This Day in Jewish History

1858: 'Divine' Actor Who Is the Reason the Word Shmendrick Exists Is Born

Comic genius Sigmund Mogulesko wowed New York, never mind that he apparently didn't speak English.

Yiddish theater actors and personalities: from left to right: Jacob P. Adler, Zigmund Feinman, Zigmund Mogulesko, Rudolf Marx, Mr. Krastoshinsky and David Kessler, 1888
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December 16, 1858, is the birthdate of Sigmund Mogulesko, a singer and comic actor who in his day may have been the most loved performer on the Yiddish stage. Described by historian of the Yiddish theater Nahma Sandrow as “the comic genius of his generation,” Mogulesko made the journey from Bucharest, then the capital of Yiddish theater, across the Atlantic to New York, where he maintained his stardom – even though he continued to perform in Yiddish. In fact, there are suggestions that he never even learned to speak English.

Zelig Mogulesko (or Mogulesky) was born in the town of Kalarash, today called Calarasi, in Romania. As a boy, he was a meshoyrer, a singer in his synagogue choir. He was enough in demand that he quickly moved up to become a soloist at the Great Synagogue in Bucharest, earning 60 rubles a year (more than three times what the average teacher made at the time, according to one source).

At age 14, he began to study at the conservatory there, which provided the training that later allowed him to write and arrange music. On Sundays, Zelig would sing in a church choir.

Life of the party

Mogulesko’s big break occurred in 1877, when the great playwright and producer Abraham Goldfaden arrived in Bucharest with his company. Having heard about the 17-year-old talent, “the young cutup who was the life of local parties, imitating scenes from Rumanian comedies and mimicking the dignified cantor he sang for,” as Nahma Sandrow described him in her book “Vagabond Stars: A World Hisory of Yiddish Theater,” he sought Mogulesko out.

After an audition confirmed the reports, Goldfaden signed the young man up, and wrote a play for him, “Shmendrick, or the Comical Wedding,” which has been called the first great Yiddish role. So popular was the play that the name of its title character became synonymous for a special sort of loser.

Mogulesko quickly became Goldfaden’s lead performer, and he could be relied on for musicals, comedies and even dramas. The first time he appeared in a non-comic role, he upstaged the star, Israel Grodner, sufficiently that Grodner quit Goldfaden’s company and founded his own. A practical-minded man, Grodner himself soon hired Mogulesko away from Goldfaden, and when Grodner left his own company, Mogulesko took over its leadership.

According to Sandrow, Mogulesko had " an unusually flexible range, from sensitive character portrayal to nimble – often obscene – improvisation. Mogulesko was a rather small man, with a warm smile for his friends, though he was not above theatrical feuding or ad-libbing so as to confuse an actor he didn’t like.”

Divine fire

In 1886 (or a year later), Mogulesko moved to New York, one of the first Yiddish stars to make the crossing. There, on the Lower East Side, he founded the Romanian Opera House (both a building and a company), making his debut in a play called “Coquettish Ladies,” by Nachum Meyer Shaikevitch, in which he portrayed, from one act to another, characters of different age, different gender and very different social standing.

He wrote music, for M.H. Hurwitz’s “The Sacrifice” and for the operetta “The Fair Miriam,” by Jacob Gordon, before establishing his own company and theater, the Romanian Opera House.

In 1910, Mogulesko became ill, and had to retire from the stage.  When he died, at his home on Stuyvesant Street, on the Lower East Side, on February 4, 1914, 20,000 people turned out to demonstrate their grief, "weeping, pushing and half-hysterical," according to one contemporary account. They had to be held back from the theater where the memorial service took place by 50 policemen wielding clubs.

Abraham Cahan, the editor of the Yiddish Daily Forward, eulogized Mogulesko as "a born genius [whose] personality was as marvelous as his art." He recalled one performance in which Mogulesko lit up the show "with rays of divine fire. He bewitched us with his singing and his acting alike.”