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Rotbaum, Jakub

(1901–1994), theater director, actor, and painter. Born in Żelechów, Poland, Jakub Rotbaum (Yid., Yankev Rotboym) received a traditional heder education. He attended high school and then studied in Warsaw at the School of Decorative Arts, the School of Fine Arts, and the School of Film. Both of his sisters had careers in the theater, and it was in this realm that Rotbaum made his mark, although he had a considerable career as a painter as well.

Rotbaum began his Yiddish directing career in 1925 as assistant director in the first Yiddish literary cabaret, Azazel, in Warsaw. In 1926, he directed a Hebrew version of Rabindranath Tagore’s The Post Office at the Elizeum Theater in Warsaw. He caught the attention of Alter Kacyzne, who became a lifelong friend and mentor, and who urged him to study in Moscow and supported his later appointment in Vilna. After studying in Moscow with Konstantin Stanislavsky, Vsevolod Meyerhold, and Solomon Mikhoels (the latter of whom he also considered a mentor), Rotbaum passed his directing examination in 1929. Fascinated with Russian theater, he returned to Poland and toured the country with a lecture, “Theatrical Culture in the Soviet Union.” His hope was to change the orientation of Yiddish theater in Poland from folklore to social and political issues.

In 1929, Rotbaum was invited to work with the Vilner Trupe, eventually becoming its artistic director and principal stage director. He first directed Shvartse geto (Black Ghetto), an adaptation of Eugene O’Neill’s All God’s Chillun Got Wings; this was followed by five other plays, including Dovid Bergelson’s Der toyber (The Deaf Man; also known as Di Broytmil [The Mill]) and Sergei Tret’iakov’s Rychi, Kitai (Yid., Shray, Khine!; Roar, China!). After some years in Vilna, and more time in Moscow, Rotbaum went to Paris in 1938. There he worked with the Yiddish avant-garde company PIAT (Parizer Yidisher Arbeter-Teater), directing Der toyber and Sholem Aleichem’s Shver tsu zayn a yid (Hard to Be a Jew).

In 1940, Maurice Schwartz invited Rotbaum to work at the Yiddish Art Theater in New York. Among other plays, Rotbaum directed Sholem Aleichem’s Sender Blank, Sholem Asch’s Onkl Mozes (Uncle Moses), and Dovid Bergelson’s Mir viln lebn (We Want to Live). In Detroit in 1942, he staged the first version of his most celebrated play, A Goldfadn kholem (A Goldfaden Dream), which over the following four decades he staged all over the world.

In 1949, Rotbaum returned to Poland and began to direct Yiddish theater. He served as artistic director of the Lower Silesian Yiddish Theater, for which he mounted such plays as Emmanuel Roblès’s Montserrat and Yankev Zonshayn’s Hershele Ostropolyer. From 1951 to 1962, he directed Teatr Polski in Wrocław, where he staged celebrated productions of plays by Stanisław Wyspiański, Bertolt Brecht, Nikolai Gogol, and Shakespeare. After 1968 he directed only Yiddish theater in Poland as well as in Europe, the Americas, and Australia. Rotbaum’s last production was in Warsaw in 1985: Sholem Aleichem’s Dos groyse gevins (The Winning Lottery Ticket).

Rotbaum’s directing was distinguished by his monumental style, his intense palette of colors, the painterly composition of ensemble scenes, and in his Jewish plays, the rich weave of Jewish folklore. In 1993 in Warsaw, he participated in the first international conference on Yiddish theater in Poland; Rotbaum spoke about his years with the Vilner Trupe. Throughout his life, Rotbaum continued also to paint the Jewish faces he remembered from his youth; this work received numerous awards.

Suggested Reading

Szczepan Gąssowski, ed., Państwowy Teatr Żydowski im. Ester Rachel Kamińskiej: Przeszłość i teraźniejszość (Warsaw, 1995); Anna Hannowa, Jakub Rotbaum: Świat zaginiony; Malarstwo, rysunki (Wrocław, Pol., 1995), text in Polish, German and English; Anna Hannowa, “The Vilna Years of Jakub Rotbaum,” Polin 14 (2001): 156–169; Anna Kuligowska-Korzeniewska and Małgorzata Leyko, eds., Teatr żydowski w Polsce (Łódź, 1998), Polish or English, summaries in English.



Translated from Polish by Anna Grojec