The Arty Semite

Yiddish Theater on PBS

By Raphael Mostel

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It is no small feat to recreate the world and emotions of a bygone era. But in his astonishing show celebrating his grandparents, Boris and Bessie Thomashefsky, who were superstars of the Yiddish theater, conductor Michael Tilson Thomas has done it. And it is a joy.

PBS’s “Great Performances” is broadcasting “The Thomashefskys: Music and Memories of a Life in the Yiddish Theater” on WNET on March 29, at 8 p.m. (Check local listings for broadcast times elsewhere.) Tilson Thomas, with the help of a team of collaborators, has been refining and perfecting this project for a decade and a half, first by rummaging through libraries, archives and attics to retrieve dazzling mementos from the period, and then by taking the show on the road. The program covers the lives of the Thomashefskys as well as of Yiddish theater itself and the history of the era.

Much love went into this production, particularly through Tilson Thomas’s personal memories of his grandmother. Not surprisingly, Tilson Thomas, who conducts the ensemble of the New World Symphony, also convincingly conveys the theatricality — and some of the hilarious shtick and off-stage shenanigans — of his grandparents. (He also has the best command of Yiddish in the cast.)

Broadway stars Shuler Hensley and Judy Blazer play Boris and Bessie. Ronit Widmann-Levy and Eugene Brancoveanu capably round out the cast. The program was recorded in performance at Miami Beach’s New World Center.

I mean no disrespect to any of the current performers to say the high point is a short film clip of Boris Thomashefsky himself at the end of his career, playing a rabbi who advises a bar-mitzvah boy to treat both gentile and Jew honorably. Thomashefsky’s style is old-fashioned — could anyone today get away with that kind of over-the-top emotional performance, obviously derived from his cantorial training? — and yet his deep, focused baritone voice is so forceful and honest it is impossible to listen without getting goose bumps. If this is what he could do on film, and at the end of his career, you can easily imagine how formidable Thomashefsky must have been in a live performance in his prime.

“The Thomashefskys” gives us a royal tour of these amazing people and their times. I can’t recommend this show highly enough for anyone with the slightest interest in Yiddish theater, or in that period.


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