The Arty Semite

Avi Hoffman Is Still Too Jewish, Again

By Curt Schleier

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Just a few minutes into his performance, the screen behind Avi Hoffman lights up with an image of him as an 8-year-old with peyes. Not just any 8-year-old with peyes, mind you. He’s Tevye in a local production of “Fiddler on the Roof,” a performance his mom taped for posterity — perhaps anticipating this very moment.

Hoffman shares some of that audio recording, including his rendition of “If I Were A Rich Man,” sung with a distinct Bronx twang. Next up: his professional debut two years later in a Folksbiene production of “Bronx Express,” followed by his move to Israel, where his acting troupe entertained troops during the 1973 Yom Kippur war. To quote the King of Siam (or Yul Brenner), from there on in Hoffman’s career retrospective, “Still Jewish After All These Years,” is essentially, etcetera, etcetera.

Hoffman has gone to this well twice before, in “Too Jewish” (1994) and “Too Jewish, Too” (1998). But the truth, it never gets old — in part because Hoffman is so good at what he does. At 55, he’s still in fine voice, and his self-deprecating humor keeps this from becoming a vulgar exercise in patting-himself-on-the back. Hoffman is a man who knows how to milk a laugh — and a tear.

Part of the show’s appeal, too, is that like kosher hotels in the Catskills, the world he describes is slowly vanishing, and sadly, so is the audience that remembers it. Take his imitation of Yiddish comic actor Menasha Skulnik — it might have been dead-on, but my guess is that few in the audience could testify to that. But much of the rest of his 90-minute performance will likely be as warm and familiar to his likely audience as chicken soup.

Hoffman performs songs by the Jewish songwriters he grew up admiring, such as Paul Simon, Billy Joel and Bob Dylan; songs from some of the plays he appeared in, and a moving piece about his father. (His mother, Miriam Hoffman, contributes to the Forverts — he calls her the “Jewish Dave Barry.”)

Hoffman has lived a pretty good life for a Bronx-born son of survivors, becoming, in own words, “the go-to Jew” for many regional and off-Broadway productions, ranging from “Milk and Honey” to the title role in “The Rise of David Levinsky,” based on the novel written by Forward founding editor Abraham Cahan.

For a while, those roles dried up, he explains. That’s when he conceived “Too Jewish” — he’s performed it over 3,000 times — and its sequel.

He’s made his home in Florida, which, he notes, has become a major film and television production center. He got a recurring role in the Starz series, “Magic City” and played a pawnbroker on A&E’s “The Glades.”

It probably would have been best to end the show there, but Hoffman goes back again to mention all the shows he was in but neglected to mention in the first 80 minutes of his performance. It was about 10 minutes of overkill.

Special kudos to accompanist Michael Larsen, who seemed to enjoy the stories and songs as much as the audience did.

Hoffman is most at home on the stage, and Stage 72 (on 72nd Street off Broadway), where he is currently appearing, is the perfect intimate setting for his show. It runs through October 23.


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