Photo: Simon Annand/JW3
The second act of David Schneider’s new play, “Making Stalin Laugh,” opens in 1935, the year the Moscow State Yiddish Theater decided to mount a production of “King Lear” with its legendary director Solomon Mikhoels as the lead. Lear, Mikhoels tells the cast as the party apparatchiki watch over his rehearsal, is a “tragedy about the slow disintegration of a man’s illusions. Illusions don’t shatter overnight,” Mikhoels states, “they wither.”
A comedy within a tragedy, “Making Stalin Laugh” — premiering this month at London’s JW3 — is also about the slow withering of illusion: in this case, the notion held onto by Mikhoels that Jewish culture could survive in a state that saw Yiddish and Judaism as anachronisms, antithetical to revolution and progress.
“Making Stalin Laugh” follows the fate of the Moscow State Yiddish Theater from around the time of its production of “The Travels of Benjamin III” in 1927 until the assassination of Mikhoels by the Ministry for State Security in Minsk in 1948, the closure of the theatre company in 1949, and the Night of the Murdered Poets on August 12, 1952. Having been arrested on charges of espionage and treason, the Soviet Union’s most prominent Yiddish writers were executed as part of Stalin’s wider campaign against “rootless cosmopolitans.”
On the 60th anniversary of “Waiting For Godot,” Samuel Beckett’s existential comic-tragedy will be staged in Yiddish for the first time. It’s an idea that is both obvious, and ground-breaking, casting a new light on the masterpiece.
The play will run from September 20 to October 13 at the Castillo Theatre in Manhattan (543 W. 42nd St.) and is the brainchild of David Mandelbaum, artistic director of the six-year-old New Yiddish Rep, a company dedicated to presenting Yiddish plays and Yiddish adaptations of classical and contemporary works.
“Though Yiddish theater has a tradition of performing masterworks, it’s now identified with musical revues and light entertainment,” Mandelbaum said. “Yiddish is a riveting language and has compelling theater, but it’s in danger of becoming archived and relegated to YIVO.” Mandelbaum would like to see the New Yiddish Rep become a resident, repertory theater and is hopeful that “Godot” will serve as a stepping stone to that end.
Initially, the creative team wanted to set the play in a post-Holocaust universe inhabited by concentration camp survivors. Though the Beckett estate put an end to that idea, the artists have little doubt that Holocaust imagery will be evoked when the characters speak Yiddish and refer to the ashes and millions who are dead.
“That gives the drama a context and clarifies what it’s about,” Mandelbaum said. “Beckett, who wrote ‘Godot’ in 1947-48, had to be drawing upon the previous ten years of history.” The act one rehearsal I observed was startling in its resonance. It was also haunting and very funny, its despair and cataclysmic landscape notwithstanding.
“The Megile of Itzik Manger” and the National Yiddish Theatre seem like a perfect partnership: love and marriage, horse and carriage, Purim shpiel and the Folksbiene.
Manger is considered one of the most important Yiddish poets and playwrights, and “The Megile” is one of several plays in which he put his own stamp on a biblical story. It was reworked as a musical by, among others, award-winning composer Dov Seltzer, a totem of Israeli creativity.
The play has had several successful productions, including a lengthy run in Israel and a brief one on Broadway. This interpretation, however, could better serve its extremely enthusiastic and talented cast.
In a couple of Russian-style numbers, the dancers wear fur caps, a tip-of-the, well, hat, to the theater’s large émigré audience. But this is hardly true to the show’s Persian locale. And director Motl Didner’s use of a circus theme seems puzzling. Employing a ring master (Shane Baker) as narrator works but, after an opening scene set in a 1937 Polish circus, the theme isn’t carried through in a meaningful way.
When my parents landed in New York in 1947 they were assigned a case worker. I’m not sure who did the assigning, but I remember my father saying how puzzled he was. “Case” was German for cheese, and he didn’t understand why he needed a cheese worker.
My parents didn’t tell many stories about their early lives, about crossing the border from Austria into Switzerland after the Anschluss or how they got to the goldene medina. Perhaps I didn’t ask the right questions.
But that particular anecdote stayed with me, because it was about their life at the precipice. They were starting a new life in a new land with a new language, one briefly filled with optimism and faith that life could and would be better.
Perhaps that is why I am such a fan of the new National Yiddish Theatre-Folksbiene production of “The Golden Land,” a joyous celebration of the turn-of-the-century Jewish immigrant experience.
Allan Lewis Rickman likes to say that the best audiences for “The Essence: A Yiddish Theatre Dim Sum” are gentile college students — a demographic that seemed (shockingly!) underrepresented at the show’s opening NYC Fringe Festival performance at the Robert Moss Theater on August 14. More than a few people in this crowd murmured recognition of familiar tunes and might have kept right on laughing at jokes in Yiddish even if Matt Temkin’s excellent English supertitles had malfunctioned.
