Thomashefsky, Boris

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THOMASHEFSKY, BORIS (1868–1939), U.S. actor and stage director. Thomashefsky was a pioneer of the Yiddish theater in America and one of its most active figures for nearly 50 years. The son of Pincus Thomashefsky, a Yiddish actor and playwright, he left his native Ukraine for the U.S. in 1881 and a year later sang in a New York synagogue choir. He persuaded a saloon-keeper, Frank Wolf, who was one of the synagogue's trustees, to finance the visit of a Yiddish company from London. This tour is believed to mark the beginning of professional Yiddish theater in the U.S. In 1882 Thomashefsky himself was given a singing part in the first production, Abraham *Goldfaden'sDi Kishefmakhern ("The Witch"), and as there was a shortage of women on the Yiddish stage, he later often played feminine roles. Thomashefsky's career spanned both highbrow and popular productions. He himself wrote or arranged numerous stage pieces, produced and acted in sentimental melodramas, and revived Goldfaden's operettas. At the same time he brought to the Yiddish-speaking public (often in adaptation) plays like Shakespeare's Hamlet (1893), Richard iii (1895), and Goethe's Faust (1902). He also introduced actors of stature, arranged for the Vilna Troupe to perform in the U.S., and staged Israel *Zangwill'sChildren of the Ghetto in Yiddish under Zangwill's supervision (1905).

A flamboyant personality, Thomashefsky liked to appear in romantic, swashbuckling parts. Almost from the start he commanded a large popular following, though critics often deplored the quality of his material, while acknowledging his genuine gifts. His first wife, the actress Bessie (Kaufman) *Thomashefsky (1873–1962), left him in 1912 and opened a rival theater; but in the same year Thomashefsky built the National Theater in New York, where Yiddish show business flourished for another forty years. With his company he toured other American cities and several European countries. Although some of his productions were ephemeral and even tawdry, Thomashefsky had a reverence for the classics which often launched him on ventures from the world repertoire. In 1923 he made an unsuccessful attempt to establish a Yiddish theater on Broadway. Thomashefsky's autobiography, Mayn Lebns-Geshikhte, appeared in 1937.


Z. Zylbercwaig, Leksikon fun Yidishn Teater, 2 (1934), 872–3; B. Gorin, Geshikhte fun Yidishn Teater, 2 (1929), 203–4; R.D.S. Lifson, Yiddish Theater in America (1965), 149–52, and index.

[David S. Lifson]