Lives in the Yiddish Theatre


Regina Prager

She was born in Lemberg, Western Galicia, to pious parents and she received a strictly religious education. During a Friday night fire in the house her mother was burned to death, and the young orphan was sent away to a family of acquaintances in a village near Lemberg, where it was discovered that P. possessed a very beautiful voice.

Returning to Lemberg, she joined a choir from a Polish theatre that performed in operas and operettas. At the same time, she took lessons from a local singing teacher. On the basis of a conversation with P., M. Osherowitz writes about this period in her life:

“In the Polish theatre, in the choir, Regina Prager held herself aloof from everyone, just as she does now. She didn’t mix her private life and her onstage life; she remained at all times a pious Jewish daughter. After a performance, she never went out with the other girls from the choir, especially those that were a little inclined to frivolity. She was not interested in the love affairs that they carried on, and they couldn’t interest her in the youthful atmosphere that surrounded them.”

Through the initiative of her uncle, Jacob Prager, a lover of the Yiddish theatre, in 1890 she appeared in Jacob Ber Gimpel’s Lemberg Yiddish theatre, where she debuted in Professor Hurvits’ Solomon the King.


M. Osherowitz says this about her move to the Yiddish stage:

“Here, her Yiddish song found itself a home. She felt that she was among her own people, in her own atmosphere, and the sad tenor of her Yiddish song found an echo in the hearts of thousands of her own people who longed for them.”

Several wealthy people were interested in her and wanted to give her the chance to study to be an opera singer, but just at that time, Abraham Goldfaden came to Lemberg to stage his plays, and learning that P. wanted to abandon the Yiddish stage, convinced her that on the non-Yiddish stage she would come to play roles in which she would have to make the sign of the cross. This had such an effect on her that she gave up her aspiration to become an opera singer.

P.’s fame as a leading lady in Yiddish theatre reached America. She was particularly well-known in the Galician neighborhoods at that time, and several attempts were made to bring her to America. To that end, the actor Berl Bernshtayn (who had appeared with her on stage before) came to Lemberg several times, until in the end, P. went to America in August, 1895.

There she appeared in New York’s Windsor Theatre (manager, Professor Hurvits) as Dina in Goldfaden’s Bar Kokhba. The impression that her performance made in America was described by Bessie Thomashefsky, who appeared with her:

“Regina Prager performed in Shulamis, Bar Kokhba, and other plays from the repertoire, and her success was enormous. She charmed the public with her wonderful singing.

… whomever heard the sweet, holy song of Regina Prager experienced a soulful pleasure that could not be measured, just as one cannot measure the soul itself. We were justly proud of Regina Prager.

Several weeks later, when Regina Prager had already played in the limited number of musicals in our repertoire, we presented a new play with a singing role written especially for Regina Prager by Professor Hurvits. The play was titled, Khazari, and the music was by Zigmund Mogulesko. The play was a great success.”

Bessie Thomashefsky also quotes critic of that era:

“The offering of The Sacrifice of Isaac on the Yiddish stage in the Windsor Theatre was completely successful … Who can compare to the world-famous leading lady, Miss Regina Prager, in the role of Sara? She abandoned her whole self to The Sacrifice of Isaac, with great triumph as a result.”

Among the different plays that P. performed in the Windsor Theatre is Prof. Hurvits’ Destruction of Kishinev (1903, soon after the pogrom), in which she sang Frug’s poem with the well-known verse, “Give shrouds for the dead, and for the living—bread”, and with that, according to J. Kirschbaum, P. helped to gather the first assistance for the victims of the Kishinev pogrom.

P.’s success as a leading lady forced the other troupes to bring new leading ladies from Europe. Thus, Bertha Kalich came to America and began—according to Bessie Thomashefsky—a competition between the two new leading ladies:

“The new leading lady Bertha Kalich appeared in Shulamis (the hallmark for every leading lady) together with a new actor, Shramek, as Avishalom and … our Regina Prager emerged as the leading lady of singers. Certainly, Kalich could act, but [in] singing Prager is an only daughter in Yiddish theatre.”

