden crown, but a crown of sorrows, of misery and pain. Everyone’s sympathies were with him, everyone’s heart beat for him, and they were sorry to see the curtain drop so soon for the first intermission. All craved to continue looking at that handsome, noble, beloved Uriel Acosta. There was no stopping their exultant cries of “Rafalesco! Rafalesco!” And Rafalesco appeared in front of the curtain again and again.

No, the Nickel Theater had never before heard such cheers and shouting and applause. The theater managers and the members of Klammer, Schwalb & Co. were in seventh heaven. Meanwhile their enemies, the supporters of the other theaters, who had gathered to humiliate the “greenhorn,” and the skeptical kibitzarni critics who had been sharpening their teeth to put this Possart-Barnay-Irving-Rossi in his place, were gnashing their teeth.

But they weren’t altogether losing hope. “Wait, the night isn’t over,” they comforted themselves. “Karl Gutzkow’s tragedy has five acts.”

Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from “Wandering Stars” by Sholom Aleichem; translated by Aliza Shevrin. Copyright ©2009 Aliza Shevrin.


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