Women in the Performing Arts
Bertha Kalich: Star of the New York Stage
by J.D. Arden, M.L.I.S. candidate, Reference Services Research Intern, Center for Jewish History
Above image: Yiddish theater poster for Bertha Kalich in Midway at Irving Place Theatre. c/o American Jewish Historical Society.
Bertha Kalich was born in 1874 in Lemberg in the Austro-Hungarian province of Galicia, what is today Lvov, Ukraine. Her father was a brush manufacturer and amateur violinist. Her mother was a costume seamstress and fan of theater and opera. From a young age, Bertha accompanied her mother to various performances and was encouraged to practice singing and acting in school. Bertha began her stage career in Europe under the direction of the famous Yiddish theater director and playwright, Abraham Goldfaden. Although she was best-known for her roles in Yiddish, she learned and performed in several other languages: Polish, Russian, German and, most notably, Romanian, which she learned amazingly rapidly after joining Goldfaden’s company on tour in Romania.
Around the age of 20 years old, amid dramatic rumors of rival assassination plots against her, Bertha took leave of Europe for the bright lights of New York City, where she instantly rose to stardom on the stages notable Yiddish theaters, such as the Thalia Theater, Second Avenue Theater and People’s Theater. At a time when Jewish performers were characterized as less sophisticated than the non-Jews in the “high arts” of opera and classical theater performances, Bertha Kalich earned a reputation for the emotional depth and sophistication of her acting. She performed in Yiddish versions of Shakespeare—and even in the role of Hamlet.
Finally, in May of 1905, Bertha became the first actress to successfully transition from the Yiddish-language stage to English. This led to more opportunities for her to perform on Broadway. Despite health problems and failing eyesight, Bertha Kalich continued to touch and inspire audiences up until two months before her death in 1939.
Jewish Women’s Archive (featuring a photo of Bertha Kalich from the American Jewish Historical Society image collections)
Lillian Goldman Reading Room open-access sources consulted here at the Center:
The Yiddish Theater by Hershel Zohn (published in 1977), contributed by YIVO.
Di Geshikhte fun Yiddisher Theater by B. Gorin (published in 1923 by Max Meizel Publishing, Grand Street, NY).
Lexicon of the Yiddish Theater, edited by Zalman Zylbercwaig (published 1931 by the Hebrew Actors Union of America).
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