Obituary: Miriam Kressyn

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Miriam Kressyn was the First Lady of the Yiddish theatre in America, where she performed for some 60 years.

She was born in Bialystok, Russia, one of seven children, into a family of slender, even impoverished means; her background was not a happy one as Jews were forced to live a very restricted life and education was not for those without funds. Miriam's mother was quick to recognise her daughter's keen intelligence and paid for her tuition by selling a feather bed. By the time she arrived in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1925, Miriam was fluent in six languages.

She possessed a natural singing voice, and it was suggested that she take singing lessons, but the cost of 50 cents per lesson was more than the family could afford. When a member of a visiting Yiddish Theatre company heard her singing at a local club, she was offered a place in the chorus and saved her meagre earnings to buy a second-hand piano. She then studied piano and voice at the Boston Music School before winning first prize in an audition at a local radio station - a grant of $7,500 for study at the New England Conservatory.

Her entry into the professional Yiddish theatre seemed a natural progression, and she was soon engaged to play the title-role of the famous folk-opera Shulamith - a junior version with all the participants under 18. Her love of Yiddish theatre meant that she could no longer study at the Conservatory as it was forbidden for students to undertake professional engagements.

Her voice had now developed into a strong dramatic soprano which, combined with her rare beauty, great acting talent and a dancing ability which bordered on the acrobatic (she was able to do a backward bend and pick up a rose from the stage with her teeth), ensured her place as a leading performer. She starred in many great musicals written specially for her and co-starred with Michael Michaelesko, Menasha Skulnik and Seymour Rechtzeit, who became her husband and lifelong partner. Together they toured the world, appearing wherever there was a Yiddish theatre while remaining stars of the New York stage.

After many years as a leading lady in the musical theatre, she was invited to join Maurice Schwartz in his Yiddish Arts Theatre, a transition which she made with charm and dignity, playing leading roles in all the classic repertoire. A further diversion in her career came in the late 1940s when she was asked to play the lead in Philip Vordan's Anna Lucasta, a Broadway hit being performed by an all-negro cast. Her managers convinced her that the play would work in Yiddish. Kressyn chose Benzion Witler to play the romantic lead and the play was a runaway success.

Her husband, Seymour, joined her in a new venture when they were approached to do radio commercials - on the theme of "Show Business Personalities". They worked for two years promoting Campbell's Soups and for the next 40 years for Maxwell House Coffee, three times weekly. Miriam Kressyn wrote the scripts and her talent as a writer came into its own when she began writing lyrics, translating and adapting plays.

In the 1960s she became Professor of Yiddish at Queens College, New York, where she not only taught the language but directed Yiddish plays. Many of the students became lifelong friends - indeed, one of them, later ordained as a rabbi, was with her until the final moments of her life.

The New York radio station WEVD features a Yiddish hour each Sunday morning and Miriam was allotted half an hour of the programme to relay world news giving her own pertinent comments with particular slant on items of Jewish interest. She continued this function until she was hospitalised two months before her death.

Some 10 years ago, Kressyn had to undergo a serious operation, the result of which robbed her of the use of her right arm. Undeterred, she continued to write scripts, essays and lyrics having taught herself to type with her left hand on her English and Yiddish keyboards.

A tireless worker for charitable causes, she was instrumental in raising vast sums of money for Fight For Sight, an organisation that helps people with impaired vision, encouraging such stars as Bob Hope and Sammy Davis Jnr to participate in her radio appeals.

Miriam Kressyn was the recipient of many awards such as Show Business 1973, Golden Awards for Outstanding Acting and Lifetime Achievement, Drama Desk Award, 40 years of Yiddish Radio. She is survived by her husband, Seymour Rechtzeit, who is President of the Hebrew Actors Union in America.

Bernard Mendelovitch

Miriam Kressyn, actress: born Bialystok, Russia 4 March 1912; married Seymour Rechtzeit; died New York 28 October 1996.