they labored for the Yiddish theatre for almost a year,
returned to New York and was engaged in the Yiddish
vaudeville houses, and Thomashefsky engaged him for the
legitimate theatre in Philadelphia, where they labored
for the Yiddish theatre for almost a year, returned to
New York and was engaged in the Yiddish vaudeville
houses, and Thomashefsky engaged him for the legitimate
theatre in Philadelphia.
Thomashefsky recalls that S. came to him on his theatre
in Philadelphia from Europe. He performed as "Absalom"
in "Shulamis," and the title role of Goldfaden's "Bar
kokhba," and had a huge success. Soon theatre managers
wanted to engage him, but he set certain difficult
conditions. Even Thomashefsky could not hold him at his
theatre, because he would be taking similar roles as
him, and he was a big competition for him. S. left for
California with the actor Abraham Tanzman and performed
there as "Absalom." At the same time the to that time
greatest Italian singer Gigli was guest-starring there,
but the English press ranked S.'s voice higher than that
of Gigli. S. toured throughout the province for seven to
eight years, and meanwhile was forgotten in New York.
When he came back, he changed to character-comedian
roles. He performed quite seldom in New York, trudged
through small towns for several years, came back with a
paralyzed foot and generally had to withdraw from stage.
Thomashefsky recalls about this, that S. suddenly fell
seriously ill. His first wife passed away, and he had
married once again, but his second wife abandoned him
and left him. From his illness S. emerged as a cripple
with two half-paralyzed feet. However, in spite of his
tragic situation, he kept the same good humor and told
The last years he sang arias
and songs composed by himself in the Yiddish vaudeville
houses, he also tried to stage in the province, but
without material success.
In 1922 Thomashefsky heard
him singing in a Jewish hotel, still in a full voice.
S. reported to Z.
Zylbercweig that he also used to write couplets, the
words with the music, and he used to characterize the
the songs, while singing in his make-up. There was also
a time when people wanted to engage him at the opera.
Boris Thomashefsky writes
about S. as actor and singer:
"A huge tragedy happened to
the second brother, Zanvil Shenkman. Nature had blessed
young Shenkman with a wonderful tenor voice. You could
say with certainty, that as a singer he was the very
best Yiddish tenor that the Jews possessed. If the young
Zanvil Shenkman had studied, today he maybe would have
been the greatest tenor in the world. He has a quiet
nature, and he cannot push him to the front, you cannot
flatter him, you cannot beg him, and this had put a halt
to his great career, which he had lost."
characterizes him this way:
.".. Shenkman played a role
several years ago in New York, but more so 'on the
road.' where he created the first theatre audience,
because Shenkman started to play in Yiddish Theatre in
America in cities where Yiddish Theatre had never been
seen before. There Shenkman sang for the first time
Goldfaden’s original Yiddish songs and melodies. He was
the heroic "Bar kokhba," the enamored "Absalom," and
with his sweet heroic tenor voice he enthused the first
Yiddish theatre attendees and bound them as steady and
frequent visitors of the Yiddish theatre. And when later
on he went over from lover roles to comedic roles, when
he joined the variety theatres, people truly did not let
him leave the stage because of his comic couplets...
There have surely been and there are surely nowadays
greater actors than Shenkman. However I doubt that there
have ever been greater comedians than Shenkman, among
the Yiddish actors, pranksters, brats. Shenkman used to
play jokes that made people gasp with laughter, very
often on actors or theatre managers. [Several of this
jokes describes Z. in his book "Teater-Figurn"]. He was
an odd clown, prankster and many Vaudeville-jokes, that
are told by comedians on stage, were created by him. He
was the one who played jokes. From this point of view he
was a kind of "Hershele Ostropolier," or "Motke the
Swine." The latter played jokes on the Jewish community,
the Rabbi or in the next place the bathhouse attendant,
that means, people from his surroundings, people he came
into contact with. Shenkman came into contact with
actors. His environment was the world of the Yiddish
theatre, so he played his jokes on them.
In his last years, when
Shenkman was already lined up to live from so-called
concerts or from loans, he could be met very often for
entire days, but especially at night, hanging around in
the Café Royal or at the Second Avenue, several blocks
around the coffeehouse. He seldom used to go inside the
café, except for this one time, when his situation was
very bad, and he went in and stood singing between the
tables. Several actors collected for him a small amount
[of money] and handed it out to him. When Boris
Thomashefsky returned from Europe and met Shenkman, with
whom he had performed with in the first years of the
Yiddish theatre in America, he supported him, but
Shenkman could not calm down. Quite often he stood there
with a pack of documents in his hands, arguing. This was
a pack of copies of letters and telegrams, sent from "HIAS,"
with his demand, that were sent to the town where his
son, the English vaudeville actor [Al Shenk], had been,
that he should send financial support to his father. Due
to the course of fate the letters and telegrams never
reached the wanted. Shenkman fell into a terrible
melancholy. He desperately walked around, melancholic,
and he cried very often. Occasionally he fell ill and in
his tight room, on 12th Street, where I used to come
very often, he used to lie lonely in his bed and asking
for his death. In several cases he threatened to commit
suicide... and finally he... found his son and the son
sent him to a summer place to improve his health."
At the summer place there
was a benefit for the older actor Abraham Fishkind, who
was introduced as the oldest still-living comedian. S.
succeeded in his persuasion, that people should allow
him to go onto the stage and show that he was still
alive. This was his last "performance." A bit later, on
18 September, 1932, he died in New York.
– "History of Yiddish Theatre," Volume
II, pp. 66, 276.
Thomashefsky – "Mayn lebns geshikhte,"
New York, 1916, p. 63.
Thomashefsky – Di brider Shenkman, vos
habn gehat erfolg als yidishe aktiorn un
farlozn die bine, "Forverts," N.Y., Nov.
Zylbercweig – Hot frelikh gemakht
toyzntermentshn, un aleyniz er gevender
grester moreshkhoyre, "Di yidishe velt,"
Phila., 11, 12, 13 October 1932
[reprinted in his book "Teater-figurn,"
Buenos Aires, 1936, pp.48-63.]