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How One Yiddish Actress Was Blocked From Stardom

Actress Esther Nersolavska // Copyright Forward Association

Welcome to Throwback Thursday, a weekly photo feature in which we sift 116 years of Forward history to find snapshots of women’s lives.

In 1965, a short two column item at the bottom left corner of page ten of the Forverts announced the funeral of Esther Nadya Neroslavska, the Yiddish actress and widow of composer Peretz Sandler. As it turned out, on the trail of her glamorous soft-focus portrait in our archive, we learned she was known as a first class prima donna who truly suffered for her art — or at least for her union’s control of the arts.

Born in Ekaterinoslav (today’s Dneiperpetroskov) in Ukraine to a family of artists, she started vocal training early, and at six-years-old was already concertizing. Professionally trained at Kiev’s music school to which she was awarded a scholarship, she had to leave the institution early when her mother became a widow and needed her financial support.

She began performing in Goldfaden operettas and travelled throughout Eastern Europe, and eventually was engaged by an Italian opera troupe where she achieved the level of second prima donna performing the role of Micaela in the opera “Carmen.” The great Yiddish theatre impresario Boris Thomashefsky saw her in Poland in 1913 and brought Nerovslavska and her husband to New York where she performed the role of diva in many operettas throughout the US and Canada.

Reputedly talented and beloved, Nerovslavska seemed curiously to have performed only infrequently in New York City. In 1918, Forverts labor editor and West coast correspondent Harry Lang reported about Neroslavska’s lack of work. Incredulous, he wrote that Madam Esther Neroslavska has long been a guest in New York City. Youthful, beautiful and talented, he commented, she’s a prima donna and she sings — but doesn’t act. In Philadelphia’s American Theatre she had several appearances, he reported — but seemed slightly hidden. And, he concluded, it’s been said the actor’s union doesn’t want her performing. He questioned that assumption asking whether in fact the union would stoop to such treachery.

Lang wrote this theatre column uncovering the union’s arcane rules in response to the Forverts’ own theatre critic also decrying the lack of Neroslavska in the upcoming Yiddish theatre season in New York City. Yes, he concurred, it’s a terrible shame not to have this acknowledged prima donna appear on our stages. How depressing, he agreed, not to have her “sweeten our exhausting big city lives.”

And he really dug the knife into New York’s Yiddish theatre world even deeper when he queried about Philadelphia’s theatrical scene and her frequent appearances there. In Philadelphia, he noted, theatre goers were gifted with the joy of seeing her not only act, but also sing. Because Philadelphia’s Jews, according to Lang, supported not just one, but two Yiddish theatres.

And that, he proposed, naturally begged the question: Which one actually produced real theatre?

The answer lay with Nerslavska, the so called “great attraction.” According to Lang the deduction was as follows: The theatre without Madam Nerslavska was the simpleton’s showcase. And what about the union? For them, he elucidated, should the birdbrain theatre close due to lack of an audience — it meant actors would be out of work. And that would affect the entire Yiddish acting profession.

And so, accordingly, the union forged an agreement with both Philadelphia theatres not to employ “attractions” such as the great Neroslavska so as to avoid unnecessary competition. Lang underscored this edict by infusing his Yiddish writing with the biblical Hebrew lo — a big holy No from the union to Neroslavska.

Neroslavska, he claimed said she just wanted to make a living — “I am an actor,” she replied, “and also a member of the union. My audience wishes to see me and a theatre wishes to retain me. Is it my problem exactly if another theatre manager is pained by this?”

And the union’s refrain — she was right, they claimed, according to Lang, but if that theatre manager suffers — the actors do too. You must desist — for the good of them all!

Neroslavska’s response heightened the drama, pointing out that in fact, every theatre produced an “attraction” each season. But the union proved impassive to the prima donna’s crie de coeur just to be allowed to practice her art. Yes, they said, and your theatre has already engaged an additional prima donna this season, Madam Rafallo — so that other theatre without any “attraction” will suffer twice as hard this season for not having even one prima.

And so, Neroslavska was in fact forced to perform in the background in New York City, as if hidden, for several shows — to be politically correct. They are a strange union, Lang admitted, with flaky arrangements.

But it was impossible for her to remain unnoticed. Forverts theatre writer Botwinik noticed her, per his 1922 item at the bottom of page three, calling her a “white lily in a garden of nettles.” He found her to be of a different genre than most in the theatre world for having come from an intellectual home where he gifts were recognized and her dream of singing supported. Sent to school in Russia where she was able to acquire a high level musical education, she had, he said, “an aristocratic air about her. Her countenance mirrors her charm and tender soul.” If not for those formative years, he wrote, she might have become embittered in her early tragic fate, having to leave school after her father’s death, to forge a career in the anarchic theatre world.

So cultivated a lily was she, Botwinik suggested, she seemed like a strange flower amidst the savage garden of Yiddish theatre. He was so taken with her unique sensibilities that he witnessed in her speech and appearance that he likened her to a Talmud student imprisoned for life in a cell among other “nobodies,” without the requisite identity papers. She is always underutilized, he claimed, modesty prevents her from attracting theatre managers who move past her towards the squeakier wheels — unable to recognize her gifts. She seems weird to them, as if purposely set apart. She’s foreign, they think.

But Botwinik visits her at home and places her in context as a Russian intellectual, far from vulgar Second Avenue that resembles a “kid from the Bowery.” In the domestic sphere, she was part baleboste, cooking and cleaning, and part artist, reading, playing piano and entertaining fellow artists who came over to absorb her style. The lily’s rare perfume, he noted, beguiles the garden nettles too.

Before offering details of the funeral, her obituary in the Forverts mentioned, among other things, that she was a member of the Yiddish Actors Union.

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