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This December, two festivals and a musical revival prove Yiddish culture is enjoying a remarkable resurgence
The Sorceress (Di Kishefmakherin), the first work of Yiddish theatre ever presented in America, is back on stage in New York 136 years after its U.S. premiere. While the musical features an eccentric cast of characters, including a flamboyant witch named Bobe Yakhne, the personalities behind the scenes of its creation were equally colorful. Abraham Goldfaden, its writer and composer, was a high-class poet born in 1840 in the Russian Empire who immigrated to Romania, where he founded the first professional Yiddish theatre troupe. In 1883, Boris Thomashefsky, a 14-year-old immigrant working in a New York cigarette factory, heard his coworkers singing numbers from The Sorceress. Enchanted, he ended up bringing the production to the Lower East Side, thus introducing Yiddish theatre to America. He went on to become one of the biggest stars of the Yiddish stage in New York.
Today, the artists involved in The Sorceress's fascinating journey also include Motl Didner and Mikhl Yashinsky, the director and star of the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene's current revival of the show—a landmark piece that was almost lost to history. Restored from scripts and scores discovered in archives and libraries, the show is being presented at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Yiddish with English and Russian supertitles.
Motl and Mikhl (who changed their names from Matthew and Michael) are part of a new wave of artists dedicated to ensuring that Yiddish theatre not only survives but thrives. "You can look at The Sorceress just as a fun fairy tale with a Jewish twist," says Didner. "Or you can choose to look at it as a metaphor for the Jewish response to anti-Semitism."
The musical tells the story of Mirele, an innocent young woman abused by her stepmother and her accomplices, including Bobe Yakhne, who's rumored to have magical powers. Ultimately, Mirele's tormenters are undone by their own villainous actions.
"It's a very Jewish fairy tale," says Didner. He notes that in traditional fairy tales such as Hansel and Gretel, the heroes are responsible for the demise of their tormentors, while in The Sorceress "the wicked are destroyed by their own wickedness. It's part of our history that the people who oppress us wind up getting buried by their own excess. Our enduring faith and spirit get us through."
Born and raised in New Jersey, Didner is a professional actor and director who began immersing himself in Yiddish culture when he started volunteering at Folksbiene in 2003. He's now the company's associate artistic director. Didner has reconceived The Sorceress, streamlining it from three hours to 90 minutes ("it was very repetitive") and adding a prologue. Only one song has been cut. Many of the tunes are well-known to Yiddish speakers, particularly the opening number, which became the Yiddish "Happy Birthday" song, "Tsu Dayn Geburtstog" ("To Your Birthday").
Yashinsky, who hails from Detroit, is one of only two performers in the Sorceress' 19-person cast who speak Yiddish fluently. (The rest learn their lines phonetically.) He studied it as a second language, inspired by his grandmother, who was both an actress and a Yiddishist. Now, in addition to performing in the tongue, notably in Folksbiene's hit Yiddish Fiddler, he teaches the language as well as translates, researches and writes about the culture. He portrays Bobe Yakhne in drag, just as many popular stars of the Yiddish stage did back in its heyday. "In European theatrical tradition, old women who are comically ridiculous, or witches or hags, were often played by men," he explains, though he acknowledges the sexism of the tradition. "Witches are vilified, but the legend came about because of attitudes toward women who didn't follow the conventions of European life, who lived independently. She has a certain strength about her, and a sharp intellect. Even when I'm playing up the evil, I have a love for her. I try to show her zest for life."
At its peak, Yiddish was spoken by ten million Jews, and Folksbiene was founded in 1915, a time when there were more than a dozen Yiddish companies operating on the Lower East Side. For a number of reasons, notably the Holocaust and assimilation, Yiddish became far less prominent; today, only 700,000 or so people reportedly speak the tongue. That said, Yiddish culture has been enjoying a resurgence. Folksbiene may be the longest continuously running Yiddish theatre in the world, but it is not alone. This month, two events—the inaugural YI Love New York Yiddishfest (December 21-29) and the fifth annual Yiddish New York (December 21-26)—are further proof of the Yiddish revival.
