A few years ago, when I was working on a volume of interviews with actors, On Acting, for Faber Inc, I was lucky enough to spend several afternoons in the company of Luba Kadison, the last living member of the Vilna Troupe, arguably the most renowned Yiddish theater company of the last century. Armed with tape-recorder and a cup of tea, I would sit on a footstool near Kadison’s armchair, listening to the actress—a grande dame in the true sense of the term, with enormous black eyes, a gentle sense of humor, and magnetic energy—tell story after story. Then in her mid-90s, Kadison was frail and losing her eyesight, but she still had the sort of voice capable of stirring emotions way up in the gods. She’d lament the difficulty of making a living in the theater today (“young actors all over the world have to fight very hard for work and act for free because they love it so much”), reminisce about her years studying acting in Warsaw (“The teachers said I possessed a magic quality when I played the role of Medea,”) and extol the virtues of ensemble theater (“a company should be like an orchestra; all the greatest companies have a sense of ensemble”).
Born in 1906 in Kovno, Lithuania, Kadison began performing with the Vilna Troupe as a little girl. Her father directed the company, founded in 1916, which staged Yiddish-language productions of Russian, Jewish, and classical plays. Over the course of her decade- and continent-spanning career, she performed in the original 1920 Warsaw production of S. Ansky’s The Dybbuk (“the greatest Jewish play and perhaps one of the greatest plays ever written,” she told me,) and played Stella Adler’s love interest in a 1928 production of Sholem Asch’s God of Vengeance. Arthur Miller was delighted with her portrayal of Linda in a Yiddish version of Death of a Salesman at the Parkway Theatre in Brooklyn in 1951, as was the scholar Harold Bloom, who wrote to Kadison just a few weeks before her death, saying her Salesman was the most moving he’d ever seen.
In the late 1960s, Kadison switched to translating, writing, and assistant-directing plays alongside her husband, Joseph Buloff, an actor and director best known for English-speaking roles in Broadway musicals like Oklahoma, and Hollywood films like Somebody Up There Likes Me. The two collaborated on numerous productions including Kadison’s adaptations of three Chekhov short stories, The Chekhov Sketchbook, and, before Buloff’s death in 1985, penned On Stage, Off Stage, a chronicle of their exploits on the Yiddish stage.
My interviews with Kadison were always chaperoned by Yiddish theater expert and performer Caraid O’Brien, who befriended the actress in her final decade. “I helped her with her correspondence; she helped me practice monologues. We read and translated plays together, and went out to an Irish bar for whiskies,” Caraid told me. “Luba taught me that courage is the most important quality to have in life. Whenever I had something difficult to do, ‘have courage’ she would always say.”
It was Caraid who called last Friday to tell me that Kadison had died the previous night at the age of 99. The fact that I’d had the opportunity to hear and set down in writing some of her thoughts, mitigated, if only slightly, my sadness at the news, as did a story Caraid told me: On New Year’s Day last year, comedian Jerry Stiller paid Kadison a visit. According to Caraid, the actress asked Stiller to read to her. What did the Ed Sullivan Show and Seinfeld regular read? The chapter on Kadison from my book.