Just as with the other stars, a group of “patriots” created a club in P.’s name and conducted “struggles” with the rival “patriots”—as described by B. Balzam [B. Botwinik] from a conversation with one of these “patriots”:

“Madame Prager’s 'patriots' expected a sudden ambush, an attack from Madame Kalich’s 'patriots,' who could not bear to witness a stranger, Madame Prager, take on a role that earlier belonged to their star, Madame Kalich. The first thing that the Prager “patriots” did was to provide themselves tickets, so that they could not be thrown out of the theatre. This was a standard custom, as genuine 'patriots' such as those were recognized by the managers would not pay for tickets, but in this case the Prager 'patriots' did not look for 'bargains' [deals] and made a point of paying. Immediately afterward, supposedly, the 'patriots' took up their 'weapons.' They armed themselves, each with whatever he could—sticks, clubs, bats (wooden sticks that are used to play baseball), iron pipes, and similar 'weapons.' Before the performance began, the gallery was already seated.

The plan of the “patriots” was not to start a fight, not to make any trouble, and to keep the gallery quiet as usual, so that Madame Prager would not be disturbed in her singing. For this reason, the “patriots” did not hide their “weapons”. They held their cudgels high and ready to use. But that was only a demonstration to show the Kalich “patriots” that here, they could do nothing, because they would end up with broken heads if they so much as opened their mouths.

But in order for the plan to succeed, the Prager 'patriots' were forced to stand the whole time during the performance with their backs to the stage and their faces toward their enemies, the Kalich 'patriots.' They knew that as soon as they let their minds wander for even one minute, the Kalich 'patriots' would immediately 'knock heads.' because those others were a nimble brotherhood and also had the means to strike back. Their determination deserted them. They wanted to take a look at their dear Prager. They could hear her sweet nightingale voice. But how could they stand that way all night in the theatre and not even steal one glance at the star, who was as beloved to them as a family member, dearer than their lives? They were forbidden to do anything, and it was for the sake of her alone, because she was performing her role for the first time, and they had to be still and quiet so that she could display her art.      

… The Prager 'patriots' had a comforting name, the best. People thought that was because in private life, she [P.] did not make a big fuss, kept herself unpretentious, and was friendly to everyone, above all to her admirers. She was often at the meetings of the society that her 'patriots' held. She often used to spend time with them, and she pressed the hand of almost every one of them when she arrived and when she left.”

In a belletristic manner, Zalman Zylbercweig described P.’s “first appearance” in America in the chapter, “Modesty” in his book Theatre Mosaic:

“Men ... had certainly turned up their noses at the new actress. She was far from pretty, although completely pleasant. Her face was more maternal, motherly, like a married woman. Although she was still young, the new leading lady, Regina Prager, nevertheless did not tempt or arouse the young. Furthermore, her acting and her speech were not spirited, but when she opened her mouth and released the first note, she enchanted everyone … Streams of tender melody flowed from her and surged over the stage and over the theatre. The audience was lured to her song, and it was as though they rose from the earth. A forgetfulness subdued everyone, and at the moment when she finished singing, everyone awoke and applauded her … with avid eyes, after the performance they [the enthusiastic theatre-goer, the so-called “theatre-patriots”] waited for the new leading lady, who gone quickly home through a back door to shed the trappings of the falsely modest Delilah and resume her identity as a pious, pure Jewish wife, whom God had burdened with a beautiful voice and formed her a temptation—for theatre.

Similarly, Joseph Rumshinsky writes:  

“… The theatre-life, the Russian nightlife, the women’s styles, even the theatre politics, the babble of meaningless talk and the delving into love-intrigues, had no effect on Madame Prager.

Tragedies played out before her eyes, murders, weddings, legal and illegal loves—she noticed none of it. It’s better to say, she more than noticed it, even knew all the details, but it had no effect on her and made no impression. She was at the synagogue on the Days of Awe and the rest of the year she was at home. In the theatre she sat in her dressing room, where she got dressed. Everywhere, she remained Madame Prager. She didn’t impose on anyone with her piety and her modesty, but by the same token, the theatre atmosphere had no effect on her.