"We've reached a tipping point in the world of Yiddish culture and Jewish culture in general," says Avi Hoffman, the cofounder of YI Love New York Yiddishfest and a participant in Yiddish New York, who's known for portraying Willy Loman in New Yiddish Rep's 2015 revival of Death of a Salesman. "My mother Miriam was a professor of Yiddish language and culture at Columbia University for 25 years. When she started, she only had four students. Right before she retired, she had four classes with 80 students apiece. I would say in the last four or five years, and especially thanks to Joel Grey's Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish, the doors have been blowing open to the mainstream."
Both festivals feature an eclectic sampling of Yiddish culture, including concerts, films, lectures, panel discussions and theatre. Yiddish New York also offers language classes and performance workshops—no knowledge of Yiddish required. "We want to turn the week of Hanukkah into a Yiddish week," says Hoffman.
Theatre-related Yiddishfest programs, which take place at Theater for the New City in the East Village unless otherwise noted, include:
December 24: Hoffman stars in Reflections of a Lost Poet, a one-man play written by Miriam Hoffman about celebrated Yiddish poet Itzik Manger; presented in Yiddish with English supertitles. He's also doing it in the same venue on December 23 as part of Yiddish New York.
December 25: A free reading of a new English translation of Sholem Asch's God of Vengeance, the controversial 1923 Broadway play that was the subject of Paula Vogel's Tony-nominated Indecent, followed by a talk by the playwright's great-grandson, David Mazower.
December 29: A concert staging of The Great Ostrovsky by Cy Coleman (of Sweet Charity fame) and Avery Corman, a klezmer-tinged musical about a fictional star of the Yiddish theatre in the 1920s.
There are also multiple events that touch on the legacy of Yosl Papirovsky—better known by the moniker Joseph Papp.
"People do not realize how Yiddish Joe Papp was," says Hoffman about the late founder of The Public Theater. "Yiddish was his first language; he didn't speak English until he went to school. He did not talk about his Yiddish identity until the late '70s, but then he embraced it."
In 1978, Papp mounted a weeklong cabaret show in which he sang Yiddish songs and talked about his background, and how that influenced his work as a theatre artist. On December 23, Hoffman is presenting an expanded version of that one-man performance titled Joe Papp at the Ballroom.
Hoffman got to work with Papp firsthand. In 1989, under Papp's instigation and encouragement, Hoffman, his mother Miriam and Rena Berkowicz Borow put together Songs of Paradise at The Public Theater, a musical sketch comedy that retold the Book of Genesis in a mix of Yiddish and English. Songs from that production are part of a Yiddishfest Hanukkah concert on December 22 celebrating Papp at the Center for Jewish History.
Hoffman and his mother also collaborated with Papp on the Joseph Papp Yiddish Theatre, a troupe that was in residence at the Riverdale Y from 1988 until shortly after the impresario's death in 1991. Hoffman resurrected the company a few years ago, and has been mounting work overseas. Yiddishfest marks the troupe's homecoming.
"I think Isaac Bashevis Singer said it best when he accepted the Nobel Prize in 1978," Hoffman says, quoting the great Yiddish writer: "'Yiddish has not yet said its last word. It contains treasures that have not been revealed to the eyes of the world.' Forty years later, we are starting to rediscover those treasures."
TDF MEMBERS: At press time, discount tickets were available for The Sorceress (Di Kishefmakherin). Go here to browse our current offers.
Jonathan Mandell is a drama critic and journalist based in New York. Visit his blog at NewYorkTheater.me or follow him on Twitter at @NewYorkTheater. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.
Top image: Lexi Rabadi, Dani Apple and Lorin Zackular in The Sorceress. Photo by Victor Nachay.