Adler, Sara (1858–1953)

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Adler, Sara (1858–1953)

Russian-American actress and foremost tragedian of the Yiddish stage. Born Sara Levitzky (changed to Lewis) in 1858 in Odessa, Russia; died April 28, 1953, in New York, New York; married Maurice Heine (divorced 1890); married Jacob Adler (1885–1926, the Yiddish actor), in 1890; children: (first marriage) Frances Adler ; Stella Adler (1902–1993, actress, director, teacher of acting); Julia Adler (1897–1995, an actress); Luther; Jay.

Sara Adler's place in American theater history is often overshadowed by her second husband Jacob Adler's enormous popularity as the leading tragic actor on the American Yiddish stage. However, not only did she play a major part in establishing the Yiddish theater in New York City, she was an impressive actor in her own right, with over 300 leading roles to her credit. She also introduced "realism" in acting before it became a leading theater movement in the United States.

Born in Odessa, Russia, in 1858, Adler grew up in a wealthy Russian-Jewish family and studied singing at the Odessa Conservatory before joining a Yiddish theater troupe managed by Maurice Heine, whom she later married. After the assassination of Russian Tsar Alexander II in 1881, when Jewish repression eventually led to a ban on Yiddish theater, Heine brought his troupe to the United States, where Sara soon gained recognition on the Yiddish stage in New York City.

She divorced Heine in 1890, but it is unclear whether it was before, or because of, Jacob Adler. By her own account, when she first saw Jacob on stage, she thought he was ridiculous. "He dressed badly," she said, "wore yellow shoes!" She married him, regardless, and, together with playwright Jacob Gordin, joined in her husband's efforts to revitalize the Yiddish theater, determined to reflect the life of the new urban American Jew.

According to director and critic Harold Clurman, who saw Adler perform and was married to her daughter Stella, Sara taught Jacob a few more things about acting. Despite his popularity, he lacked self-confidence and lived in constant fear of public rejection. Once when he was having difficulty with a part for which he later became famous, he broke down in tears, despairing that he would never get it right. Sara slapped his face. "Of course you can play the part; get up and begin. I shall help you with it."

Sara and Jacob Adler's productions, most of which were mounted at their theater on the Bowery, became the center of serious Yiddish theater, and established Adler as "the dowager duchess" of the Yiddish stage. Her greatest role was that of Katusha Maslova in Gordin's dramatization of Tolstoy's Resurrection. Sara also won acclaim for her starkly realistic portrayal of the abandoned and unbalanced wife in Gordin's Homeless. She enthralled audiences by "acting the way people do in real life." Clurman elaborated: "I observed that her realism—meticulous, subdued, though still intense—never failed to convey a largeness of feeling, the kind of grandeur that comes through only when a sense of life's high drama is present."

Adler gave birth to six children in the course of her marriage, most of them taking their place on the stage as soon as they were steady on their feet. Five went on to establish careers in the theater; Luther and Stella became stars. Marriage to Jacob demanded resourcefulness and tenacity; he was a notorious womanizer, had been married twice previously, and fathered a number of children by other women. Once, when he temporarily left Sara to live with his mistress-servant, she and actor Rudolf Schildkraut formed their own company. She did everything from directing and acting in the plays, designing and sewing the costumes, even polishing the fruit that was sold during intermission.

After Jacob's death in 1926, Sara performed infrequently, although in 1939 she recreated her role in Resurrection as part of a tribute to her at the New Yorker Theater. Though age began to undermine her health, Sara was determined to live the remainder of her life to the fullest. She took tango lessons when she was in her 70s. Once, exhausted after a dangerous attack of acute indigestion, her daughter suggested she take a sleeping pill. "No," she yelled, "if I fall asleep, I'll die."

Adler, Julia (1897–1995)

American actress. Name variations: Julia Adler Foshko. Born July 4, 1897, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; died on June 3, 1995, in Englewood, New Jersey; daughter of Jacob P. and Sara (Lewis) Adler (distinguished actors and producing managers in the Yiddish theater); sister of Frances Adler, Stella Adler , Luther, and Jay; half-sister of Abe, Charles, and Celia Adler (offspring of her father's two previous marriages and an intervening liaison in Russia); married Joseph Foshko (an artist); children: daughter, Judy.

All five children born to actors Jacob and Sara Adler found their way onto the stage early in life, but Julia, the middle child, just missed being born on stage during an afternoon matinee in Philadelphia. Family legend has recorded her arrival, on July 4, 1897, moments after her famous mother, Sara, left the stage.

Julia Adler's theatrical career was overshadowed by her more famous younger siblings, Stella and Luther. On Broadway in the 1920s, Julia portrayed Jessica in the David Warfield production of The Merchant of Venice, as well as the title role in David Belasco's Rosa Machree. In 1939, she appeared in a revival of the Clifford Odets play Awake and Sing, a role originated by her sister Stella in 1935. Of her performance, The New York Times critic Brooks Atkinson could not resist the inevitable comparison: "Julia Adler improves a little upon Stella Adler's playing." In 1952, Julia toured with her brother Luther in Tovarich. Her marriage to artist Joseph Foshko produced a daughter, Judy, and several grandchildren and great grandchildren. She died at the age of 97, at the Englewood Hospital in Englewood, New Jersey, the last surviving member of a legendary theatrical family.


Thomas, Robert McG., Jr. The New York Times News Service. June 4, 1995.

Adler unabashedly lied about her age, sometimes out of vanity, sometimes out of necessity. When she went into the hospital to have a cataract removed, she told the surgeon she was 70, because she didn't think he would operate if he knew she was 80. She was always immaculately turned out and, up until her last illness, stayed out every night past midnight, congregating with her actor friends at the Cafe Royal on Second Avenue. Sara Adler spent her last years living with her daughter Stella and Harold Clurman. She died on April 28, 1953, at the age of 95.


Clurman, Harold. All People are Famous (instead of an autobiography). NY: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1974.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts