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A personable "hole-and-corner lawyer" (that is, one without a diploma) and swindler in Odessa, Rosenberg was part of the migration of merchants and middlemen to Bucharest, Romania at the start of the Russo-Turkish War in 1887. These merchants and middlemen would prove a crucial component of the audience for the nascent professional Yiddish-language theater, consisting at that time only of a single troupe, that of Abraham Goldfaden. Unlike the rest of the migrants, Rosenberg actually joined the troupe and became an actor.
Like many who worked with Goldfaden, he soon chafed under the latter's imperious style and with his countryman Jacob Spivakovsky, put together his own travelling troupe and set out for the eastern part of Romania. At first they did well, but with the end of the war much of their audience returned to Russia; after running through their money playing in the provinces, they turned up nearly broke in Odessa, where there was a pre-made audience of those who had already seen Yiddish theater in Romania during the recent war.
There, in spring 1878, Rosenberg obtained some small backing and formed a troupe including Spivakovsky; Broder singers "Schmul with the Hoarse Throat", "Boris Budgoy" (Boris Holtzerman), Laizer Duke, Aaron Schrage; Jacob Adler, at that time new to performing; Sophia (Sonya) Oberlander, who later married Adler; and Masha Moskovich, whom Adler in his memoir describes as "a red-gold-haired beauty"; and various others, including singers from a local synagogue choir. Their first performance was at Akiva's restaurant, and consisted of two light vaudevilles and Goldfaden's very early play "The Recruits". The cast was all male, because the two women considered this an insufficiently respectable venue; that was soon remedied by renting the Remesleni Club, an 800-seat theater that had hosted many German-language performances. There they played Goldfaden's "Grandmother and Granddaughter" with yet another Broder singer, named Weinstein, clean-shaven for the first time in his adult life, as the grandmother and Masha Moskovich as the granddaughter.
After several more successes in Odessa, most notably a production of Breindele Cossack starring Jacob Adler and Sonya Oberlander (then performing under the name Sonya Michelson), their run was cut short by the news that Goldfaden, whose plays they were using without permission, was coming with his troupe to Odessa, and that he had booked the Remesleni Club out from under them. Goldfaden's own account is that he was coming there at the urging of his father; Adler attributes it to Rosenberg and Spivakovsky's "enemies". Rosenberg, never the most ethical of men, hired Goldfaden's watchmaker brother Naphtal, renamed his troupe "the Goldfaden Company", and withdrew from Odessa to tour the hinterland, with Sonya's brother Alexander as an advance man.
In Kherson, a granary was adapted into a theater by a wealthy retired soldier, Lipitz Beygun, who even imported first-rate scenery from Spain. Here they acquired a new prompter, Avrom Zetzer—whom Adler describes as a "learned" man who had previously fulfilled the same function for Goldfaden in Romania— and virtuoso Zorach Vinyavich became leader of their orchestra; Vinyavich's 16-year-old daughter Bettye also joined the troupe to play juvenile roles.
Returning to Odessa, they found Goldfaden "as difficult to approach as an emperor". [Adler, 1999, 114] When they finally managed to get an audience, Goldfaden agreed to allow Rosenberg's company to function as a provincial touring company, but with a different brother of Goldfaden's, Tulya, not merely on board but officially head of the troupe. Goldfaden also snagged Spivakovsky for his own Odessa company.
With Tulya in charge there were, as Adler wrote, "no more communistic shares, no more idealistic comradeship". They played a month in Chişinău, where people slept in the courtyard to be the first to get tickets, and a 16-year-old David Kessler was almost accepted to join the company as an extra, but was prevented from doing so by his father. Later they toured to Yelizavetgrad (now Kirovohrad), where they were joined by Israel and Annetta Grodner, who had re-joined Goldfaden in Odessa, but then had a falling out.
When his actors struck in Kremenchuk over low pay, Rosenberg himself triumphantly played the juvenile lead role in Shmendrik, effectively breaking the strike. Fences were mended, and one of their next performances, in Poltava, became a benefit as a wedding gift to players Adler and Oberlander. They toured on through Ukraine, lionized in some towns, harassed by the police in others, until Goldfaden called them back to Odessa, a call that most of his troupe obeyed, leaving Rosenberg and the Adler-Oberlander contingent (ironically, the leaders of the recent strike) in Smila, without a troupe.
There, they had the good fortune to overhear the singing voice of a woman who would later become famous under the name Keni Liptzin, but who at this time called herself Keni Sonyes, who became their new prima donna. They toured on to Spolya, a town that at the time belonged to Count Alexander A. Abaza, probably the most philo-Semitic of Tsar Alexander II's advisors. The town lacked a theater, but at Abaza's behest a storehouse was turned into an excellent performance space, furnished in part from the count's own dacha. They continued on successfully to Zlatapolya, Novomirgorod, and Bogoslav, around which time Alexander Oberlander met a woman, married, settled down, and was replaced as advance man by a former employer of Adler's named Cheikel Bain.
