The world of the theater lost a peerless artist last week. Yiddish actress Luba Kadison Buloff passed away on May 4 in her apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side at the age of 99. Born in 1906 in Kovno, Lithuania, the last surviving member of the renowned Yiddish theater company the Vilna Troupe, she was the embodiment of a sophisticated and daring theatrical tradition. Her father, Leib Kadison, founded the company during World War I with support from the German army, which was occupying Lithuania at the time. (Their wartime subsidy: a few sacks of potatoes.) Luba appeared in the original 1920 Warsaw production of the most celebrated Yiddish play, Sholom Anski’s “The Dybbuk,” and went on to star as Leah, the possessed bride — a role she would reprise throughout her years onstage.
She was the kind of woman whom painters painted (Max Bond, Arbit Blatas) and sculptors sculpted (Chaim Gross), and about whom poets (Moishe Leib Halpern) wrote. And that was just when she was in repose.
I met Luba 10 years ago, during my senior year of college, while writing a paper on “Yoshke Muzicant,” a play in which she starred with her husband, Joseph Buloff, in Romania in 1924. Buloff staged the folktale as if seen through the eyes of a child, creating an innovative production that influenced a young Eugene Ionescu and that prompted impresario Maurice Schwartz to invite the couple to join his Yiddish Art Theatre in New York. They accepted, arriving in America in 1927.
When Luba spoke Yiddish, I never heard a language sound more beautiful; when she told me of her life and career, I told her I would like to live a life like that. She laughed and said her life was rich but difficult. She performed literary dramas throughout the world — Eastern Europe, North America, South America, Israel, England and France. For one season in the 1930s, she played in Yiddish musical theater starring as the gypsy girl in Alexander Olshanetsky’s “The Organ Grinder.” During this play, she inspired and originated the song “Ich Hob Dikh Tsu Fiel Lieb” — which then became a hit in English as “I Love You Much Too Much,” recorded by dozens of artists. She is remembered for her moving performance as the long-suffering wife in the 1951 Yiddish adaptation of Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” at Brooklyn’s Parkway Theater (a performance that prompted critic George Ross to write in Commentary magazine that Buloff returned Miller’s play to “its Yiddish original”).
She was never more admired, however, as she was in Buenos Aires, performing as title role in “Anna Karenina,” Sonia in “Crime and Punishment” and Abbie in Eugene O’Neill’s “Desire Under the Elms” — all translated by her and her husband. “It is enough to see her play just a few minutes for one to recognize the style of an extraordinary theatrical tradition,” Argentinean critic Shmuel Rozansky wrote at the time. “Her word is delicate and graceful like her figure. Her manner is as sensitive and melancholy as her big, black eyes. Literature is her theater passport, whether it be Yiddish or other world literature, she can perform it.”
Despite succumbing to blindness when she was in her 90s, Luba remained intellectually active until the day she died. On most Sunday afternoons, she and I would share a whiskey and fish and chips at a local Irish pub, though not before she dictated to me her correspondence in Yiddish. Her beloved daughter, renowned psychotherapist Barbara Buloff, supplied her with college courses on tape, which she listened to daily. Although she never attended high school and lamented her lack of formal education, Luba was one of the most educated people I have ever met.
With the art, archives at the Harvard College Library and the writings she has left behind, her death brings about the birth of Luba the legacy, Luba the legend — which will, like Luba herself, only become more powerful, more unforgettable as the years pass on.