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Jacob Ben-ami Dead at 86

Funeral services were held here yesterday for Jacob Ben-Ami, one of the best known actors of the Yiddish stage. He died Friday at the age of 86. Ben-Ami, who performed with equal skill in both English and Yiddish, had a long distinguished career appearing in plays by Yiddish, American, British and Russian playwrights on tours in Europe, South Africa, South America and the United States.

He was last seen on the stage in 1972 in a production of “Yoshe Kalb” staged at the theater on Second Avenue and 12th Street on the East Side where he had appeared with Maurice Schwartz in 1918 in what was then the Irving Place Theater.

Born in Minsk, Ben-Ami fell in love with the theater early. But he found the Yiddish theater too superficial and wanted to change it by learning from the Russian theater. He appeared in small repertory companies in Minsk but rejected a chance to join the renowned Moscow Art Theater because it would have meant converting from Judaism.

Ben-Ami immigrated to the U.S. in 1921 and worked with some amateur groups before joining Schwartz in 1918. Ben-Ami, who wanted more modern and realistic dramas than the melodramas and comedies popular with Yiddish audiences, broke with Schwartz and founded the Jewish Art Theater where for years he presented plays by such authors as Sholom Aleichem, Tolstoy and Gerhart Hauptmann. He appeared in several Broadway productions but in only one real hit, Paddy Chayefsky’s “The Tenth Man,” which opened in 1959 and in which he played the grandfather.

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