Yiddish theater star Bertha Kalich is born
Bertha Kalich, star of American Yiddish theatre, was born on May 17, 1874 [some sources say 1872 or 1875]. Raised in Lemberg (now Lviv), then part of Austria-Hungary (now, Ukraine), Kalich studied at the Lemberg Conservatory and joined the chorus of the local Polish theater at thirteen. She also performed in German, and later learned Romanian for a stint at the Romanian Imperial Theatre in Bucharest. Her success there put to rest, at least temporarily, fears that anti-Semitism would hinder her budding career. A story was later told that audience members had brought onions to pelt her with, but were so entranced that they threw flowers instead. The story may be apocryphal, but Kalich’s success was real. The acclaim that greeted her Romanian performances was enough to catch the eye of American producers, who brought Kalich to the US in 1894.
In New York, Kalich performed mainly at Joseph Edelstein’s Thalia Theatre, where she starred as Desdemona in Othello, Juliet in Romeo and Juliet, and Nora in A Doll’s House, all in Yiddish translation. Through these plays and others, Kalich sought to make her name as an actress rather than emphasizing the musical talents that had given her a start in Yiddish theatre. She also sought to raise the artistic standards of Yiddish theatre, emphasizing serious plays. She soon became a leading lady of American Yiddish theatre, and playwright Jacob Gordin wrote at least two roles especially for her: Etty in The Kreutzer Sonata and the title role in Sappho.
In 1905, Kalich made her debut on the English-language stage, in the title role of Victorien Sardou’s Fédora. A reviewer for the New York Times lauded her “remarkable emotional power” and “tremendous natural force,” but also criticized her performance as lacking in subtlety. The opening night audience, however, responded with a standing ovation and nearly a dozen curtain calls. She was one of just a few actresses to transition successfully from Yiddish to English theatre. Kalich continued to appear in English roles for another decade, but her emotional style gradually fell out of favor for the light American theatre then in vogue. She did, however, appear in revivals of roles she had first performed in Yiddish, and also in several early films. By 1915, she was returning more and more frequently to the Yiddish stage, in Philadelphia and Chicago as well as New York. In Yiddish theatre circles, her performances in English only enhanced her prestige. In turn, her success on the English-language stage helped raise the status of the Yiddish theatre.
Kalich retired from the theatre in 1931, having gradually lost her sight to a malignant eye tumor. Unable to give up theatre entirely, she appeared occasionally even after her retirement, including in several productions mounted for her benefit. Her last appearance was in a staging of Louis Untermeyer’s poem “Heine’s Death” at the Jolson theatre, in February, 1939. She died in New York just a few months later, on April 18, 1939. Her New York Times obituary estimated that she had performed some 125 roles in seven languages.
Sources: Jewish Women in America, 715-717; New York Times, May 23, 1905, April 19, 1939.
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Jewish Women's Archive. "Yiddish theater star Bertha Kalich is born." (Viewed on December 11, 2023) <https://jwa.org/thisweek/may/17/1874/bertha-kalich>.