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Zylbercweig, Zalmen

(1894–1972), Yiddish theater historian and lexicographer. Zalmen Zylbercweig (Zilbertsvayg) was born in Ozorków, a small town near Łódź, to a religiously observant but reform-minded father who was a Yiddish and Hebrew writer. Zylbercweig was educated in both a progressive yeshiva and a commercial school. Attracted to the theater at an early age, he first performed with amateur Yiddish and Hebrew groups, then acted in professional companies, directed a troupe that performed in and around Łódź, produced Yiddish translations of European plays, and edited and contributed to numerous Yiddish publications.

In 1922, Zylbercweig began collecting the theater material that was to occupy him for the rest of his life. He left Poland in 1924 to spend several years in Palestine, then moved to the United States in 1927 but subsequently spent years traveling through Eastern and Western Europe and North and South America, pursuing his research wherever Yiddish theater was performed. In 1937, he moved permanently to the United States, settling first in New York and, in 1948, in Los Angeles. He was active in numerous Yiddish organizations and with his wife Celia, broadcast a Yiddish radio program from a studio they built in their garage in Los Angeles.

Zylbercweig’s magnum opus is a six-volume encyclopedia titled Leksikon fun yidishn teater (Lexicon of Yiddish Theater). The publishing history of these volumes is no less exotic than the wanderings of its author and its subject. Zylbercweig succeeded in publishing one volume in New York and one in Warsaw before World War II; the others were published in New York and Mexico City from 1959 to 1969. Volumes 1–3 were coedited by Jacob Mestel. An unpublished seventh volume was in page proofs at the time of Zylbercweig’s death.

The 3,066 double-column pages of the encyclopedia include biographies of more than 3,000 individuals, as well as entries on theater companies, actors’ unions and studios, and historical subjects such as traditional Jewish theater and entertainment. The entries for major figures such as Avrom Goldfadn, Y. L. Peretz and Ester-Rokhl Kaminska amount to book-length monographs, including bibliographies of works by and about them; smaller entries are often the only source of information about lesser-known actors, playwrights, composers, and critics; there is a wealth of photographs and graphic material throughout.

Zylbercweig’s encyclopedia, a monument to his extraordinary dedication, reflects both his scholarly limitations and the difficult conditions of his work. The volumes have been insufficiently edited and contain errors and imprecise data. Even more problematic is the matter of sources. Although he provides bibliographies of varying degrees of accuracy at the end of each article, much of Zylbercweig’s information is based on his subjects’ personal communications, often about their own careers. The longer articles typically consist of lengthy citations from insufficiently identified sources that can be traced, if at all, only with great effort. However, the Leksikon is also a vast source of social and cultural documentation. Its more than 800 women’s biographies, for example, constitute a major source about the lives of modern Yiddish-speaking women.

Suggested Reading

Faith Jones, “Zalmen Zilbercweig: The Boswell of the Yiddish Theatre,” unpublished manuscript delivered at the conference Yiddish Theatre Revisited: New Perspectives on Drama and Performance, May 2006, University of Washington, Seattle; Efroyim Oyerbakh, Moyshe Shtarkman, and Yitskhok Kharlash, eds., “Zilbertsvayg, Zalmen,” in Leksikon fun der nayer yidisher literatur, vol. 3, cols. 621–623 (New York, 1960); Melekh Ravitsh, “Zalmen Zilbertsvayg,” in Mayn leksikon, vol. 2, pp. 227–229 (Montreal, 1947).