YIVO Exhibitions

Sunday, February 01, 2015

Stars, Strikes, and the Yiddish Stage: The Story of the Hebrew Actors' Union (2009)

lowresRG 121 - Guskin in chair

"Wandering stars": thus Sholem Aleichem characterized the actors of the Yiddish stage. This appellation, tinted with romance and nostalgia, forever stuck to the Yiddish theater. However, for those who worked in it, and for whom it was meant to secure a livelihood, these very words evoked quite another image; that of a theater, abandoned and homeless, in which a constant struggle for decent working conditions required as much effort as their creative work. The goal of the union was to lead the Yiddish actors out of that constellation of wandering stars into a place of esteem they rightly deserved.

The Hebrew Actors' Union was officially chartered on December 31, 1899. This barebones narrative highlights some important features of the fledgling Yiddish actors' unionization project: the members' unyielding position, their forceful and effective use of strikes, the camaraderie offered by theatrical support of personnel (ushers, costumers, chorus girls), the instant pro-labor conversion of the imported "scab" actors and their incorporation into the union, and the full surrender of theater managers. It is noteworthy that although the union initially comprised only 16 or 17 actors, its action garnered significant attention outside the Yiddish immigrant community. 


View Items from the Exhibition

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  • Petition to admit Samuel Itzkowitz, who failed the audition to the Hebrew Actors' Union, signed by more than sixty Yiddish actors.
  • Executive Board of Hebrew Actors' Union.
  • Members of the union's executive board, with Reuben Guskin (center, left). Guskin managed the union from 1919 until his death in 1951.
  • Reuben Guskin (1887-1951).
  • Guskin Reuvan.
  • Jacob Mestel Card, Lwow.
  • Membership card of Jacob Mestel, a well-known producer and director of the Yiddish theater.
  • Jacob Mestel Card, Vienna.
  • Theater facade.
  • Membership card of Sholem Perlmutter, founder of the Society of Jewish Composers, Lyricists and Publishers.
  • Telegram from Reuben Guskin to the manager of the Lyric Theatre, congratulating him on the theater's acceptance of union actors.

Read the Exhibition Catalog




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