When a language is said to be dying, it’s always gratifying to see so many of its champions in one place — and yet, though I’m not a college student, I wonder whether, as a theater fan who doesn’t know a lick of Yiddish, I’m closer to the target audience Rickman and co-creators Yelena Shmulenson-Rickman and Steve Sterner envisioned for the piece. What they’ve created is a brisk introduction to Yiddish theater in the vein of “Schoolhouse Rock”: You’re meant to be so swept up in the fun that you don’t realize you’re learning all about a subject that, like grammar or math, some folks (incorrectly) imagine to be dull.
The show hums along at a cheerful clip, with Shmulenson-Rickman and Sterner taking turns at the piano as all three performers cycle through various roles in memorable snippets from Yiddish plays and musicals. Between scenes, they address the audience as chirpy, wide-eyed versions of themselves, telling the story of Yiddish theater worldwide and posing surprisingly direct questions like, “Is theater better if it’s in Yiddish?” These narrative interludes are wisely kept brief and accessible even to those with no Jewish background or prior knowledge of Yiddish culture: At one point, for example, Shmulenson-Rickman pauses to give a succinct definition of the word “shtetl.”
Since 2005, the New Worlds Theatre Project has been presenting classic Yiddish drama in English translation. This season they’re presenting a new English translation of H. Leivick’s 1921 play “Shmates,” here called “Welcome to America,” a naturalistic drama about the corrosive effects of American capitalism on a traditional Jewish immigrant family.
In the notes to the play, director Stephen Fried charts its artistic lineage from Leivick’s original script to the work of Clifford Odets and later to Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman.” With this production it’s a fair connection to make. Artistic Director Ellen Perecman’s translation and adaptation highlights the painful shuffle of traditional hierarchies that inevitably follow the entry into American style capitalism.
The production is tightly paced and features some excellent performances, especially from Alice Cannon and Donald Warfield as matriarch and patriarch Rokhl-Leye and Mordechai Maze. The Maze’s very modern, very materialistic daughter has just gotten married, without seeking the permission of her father. What’s worse, she has married her father’s boss’s son. Now Mordechai has to face the double humiliation of being a rag sorter working for his own son-in-law.
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.)
When you Google Elmore James the first hits that pop up refer to a blues singer from the 1940s. That is not the same Elmore James who stars in the National Yiddish Theatre — Folksbiene production of “Soul to Soul.” But Yiddish-singing James, 57, thinks the Southern bluesman would see similarities between what the two men do.
“Soul to Soul,” conceived and directed by Folksbiene artistic director Zalmen Mlotek, showcases Yiddish and African-American music sung by James as well as by Lisa Fishman and Tony Perry. Its next performance is April 4 at Queens College. Tickets are free, though reservations are required.
James grew up in Harlem and attended the prestigious High School of Performing Arts. He talked to The Arty Semite about getting into show business, performing in “Soul to Soul,” and learning to sing in Yiddish.
Curt Schleier: How did you become aware of Jewish music?
Is there room for a klezmer musical on Broadway? I think so. The band for “Shlemiel the First,” led by the Folksbiene National Yiddish Theatre’s Zalmen Mlotek, is so good that during the exit music a sizeable portion of the audience drifted down toward the pit instead of up to the exits. Costumed as an Old Country klezmer band, they even march onstage sometimes, but it’s at intermission and afterward that they really wail. And that is terrific stuff, particularly Dmitri “Zisl” Slepovitch’s clarinet, Yaeko Miranda Elmaleh’s violin and Mlotek’s keyboard. Hoo boy, good.
When the show travels — and it should, if tweaked a bit — the creators should put in more places for the band to strut their stuff. The show by Robert Brustein, with lyrics by Arnold Weinsten and music by Hankus Netsky, is intact from the version we reviewed in Montclair in 2010 (read that review here, and our interview with Brustein and Mlotek, which highlights the Yiddish theater sources, here).
A version of this post appeared in Yiddish here.
To perform Yiddish theater today, you need a lot of money, or a lot of ambition. The New Yiddish Rep theater company, led by David Mandelbaum, has the latter.
Mandelbaum is an actor and director who also plays most of the other roles a theater company requires. Like any typical theater person, he is always on the lookout for creative talent, and when he searches, he usually finds. For “Agentn,” the New Yiddish Rep’s latest production, Mandelbaum found five talented collaborators: director Moshe Yassur, clarinetist Dmitri Slepovitch and actors Yelena Shmulenson, Rafael Goldwaser and Shane Baker.
