In the early decades of the twentieth century, the streets of the Lower East Side were plastered with theatrical advertisements for Der yidisher kenig lir and Mentsh un Tayvl. Second Avenue was the Broadway of the Yiddish stage and two of its brightest dramatic lights were Jacob P. Adler and David Kessler.
A prominent actor and manager, Kessler operated several theatres. His Second Avenue Theatre is often credited with the establishment of the Yiddish theater district on Second Avenue.
Adler, known as “The Great Eagle” for his commanding gaze and presence, was not only a major star but also fathered an acting dynasty consisting of his children Celia, Luther, and Stella Adler. Though Adler and Kessler worked together in their early careers, these two titans competed for audiences, doubtless putting a strain on their friendship.
Thanks to generous funding from the David Berg Foundation and the Lemberg Foundation, the Museum has begun processing its Collection on Yiddish theater. While there is still a lot to discover, this letter from Jacob P. Adler to David Kessler provides a peek into their friendship and their rivalry.
The translated letter reads as follows:
I wonder very much that with my good performance and friendly relationship with you that you should believe I badmouthed you or spread slander, and that I spoke badly when I was not spellbound by the masterpiece. Of course, I understand that you, with your own opinion that differs from mine entirely, would also stage it in order to bring in cash. But who knows? [Upon reflection, I] may turn out to be satisfied and not protest that my daughter is acting in it.
I know that you probably half believed. Now you know positively that the gossip monger is a dirty, contemptible creature. I beseech you to spit in his face, and tell him he should write in his own name.
With caution and friendship,
Yours truly, Jacob P. Adler.
The daughter Adler refers to is likely the talented Celia, the eldest in his acting brood. Though she spent time performing in Philadelphia, Ms. Adler came to New York at David Kessler’s invitation, and performed in several productions with him. I looked into several different sources, but was unable to determine which production caused the “shanda” (Yiddish for scandal) mentioned in the letter. What was said, who said it, and about which production is unknown. What is clear is the intensity of feeling from Adler, that same intensity he devoted to moving audiences. It gives us a the tiniest glimpse of what it must have been like to see the passion of “The Great Eagle” on stage.
Check back for more peeks into the troves of the Museum’s Theater Collection.
Many thanks to Alyssa Masor for her guidance in Yiddishisms.