Miriam Kressyn was that rare talent known for both her performances and her work as a historian of the Yiddish theater. Kressyn earned a scholarship from the New England Conservatory of Music before Julius Nathanson invited her to join the chorus of his Yiddish theater troupe. By 1929 she was performing in lead roles for Aaron Lebedeff’s troupe in Chicago. In 1931 she embarked on a successful tour of Argentina, followed by a European tour. She joined Maurice Schwartz’s famed Yiddish Art Theatre and translated the popular Anna Lucasta for the Yiddish stage. In the 1960s she became a professor of Yiddish and drama at Queens College. For over forty years, she and her husband hosted the radio program Memories of the Yiddish Theater.
Miriam Kressyn—of the Yiddish theater and film, songwriter, translator, recording star, radio announcer, historian of the Yiddish theater, news analyst, and teacher—left an indelible mark on Yiddish culture of the twentieth century.
Early Life and Family
She was born on March 4, 1911, in Bialystok, Poland, to Yankev and Mashe Kressyn, who already had two sons and four daughters. The daughters had been taken to the United States by their father several years before Miriam was born. He then returned to Poland to be with his wife and sons. With the outbreak of World War I, Kressyn’s mother took her to the town of Orle, near Bialystok, while her father and brothers were recruited to dig ditches for the Polish army. Two of her older sisters also returned to Europe.
In Orle, Kressyn studied with a teacher sent by the secular Yiddish school organization Tsysho. At age seven or eight, she was caught smuggling leaflets for the socialist Bund to another town. Her experience in the secular classroom proved formative and enlightening, drawing her away from the pious traditions of her father.
Career in America
In 1923, Kressyn immigrated to America with her parents. They settled in Boston, where two of her sisters lived. Kressyn’s love of music and beautiful voice won her a scholarship to the New England Conservatory of Music, where she studied for several years, planning eventually to study law.
Boston was frequently visited by touring Yiddish theater troupes. On one occasion, a troupe headed by Julius Nathanson was in town and visited her sister. When Nathanson heard Kressyn sing, he exclaimed, “Who is this girl?” After being thus “discovered,” she began playing children’s roles in Yiddish theater. Soon, producers and stars in New York City learned of this young talent in Boston. In 1929, she was invited to join the company of the legendary Aaron Lebedeff in Chicago, where she performed a leading role for the first time.
While performing at the Arch Street Theater in Philadelphia in 1930, Kressyn was informed by the Hebrew Actors Union that she needed to audition for membership. For her audition, she prepared two scenes, one musical and one dramatic. Her performance won her the overwhelming approval of the union at a time when it accepted very few new members.
In 1931, she was invited to Buenos Aires as the leading lady of a touring American company. Her scheduled thirteen-week season was extended to nine months. From Argentina she traveled to Europe, performing in Antwerp, Paris, Bucharest, Kovno, Vilna, and Warsaw. She would return to Warsaw three times. Her success there caused many of the city’s Yiddish literati to go to her performances, even though she appeared in so-called shund [lowbrow] productions. In 1937, she returned to Warsaw for the last time to star in the Joseph Green film Der Purimshpiler.
Later Career and Legacy
Miriam Kressyn later joined the Yiddish Art Theater, run by Maurice Schwartz, performing at New York’s National Theater on Second Avenue and Houston for several seasons. She appeared with many of the luminaries of the Yiddish theater’s heyday. She recorded numerous albums, some with her husband of over fifty years, Seymour Rechzeit. For over forty years, the couple broadcast their famous Memories of the Yiddish Theater program on WEVD radio.
During the last decade of her life, Kressyn wrote and hosted the weekly News of the Week in Review on WEVD. She died in New York on October 27, 1996.
Sandrow, Nahma. Vagabond Stars: A World History of Yiddish Theater (1977).