This Day in Jewish History

2006: The Last Great Yiddish Star Dies

Unable to make the transition to English after her move to America, Luba Kadison continued to work in Yiddish, to the end.

Luba Kadison, perhaps the last survivor of a golden age of modern Yiddish theater, who remained faithful to the genre even after moving to America.
Lasky’s Museum of the Yiddish Theatre

On May 4, 2006, Luba Kadison, perhaps the last survivor of a golden age of modern Yiddish theater, died, at the age of 99.

Kadison was born into the Yiddish theater, and she deepened her connection by marrying within it as well, before traveling across the Atlantic as the genre followed the Jewish immigrants to their new home in North America. There, she continued her career, and when she felt that her time as a leading lady had passed, she gracefully left the stage to carry on behind the scenes.

Luba Kadison was born on December 14, 1906, in Kovno (now Kaunas), Lithuania. Her parents were Leib and Hanna Kadison. Although Leib made his living as a painter, in his free time he was a theater director; Hanna was an actress.

At the start of World War I, the family moved to Vilna, the Lithuanian capital. After the Germans occupied the city, in 1915, they showed a readiness to tolerate Yiddish culture that had not existed under Russian czarist rule. When several Jewish actors approached Leib Kadison, he helped to organize and then lead what became the Vilna Troupe, officially called the Union of Yiddish Dramatic Artists.

The move to America

The Vilna Troupe was serious in its intentions. It staged both original Yiddish dramas and translations of plays by such writers as Ibsen and Moliere, and adopted standard Lithuanian Yiddish as its language of performance.

It was also influenced by the acting philosophy of the famed Moscow director Konstantin Stanislavski, and as a collective, its members all shared equally in the company’s revenues.

This is the atmosphere in which Luba Kadison was raised. The company moved to Warsaw in 1916, and in 1920, it produced the world premiere of S. Ansky’s “The Dybbuk,” which quickly became the most renowned of all Yiddish-language dramas. The  teenage Luba had a bit part in that production, but later would assume the starring role of Leah, the tragic figure who is possessed by the spirit of her deceased lover Hanan.

Hanna Rovina stars as Leah in a 1920s production of "The Dybbuk."
Courtesy

In 1920 and 1921, she studied acting in Warsaw, and in 1924, at age 17, Luba married Joseph Buloff, one of the Vilna Troupe’s leading actors. Around the same time, Buloff (1899-1985) directed and starred with her in “Yoshke Muzikant,” a play by Osip Dimov.

The couple moved to Bucharest, Romania, for a period the world center of Yiddish theater, when the company was invited to relocate there.  But when New York producer Maurice Schwartz invited the couple to New York in 1928, to perform with his Yiddish Art Theater, on Second Avenue, they left Europe.

Hard transition

Over the next decade, they moved from theater to theater, and for two years, to Chicago, as they sought opportunities that would allow them to remain pure to their Yiddish artistic roots. But there was a Depression, and the demand for Yiddish theater was on the decline.

Joseph Buloff was successful in making the transition to English, on which he began to depend more and more for work , something that Luba’s English-language skills did not allow. He began to land parts both on Broadway and in Hollywood, playing , for example, the role the peddler Ali Hakim in the original production of “Oklahoma” (1943).

For her part, Luba continued to appear in leading roles with the Yiddish Art Theater, where she played such characters of Dina in I.J. Singer’s “Brothers Ashkenazi,” opposite Stella Adler in Scholem Asch’s “God of Vengeance,” and, to great acclaim (including from Arthur Miller, the author), Linda, Willy Loman’s wife, in a Yiddish translation (by Buloff), of “Death of a Salesman,” in 1951.

Kadison appeared for the final time on stage in 1968, in a production of “A Chekhov Sketch Book,” in Buenos Aires. Thereafter, she assisted her husband in his directing duties, worked as an acting teacher, and served as an interpreter for immigrants from the former Soviet Union in New York.

During the last years of her life, Kadison lost most of her vision, but she continued to serve graciously as an increasingly rare source for scholars doing research about the history of the Yiddish theater. She died on this date a decade ago.