The play is based on the works of Sholem Aleichem, which makes for good theater, even though Sholem Aleichem himself was not a particularly impressive dramatist. The different parts of the play, which draw on several of Sholem Aleichem’s stories, are unified by a small-town fortune-seeker who travels by train through different stations, trying to find “clients” and make a ruble.
From the Shtetl to the Stage: The Odyssey of a Wandering Actor
By Alexander Granach, with a new introduction by Herbert S. Lewis
Transaction Publishers, 304 pages, $29.95
Actor Alexander Granach performed in Yiddish as a member of Berlin’s Jacob Gordin Theatrical Society early in the past century. He went from his shtetl in Galicia to Yiddish theater in Berlin, then to director Max Reinhardt’s acting school in the same city. As a Jew and man with leftist leanings, he fled Hitler’s Germany in 1933, and before his death in 1945 he performed in 20 Hollywood films, including Bertolt Brecht and Fritz Lang’s “Hangmen Also Die” and Ernst Lubitsch’s “Ninotchka.” He never became a film star; most of his roles were as a supporting actor. But Granach’s thespian achievements took him far from his beginnings in rural Kolomea and his early life as a bread baker, onto sound stages with some of the world’s most prominent film artists.
The story of Granach’s early life, an incomplete autobiography that ends at around 1920, was recently reissued under the title “From the Shtetl to the Stage: The Odyssey of a Wandering Actor.” Granach writes in great detail about his life among impoverished Galician Jews, his first girlfriends, fellow bakers and his early enthusiasms in theater. At 17 he dreamed of playing the role of Shakespeare’s famous Jew, Shylock. The dream, deferred while Granach fought as a soldier during World War I, was finally realized in 1919. The book ends with that achievement, still early in the actor’s career.
A version of this post appeared in Yiddish here.
When the first Montreal International Yiddish Theatre Festival wrapped up two years ago, one could hear the usual critics saying: “Nu! Let’s see if there will be a second one.”
This year, that question was answered. From June 13 to 22 the second International Yiddish Theatre Festival filled Montreal’s Segal Centre with plays, films, concerts and lectures. Theater troupes and creative ensembles came from eight countries, including Romania, Poland, France, Germany, the United States, Israel, Australia and Canada. In addition to performances, the festival’s program also included a two-day academic symposium on Yiddish theater and cinema.
I had the honor to attend the festival both as a participant, introducing my film “Glimpses of Yiddish Czernowitz,” and as a spectator, taking in plays and concerts during the four days that I was there.
Trish McCall, Dan Bielinski and Marcus Naylor in ‘Under the Cross.’ Photo by Louis Zweibel.
This summer New York remains the center of Yiddish theater. Audiences looking for a lighthearted romp can go see Hershele Ostropolye (in Yiddish) at the Folksbiene. Those looking for a grittier Yiddish theater experience can head to Midtown and see I.D. Berkovitch’s 1924 play “Under the Cross” (“Untern Tseylm”) (in English), running until June 25 at June Havoc Theatre. “Under the Cross” is a production of New Worlds Theatre Project, a small theater company whose mission is to present new English language productions of Yiddish drama.
“Under the Cross” is set in 1923 Belarus, in the midst of the post-Revolution civil war. Berkovitch, like many Yiddish writers, had already left Russia by the time of the civil war, but remained keenly interested in events there. Unlike Dovid Bergelson, Der Nister and others, Berkovitch never returned to the Soviet Union.
The drama of “Under the Cross” centers on paterfamilias Moshke Ferapontov (Charles Roby), his wife, son and daughter-in-law. Moshke is a man in conflict. During a 25-year tour in the Russian army he became a Christian. Now a middle aged man, he’s spent most of his life as a Christian, living with Christians. Even so, his actions betray an inner connection to Jews, a connection that will test his sanity and propel the drama unfolding across the 25 hours of Yom Kippur.
S. An-sky’s “The Dybbuk” is arguably the most famous play and film in the cannons of Yiddish theater and cinema. Written in 1914 and first produced by the Vilna Troupe in 1920, “The Dybbuk” is an otherworldly tale, based on Jewish folklore collected by An-sky during a three-year ethnographic expedition through Russia and Ukraine. In the play, Leah, the daughter of a rich merchant, is possessed by the dybbuk of her suitor Hanan, who died after Leah’s father opposed the match. Though an attempt is made to exorcise the Dybbuk and allow Leah to marry her new suitor, she ultimately chooses to unite with her first lover in death.
In addition to its original stage performance in Yiddish, “The Dybbuk” was translated into Hebrew by Haim Nahman Bialik, into English by Henry G. Alsberg, and was produced as a Yiddish film in 1938 by Polish-Jewish director Michael Waszynsky. Now, a production of “The Dybbuk” is being staged from May 22 to 25 in Montreal by Uncatalogued Productions, featuring an all-female cast. The Arty Semite spoke to director Avia Moore about the significance of this casting decision, as well as the ways in which this production experiments with one of the most experimental Yiddish plays.