…The house would be thundering like cannons with applause. After such cries of “hurrah” and applause from the public, she would shrink, as if she didn’t want to be noticed by anyone. She would sit in her little room, looking at a book or doing something for her home. Her fear of God was reflected in her theatrical performance. When she came on Friday nights to bless the lights on the stage, she never kindled the lights before the public—they had to be burning earlier, or they be kindled electrically.

On Rosh Hashana, she refused to perform. And when she couldn’t avoid it and had to perform, they had to delay the matinee performance until Madame Prager returned from the synagogue, where she had a good cry and prayed earnestly to God.

“God, don’t humiliate me!” —Madame Prager used these words every evening before her appearance on the stage, and with these words did she retire from the stage, perhaps because she began to feel that the younger generation was waiting to take her place. But we can comfort her by saying that to our regret, although it has already been a good two years since she left the Yiddish stage, no other Madame Prager has appeared, not even someone almost as good as Madame Prager.

… Her voice, besides being rich in color, strong, loud but at the same time agreeable, had a naturally affective tone, which is the case with all great opera singers. But her retiring, modest lifestyle was a great hindrance to her opera career.

Her voice had a dramatic, even and rich sound that could easily changing into coloratura and staccato and obtain the lightness and suppleness of a real lyric soprano. This skill enchanted her listeners. When she sang, a breathtaking stillness presided in the theatre, and no one dared to break it until her last finale of a song or waltz-number, when the whole theatre burst in a storm of cheering.

… Because she didn’t have much training, she sometimes missed the correct breath and the correct intonation, but the richness of her tone, the timbre, her blessed throat was enchanting and the audience forgot everything.”

For a long time, P. was not engaged to appear in any New York theatre and would appear from time to time only around the state, or she took part in special performances from the older repertoire. In the beginning of the 1917-1918 season, she had, through the initiative of Joseph Rumshinsky, an engagement in the National Theatre (manager, Boris Thomashefsky), where she substituted for the ailing leading lady, Regina Zuckerberg, in the operetta, Mazl Tov, and soon after in Thomashefsky and Rumshinsky’s operetta, The Female Cantor, where she returned to her former, customary popularity by playing the role of the cantoress and singing the song, “The Kaddish” and (together with Kalmen Juvelier) “Honor your Father and Mother.”

Regarding her performance in The Female Cantor, Joseph Rumshinsky writes in his book, Sounds from My Life:

“The transition in Madame Prager’s career happened before my eyes—from the beloved leading lady role, to the singing-mother roles. It was I who brought this about and it is quite likely that at first, she was a little angry at me, because no actor, and particularly no actress, would admit so quickly that it was time to start playing older roles; and even such a reserved person as Madame Prager would not, at first, admit it so lightly.

But with her first singing-mother role, for which I wrote for her the music to Boris Thomashefsky’s text, The Female Cantor, those of us on stage, together with the public, felt that Madame Prager embraced the role—the holy, patriarchal figure of the cantoress suited her. She spoke and sang the pious words from the female cantor’s prose and melodies with such a full heart and soul, that people used to feel that she was delighted with the words that she spoke and sang, and that she experienced them.”

The Female Cantor—writes M. Osherowitz—was a big success, and Madame Prager had a considerable part in it; she was a big hit, with her heartfelt singing and with her fine acting; for the first time on the Yiddish stage, people saw something new—a leading lady in an older role; a leading lady as a mother, a leading lady as a grandmother, but one who could sing beautifully and act sincerely and naturally.

And from then on, the Yiddish operetta stage was enriched with a whole array of types of singing mothers, of singing grandmothers, and all these types were created especially for Madame Prager, and she graced them with her authentically Yiddish singing.”

In the 1918-1919 season, P. continued to appear at the National Theatre and performed in Thomashefsky-Rumshinsky’s The Merry Little Jews and in their operetta, The Little Old Song.”

