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Throwback Thursday: The Actress Who Could Hold Her Own

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

The image of Yiddish theatre diva Sonia Nadolsky depicts a stiff, haughty looking woman who could easily play everyone’s favorite serpent-tongued bubbie —the Dowager Countess of Grantham on television’s Downton Abbey. According to Forverts journalist and screenplay author Mendl Osherowitch, Nadolsky’s powerful gaze might be due to her impressive ability to stare down and attack any director unjustly critical of her performance.

Nadolsky was born Sore Katz to a family of ritual slaughterers in 1867 in Ukraine’s Kaments Podolski, one-time home to the writer Sholem Yankev Abramovitsh, who under the pseudonym, Mendele Moykher-Sforim or Mendel the book peddler, became one of the founders of modern Yiddish literature. Blessed with an entrepreneurial spirit, as well as a creative one, Sonia reportedly organized theatricals as a young girl, and charged the local kids to attend. Payment in the form of buttons was accepted.

By 13, she was forging her artistic career, arriving in Odessa in the care of an aunt, where she attended Yiddish theatre for the first time. Moved by what she witnessed, she performed with in local theatre club’s benefit for the Red Cross. Shortly thereafter, she was accepted in Goldfaden’s travelling Yiddish theater troupe, journeying with them across Russia. She married fellow actor Leon Nadolsky and they moved on to perform in Austria, London and finally, America in 1890.

Here she performed with the acclaimed Yiddish actor Sigmund Mogulesko as well as actor David Kessler’s various theaters—the latter being the source of her rage induced soliloquy recorded by Osherowitch, who wrote that Kessler famously despised actors who drew out their scenes.

A great thespian is not known for wordiness onstage—but rather by their silence was a familiar dictum of his. Enter Sonia Nadolsky’s famous incident with Kessler. It would seem one night she went ‘rogue,’ deviating from the agreed upon script. Observing her performance, he could be seen offstage grinding his teeth and agitatedly muttering throughout her scene nu-nu-nu! Fireworks went off as soon as Nadolsky exited the stage when, according to Osherowitch, she lit into him.

You’re pure evil, you’re Ivan the Terrible, you are a horrid man, he recorded her saying to Kessler. You bathe in human blood—and you should know this—not only do we here, all curse you—but so do our children! We come home from working with you crying bloody tears, and when our children ask us why this is—we tell them it’s due to your torturing us. You torment us and soak in our blood. And when we can no longer take your foolish whims—our children curse you as well. You hear me?

And that’s not all—know that among us are actors and actresses who wish for your death! When they attend rehearsals at the theater, or have to play a scene with you—they pray to God to be struck by a car. Better to die than have to suffer you!

Reportedly, Kessler melted. Sonitchke, he softly inquired, am I really so wretched? Children curse me? Sonitchke, people would rather die than work with me? When Nadolsky held her own, tears tumbled down Kessler’s face and he wailed like a child begging her forgiveness. She fainted. When she came to he acknowledged his gratitude to her for the necessary intelligent additions to the script.

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