My Zylbercweig

Joel Berkowitz

As Faith Jones vividly illustrated in her recent blog post, Zalmen Zylbercweig blazed a path that all subsequent students of Yiddish theatre history would follow. She also described some of the twists and turns in Zylbercweig’s life and work that helped make his Leksikon fun yidishn teater (Encyclopedia of the Yiddish Theatre) unique. In this post, I’ll dig into that uniqueness a bit further. How is this encyclopedia different from all other encyclopedias? Let’s leaf through its pages to find out.

Imagine the scene: we’re in the reading room of the Dorot Jewish Division of the New York Public Library, where I first spent countless hours in the early 1990s, getting lost in the thousands of columns of type running through the six published volumes of this reference work. In front of us is a large, thick book with a black cover. We open to an elaborate frontispiece (above): an etching, by renowned actor and set designer Leib Kadison, of ornate columns holding up an arch, from which a theatre curtain and ropes are suspended.

At the top of the columns, we find Kadison’s rendering of the tragedy and comedy masks: in this case both with flowing beards that might give the Botticelli Venus’s hair a run for her money, and both crowned with black caps that might easily double as yarmulkes. I picture Kadison’s Tragedy and Comedy avatars as avid theatregoers, but also men who, as the Sabbath approaches, descend from their perches and make their way to shul. The rest of the time, though, they take their place within a classically arranged scene that frames the book’s title and bibliographic information. Let us not fail to note that taking second billing to Zylbercweig is one Jacob (or Yankev) Mestel, another theatre-man-turned-historian. Later the author of two important monographs of his own, Mestel also played supporting roles in several important Yiddish films, including Uncle Moses (1932), Yizkor (1933), and Mirele Efros (1939).

Leafing ahead to the first entries, we land on a page with two columns of type—the layout the rest of the encyclopedia will follow. The entries proceed in alphabetical order—for now, at least (more on that in a moment). So who’s on first—an Abramowicz? Abramson? Abrams? No. We’ll get to those, but not before reading a short entry on one “Abdul” (there’s no trace here of the name he was born with), a comic actor who came of age as a performer singing Yiddish and Turkish songs in Istanbul cabarets. In 1900, he made his way made his way through the Caucasus to other parts of the Russian empire, and joined one of the first professional Yiddish touring companies, led by Abba Kompaneyets. Abdul also excelled as a carpenter, and sometimes made his living building sets. Short as the entry is, it starts the entire enterprise off with a bang: an actor coming from off the beaten path, joining the ranks of one of the foundational companies of the professional Yiddish stage, becoming known by a stage name rather than the one he was born with, and working both onstage and behind the scenes.


Abdul’s entry consists only of a short text, but many other entries are adorned with a small black-and-white head shot of the subject. Though too grainy to give us a clear sense of the people they represent, these images add an element of rough charm to the book—and have inspired at least one other artist. Ben Katchor, beloved for (among other things) a number of highly regarded graphic novels featuring characters like the eponymous “Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer,” recently replied to my query about the Leksikon’s influence on his work:

I found a set of the Leksikon at a Workmen’s Circle book sale and was captivated by the collection of Jewish facial types represented in those low quality halftones. I was also fascinated by the theatricality of the poses and facial expressions and imagined how these types would live on the stage and the sort of dramatic situations they might provoke. As theatre is the most ephemeral of art forms, I love to examine the existing photos of Yiddish actors and stage sets. I have vivid memories of the few Yiddish shows I was taken to see as a child. When I needed inspiration for the “casting” of characters for the Knipl and other strips, I’d browse through the Leksikon to find the right type. I doubt that any would be recognizable even to someone familiar with the world of Yiddish actors, as the faces would change as I’d make them into drawings. The Leksikon was a source of visual inspiration and I liked the idea that these dead actors were being given one more part to play. 1

There’s also something lovely, to me, about their playing those parts more or less anonymously—a metaphor, intended or not, for the largely hidden role that Yiddish theatre has played within the larger story of Western theatre and drama in modern times.

Returning to the text and tiptoeing through the alephs, we soon find our first dynasty: the Adlers. We briefly meet the second generation before coming to the patriarch, Jacob, one of the first international megastars of the Yiddish stage. His entry follows the colorful path from his native Odessa, to tours around the Russian empire and elsewhere in eastern Europe, to a sojourn in London’s East End, to his climb toward super-stardom in New York and other American cities. Adler’s entry, though as long as the rest of the biographies in the volume combined up to that point, will be dwarfed in length by a number of later articles, some of them long enough to double as short monographs. (The article on New York’s Yiddish Art Theatre, which opens the newly published volume 7, is a case in point.)