In 1919-1920, she was engaged at Kessler’s Second Avenue Theatre (manager Joseph Edelstein), where she performed in Gershom Bader and Rumshinsky’s The Rabbi’s Melody, and in the 1919-1920 season she appeared in the same theatre in Lillian and Rumshinsky’s The Stepchild of the World, and in Michael Goldberg and Rumshinsky’s The Grandmother’s Legacy. In 1921-1922 she performed in the same theatre in Siegel and Rumshinsky’s Shmendrik on Broadway, and in Lillian and Rumshinsky’s The Rabbi Demands Happiness and The Rebitsin’s Daughter.”

M. Osherowitz writes about this play:

They took the play [A Jewish Child, from which The Rebetsin’s Daughter was adapted], cut passages; changed the monologues, modified the words, and moved everything around so that Madame Prager would have a good role in the play that required a lot of singing. The way it occurred was that the role of the rabbi was removed from the old text and in the new text it was replaced with a rebetsin, a ready-made role for Madame Prager.

… And it would be no exaggeration to say, that thanks to Madame Prager and who she is, the Judaism was maintained, or, to say it better, the Jewish tone of our operatic stage … with her personality, with her character as an actor and as a human being, she inspired the need to adapt operatic roles for her that are authentically Jewish and where the melodies must be truly Jewish.”

With the earlier participation of Jenny Valiere and the later participation of Molly Picon in the Second Avenue Theatre, a change occurred in the repertoire, and there was no longer a place there for P. She performed on various occasions in different theatres, and in the beginning of the 1927-1928 season she was again engaged in the same theatre (under the management of Jacob Kalich, Willy Pasternak, Max Sager, Nathan Parnes, and Joseph Rumshinsky) and performed in Chone Gottesfeld and Rumshinsky’s Reyzele and Latayner-Rumshinsky’s Lucky Blessing. In the 1929-1930 season, she performed again in the same theatre and took part in Segal-Rumshinsky’s The Comedienne.

From that time on, she appeared only in various occasional performances, until she retired completely from the stage.

P. was married to Harry Vaysberg, a relative of Professor Hurvits, who at one time was a theatre manager. Their son, Maury, is a cashier in Yiddish theatres.

M. E. from Joseph Rumshinsky, Sholem Perlmutter, and Moshe Shorr.

  • B. Gorin – The Story of Yiddish Theatre, II, p. 143.

  • Bessie Thomashefsky – My Life Story, N.Y., 1916, pp. 231-232, 236-238.

  • Jacob Mestel, “Galitsianers in the American Yiddish Theatre”, Togblat, Lemberg, March 29, 1926.

  • M. Osherowitz – “Regina Prager, the Famous Singer of the Yiddish Stage, Stories about her Life in the Theatre”, Forward, N.Y., Sept. 25, 1926.

  • M. Osherowitz – “The First Role that Regina Prager Played on the Yiddish Stage, Some Thirty Years Ago”, Forward, N.Y., Sept. 29, 1926.

  • M. Osherowitz – “The Struggle Between Young and Old Actors on the Yiddish Stage”, Forward, N.Y., Oct. 2, 1926.

  • B. Balzman [Botwinik] – “What has Become of the Former Yiddish Theatre Patriots?”, Forward, N.Y. Nov. 4, 1928.

  • Joseph Rumshinsky – “Regina Prager, Leading Lady, Entreats God before She Appears in a Performance”, Forward, N.Y., March 13, 1936.

  • J. Kirschenbaum– “Through Her Song, Regina Prager Provided the First Assistance for the Kishenev Victims”, Morning Journal, N.Y., June 30, 1939.

  • Zalman Zylbercweig – Theatre Mosaic, N.Y., 1941, pp. 11-15.

  • Joseph Rumshinsky – Sounds From My Life, New York, 1944, pp. 429-433.






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Adapted from the original Yiddish text found within the  'Lexicon of the Yiddish Theatre' by Zalmen Zylbercweig, Volume 3, page 1850.

English translation courtesy of Beth Dwoskin.

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