Ezra Glinter: Why “The Dybbuk”? Isn’t there a less famous play to bring to the public’s attention?
Sidney Lumet, the acclaimed director more than 50 films, died April 9 in Manhattan at the age of 86.
Best known for taut psychodramas such as “Serpico” (1973), “Dog Day Afternoon” (1975), “Network” (1976) and “The Verdict” (1982), Lumet’s work demonstrated an enduring interest in social realism and the difficulty of obtaining justice, a concern he attributed to his Jewish upbringing.
“The Jewish ethic is stern, unforgiving, preaching, moralistic. And I guess it starts you thinking like that at an early age,” he told film scholar Gordon Gow in a 1975 interview.
Lumet also adapted many well-known works of theater for the screen, including Eugene O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey into Night,” Arthur Miller’s “A View from the Bridge,” and Tennessee Williams’s “Orpheus Descending” as “The Fugitive Kind.”
A version of this post appeared in Yiddish here
On March 12 the Yiddish theater lost one of its most beloved stars. Shifra Lerer, an Argentine-born actress who toured the world and who later appeared in films by Woody Allen and Sidney Lumet, died in Manhattan at the age of 95.
I met Shifra during my first — and last — foray as a Yiddish actor for the Yiddish National Theatre in 1980. Lerer was among the founders of the troupe, which was created to ensure the future of Yiddish theater in America. The experience was a shock for me. I was literally stupefied by the sight of 80-year-old actors screaming curses at 70-year-olds backstage. Their talents were great, but so were their egos and eccentricities. Shifra, by contrast, was an island of calm and rectitude, earning everyone’s respect.
Lerer was born in Argentina, on a Jewish colony in the Pampas, on August 30, 1915. As a child she showed a precocious talent for the theater, and was discovered at age 5 by the famous Yiddish actor Boris Thomashefsky. She soon began acting with other renowned theater figures such as Zigmund Turkov, Samuel Goldenberg and Jacob Ben-Ami, with whom she performed in dramas such as Peretz Hirschbein’s “Green Fields” and H. Leivik’s “The Poet Who Became Blind.”
A longer version of this post appeared in Yiddish here.
Some weeks ago, on December 12, I was involved in a commemoration at YIVO of the 120th birthday anniversary of the great Yiddish actor and director Solomon (Shloyme) Mikhoels.
I am not sure if Mikhoels is well known among the younger generation in Russia, or anywhere else. Older people, however, specifically in America and Canada, may recall the trip that he and the poet Itsik Fefer took from the Soviet Union to North America in 1943. They came as representatives of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, of which Mikhoels was the chairman. What is often forgotten is that not all Jewish organizations made the two artists welcome.
In attending “A Gilgl Fun A Nigun” (“The Metamorphosis of a Melody”), which opened its five-performance run at the New York International Fringe Festival on August 14, I was charged with answering a single massive question: Can Yiddish theater appeal to a mainstream audience? As a lifelong theater lover and gentile, I had never been to a Yiddish performance before. So the question was, would I get it?
“A Gilgl Fun A Nigun” tackles the problem of bringing the Yiddish theater tradition into the present by using new media to tell the I.L. Peretz story of a melody that travels through space and time. Creator, performer and director Rafael Goldwaser narrates the tale in Yiddish, while English supertitles and video images project onto a series of prayer shawls behind him, accompanied by the nominal song in its various musical forms.
As the play progresses, the melody transforms in the hands of a fiddle player, roaming from a village wedding all the way up to concert halls and orchestras, then back down to the forlorn wailings of a blind orphan girl, and finally to the ears of a scholar, played on the video projection by Goldwaser.
The year is 1943. The place is Warsaw. The ghetto uprising has been crushed, but one man, a Hasid by the name of Yosl Rakover, is still alive, and he is busy recording his sordid tale for posterity. After recounting the events of the last few years — the deaths of his children and grandchildren, the hunger that pervades his every bone, the sense of despair all around him — he insists: “If I were unable to believe that God had marked us for His chosen people, I would still believe that we were chosen to be so by our sufferings.”
A crowd of more than 60 people packed a makeshift theater at the Sixth Street Community Synagogue on Sunday, where David Mandelbaum, founder and director of the New Yiddish Rep theater company, staged his one-man performance of “Yosl Rakover Speaks to God.” Mandelbaum has been performing this show for more than two years now, but this staging came at a particularly auspicious time, just ahead of Tisha B’Av, which began last night at sunset.