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Making Yiddish Theatre Matter in 2012

Date: Nov 14, 2012


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Although American Jews are arguably more assimilated than ever before, Yiddish---and by extension Yiddish culture---is enjoying a bit of a renaissance. Young Jews are increasingly studying the guttural tongue of their ancestors and seeking out live Yiddish entertainment in an attempt to reconnect with their immigrant heritage.

While the early-20th century heyday of Yiddish theatre is long gone, there are a handful of companies still working in the form, notably Folksbiene Yiddish Theatre, which has been producing Yiddish shows since 1915. And this year, Brooklyn's avant-garde Target Margin Theater is also picking up the torch by launching a two-season exploration of the genre, which the producers have the chutzpah to bill as "not your grandpa's Yiddish theatre."

But what exactly is Yiddish theatre---is it as straightforward as shows performed in the tongue? Zalmen Mlotek, the artistic director of Folksbiene who was raised in a Yiddish-speaking home, doesn't think so. "That's a very narrow definition," he says. "I would argue that much of Neil Simon and Woody Allen and even Seinfeld are connected to Yiddish theatre: they've got pathos, sadness, humor, and joy all rolled into one."

Mlotek and Bryna Wasserman, Folksbiene's executive director, have been working hard to tweak the Yiddish theatre tradition so that it remains relevant in the 21st century. In addition to reviving old staples, such as Di Ksube (Marriage Contract), the company mounts newer works inspired by old material, like the klezmer musical Shlemiel the First, based on an Isaac Bashevis Singer's folk tales.

Its current offering at the Baruch Performing Arts Center is a revival of The Golden Land, which Mlotek co-created back in the 1980s. The show is full of sketches and songs in Yiddish and English that evoke Jewish immigrant life on the Lower East Side in the 1900s, and even for those who don't understand the language, it's a poignant experience. Classic American songs like the Great Depression-era anthem "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime" are juxtaposed against Yiddish folk tunes such as A Khulem" ("A Dream"), while other numbers are filled with historic significance, like "Ballad of the Triangle Fire," about the infamous 1911 inferno that killed 146 garment workers, many of them Jews.

"It's an entertaining education," says Mlotek, who spent long days searching the archives at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research on 16th Street looking for just the right songs, stories, and excerpts from diaries and letters to weave together into the script. The show touches on the creation of the labor movement, the Holocaust through the eyes of American Jews, assimilation, and other tragic and joyful moments in American Jewish history. "In its original incarnation, audiences went to the Yiddish theatre to see their lives depicted on stage," says Mlotek. (In fact, Folksbiene actually translates as "people's stage.") "The shows were holding up a mirror, which is why they're such a huge part of the immigrant narrative." A revue like The Golden Land is authentic to that experience, giving modern-day audiences a peek at what life was like, both onstage and off.

Although much of Folksbiene's work harkens back to the past, the company is very much focused on the future. Mlotek has been talking about a possible collaboration with Target Margin Theater, since it's that troupe's first time working in genre. And he's also busy planning Kulturfest: The First Chana Mlotek International Festival of Jewish Performing Arts, which will coincide with Folksbiene's centennial in 2015. "We're open to anything that has a connection to Yiddish," Mlotek says. "Musicals, dramas, dance pieces: It doesn't need to be in Yiddish but of Yiddish, the essence of it."

Yet Mlotek admits that some critics think he's fighting a losing battle trying to keep a dying language and culture alive. "I have that argument all the time," he says. "It's no longer the lingua franca of American Jews, so what's the point? The answer is simple: It's not about reviving something that was popular once upon a time. It's about bringing this culture to new audiences in a way that they can appreciate."
While he says Yiddish theatre is famous for being "very over-the-top, bring two tissue boxes and all that," he insists there's emotional truth behind all the schmaltz and mishegas that any generation can relate to. "In Yiddish you can cry and laugh in the same phrase," he says. "That's the most moving theatre in any culture."


Raven Snook regularly writes about theatre for Time Out New York and has contributed arts and entertainment articles to The Village Voice, the New York Post, TV Guide, and others

Photo by Michael Priest Photography