Though their touring kept them living in decent style, things were not all rosy. In Pereyaslav, Adler reports, they played at a fine small theater, but the local police chief tried to treat the actresses as prostitutes. Goldfaden was making impossible demands for royalties; at one point Sonya Adler gave him nearly all of her jewelry to placate him; shortly after, in late 1880, Goldfaden briefly recruited the Adlers away from Rosenberg, but he treated them so badly that they ended up suing him for their wages and rejoining Rosenberg in Nezhin, where his troupe was performing in a tent theater.
The period after the February 1881 assassination of Tsar Alexander II was a bad one for the Jews. Provocateurs were traveling around the empire, stirring up pogroms, one of which soon swept over the troupe in Nezhin. The troupe managed to avoid bodily harm by partly by convincing the rioters that they were a French theater troupe and partly by making judicious use of the money the Adlers had won in court from Goldfaden.
They made their way to Łódź, where they did well enough to pay off some debts. Having heard that in Odessa Osip Mikhailovich Lerner and Goldfaden were each presenting their respective versions of Karl Gutzkow's Uriel Acosta, Rosenberg and company decided to do the same. Rosenberg translated; with Spivakovsky having ducked out only three days before opening, Adler played the title role; Liptzin played Uriel's mother; Sonya Adler played Judith. The production was a triumph, but they had about played out Łódź. Spivakovsky returned, and nearly stole the troupe out from under Rosenberg; in the end, all united again, and they went on to Zhytomyr with a new director in charge, an apparently rich man named Hartenstein who seemed to want to invest in them.
Adler, in his memoir, indicates that he was rather unimpressed with Hartenstein, describing him as "a young man from Galicia with long hair and short brains, half educated in Vienna, and half an actor." They thought they had found "a quiet corner" of the Russian Empire in which "to make a bit of a livelihood", but in fact Hartenstein was simply running through his money.
In Zhytomyr, they had shared a theater with a Russian troupe, who were sympathetic to their trevails. Two Russian actors agreed to participate in a series of benefits on their behalf; one of them, whom Adler identifies only as "Mademoiselle Kislova", nearly destroyed them by making a speech from the stage excoriating the audience and Russian society in general for their lack of support for what she considered to be good theater.
The next incarnation of the company was actually organized by Adler, although Rosenberg was once again a partner. With Keni Liptzin, they toured to Rostov, Taganrog, around Lithuania, and to Dünaburg (now Daugavpils, Latvia). Aiming to bring the troupe to Saint Petersburg, they brought back their sometime manager Chaikel Bain. They were in Riga in August 1883 when the news arrived that a total ban was about to be placed on Yiddish theater in Russia.
The troupe were left stranded in Riga. Chaikel Bain took ill and died. With some difficulty, passage to London for the troupe was arranged on a cattle ship, in exchange for entertaining the crew. However, about this time the Grodners reappeared. Adler wanted to include them in the group headed for London. According to Adler, Rosenberg, who played many of the same roles as Israel Grodner, essentially told Adler "it's him or me". Adler attempted to convince him to change his mind, but insisted on including Grodner in the travel party: Adler considered him one of the best actors in Yiddish theater, a great asset to any performances they would give in London, while he felt Rosenberg lacked depth as an actor. He tried to get Rosenberg to come with them to London, but Rosenberg would not budge.
That is the end of the story of Rosenberg's career in theater.
Adler in his memoir gives an account that when he went back in Europe in 1903 in the wake of the Kishinev (Chişinău) pogrom, in an unsuccessful attempt to convince some of his family to join him in the United States, he encountered Rosenberg as a street beggar and unsuccessfully attempted to give him money. Shortly after, he heard that Rosenberg was dead.
- Adler, 1999, 38-41
- Adler, 1999, 104-105
- Adler, 1999, 105-107
- Adler, 1999, 118
- Adler, 1999, 124, 124-125 (commentary)
- Adler, 1999, 128, 135
- Adler, 1999, 138, 152, 155, 156
- Adler, 1999, 157-161
- Adler, 1999, 162-166, 170
- Adler, 1999, 192-197
- Adler, 1999, 197-214
- Adler, 1999, 214-216
- Adler, 1999, 216-218
- Adler, 1999, 225
- Adler, 1999, 93, 225-229
- Adler, 1999, 352-353
- Adler, Jacob, A Life on the Stage: A Memoir, translated and with commentary by Lulla Rosenfeld, Knopf, New York, 1999, ISBN 0-679-41351-0. 38-41, 60, 78-80, 83, 89-93, passim.