All the entries, from those that run for only a short paragraph to those filling dozens of columns, offer something of value to theatre historians. The scope of the work is extraordinary, including thousands of theatre personnel—mostly performers, but also playwrights, composers, and others, with a number of entries on entire theatre troupes as well. Even short entries leave breadcrumbs that researchers may be able to follow on the road to telling broader or deeper stories. Longer entries offer much more. Profiles of major playwrights like Avrom Goldfaden, Jacob Gordin, and many others frequently provide detailed overviews of their careers, including the date, venue, full cast list, and excerpts from reviews, of all the premieres of their major (and even many minor) plays. Many entries are also followed by chronologically arranged lists of sources. Though not exhaustive, these lists include many items that would otherwise have been difficult to locate.

Its considerable value as a reference work notwithstanding, Zylbercweig’s encyclopedia is flawed and uneven. Mind you, some of the critiques leveled against it apply to most other encyclopedias, too. We often approach such works with a reverence bordering on idolatry, having lost sight of the fact that the information they contain was compiled by human beings, not dictated by God on Mount Sinai. Even the best encyclopedias occasionally misreport fundamental facts. And all of them, like any other work of scholarship, are the products of complicated sets of editorial choices. Even in the most judicially compiled works, potentially valuable information can end up on the editing-room floor, so to speak.

The Leksikon's quirks, though, occupy a universe of their own. Let’s start with alphabetization, that most basic of organizing principles. Zylbercweig started out by arranging entries alphabetically, but the complicated task of gathering and arranging all of that information with so little assistance—not to mention the challenges of constantly fundraising, for over four decades, to get the volumes published—seem to have pushed him to change the proceedings from a Seder into a buffet. For me, part of the work’s charm, like something out of a Borges tale, is that he makes the shift not when launching a new volume, but in mid-volume. There you are, leafing through volume 3, keeping an eye on the letters printed in the upper corners of each page to help you navigate through the book. Suddenly, after the long entry on I. L. Peretz, those letters disappear. The next entry is not the one on L. Fogelman, which would fall next alphabetically. It skips ahead several letters to the entry on Nokhem-Meyer “Shomer” Shaykevitsh, a wildly popular nineteenth-century playwright and novelist. From this point onward, Zylbercweig's readers will find themselves on a bouncy journey, alphabetically speaking. One moment they’re reading about actor and singer Polya Lubelska (3:2212), only to finish her entry and run into critic A. H. Bialin (3:2213).

Whatever idiosyncratic joys this arrangement may offer, though, it is not the most user-friendly arrangement. Fortunately, each volume after the first also includes an index, but in my first years of working with Zylbercweig’s encyclopedia , it was a matter of trial and error to see, first, whether a given figure I was looking up appeared in the work at all, and if so, in which volume. Where, I often found myself thinking, was that David Pinski entry—volume 3 or 4? Where are Bertha Kalish and Maurice Schwartz again? And is there even an entry on Clara Young? As has often been the case with Zylbercweigiana, it was Faith Jones, then working as a librarian in the Dorot Jewish Division of the NYPL, who in 2001 came to the rescue of researchers by compiling an authoritative index to all six published volumes of the encyclopedia. With the previous six volumes all available now via the Yiddish Book Center’s Spielberg Digital Yiddish Library, and Faith’s invaluable index, researchers all over the world can navigate the Zylbercweigian waters with a reasonable degree of ease.

That being said, it’s worth ending with a word of caution. Over the years, I’ve occasionally heard comments that reflect misconceptions about the Leksikon’s value and significance, and the best ways to use it as a resource. Given all I’ve written about the book’s shortcomings, I hope it’s clear by now that it should be considered a starting point, not an end in itself. And though it is, indeed, encyclopedic, that is not the same as being comprehensive or exhaustive. Not only does this work fall short of saying all there is to say about the entries it contains; it also does not include entries on every Yiddish theatre artist who deserves to be profiled in it. Zylbercweig’s methods were in many respects ahead of their time, but in the end, he was just one mortal being. He didn’t live to see the seventh volume published, but even if he had, there still would have been more to say about Yiddish theatre and the people who made it happen.

Indeed, there still is.