A pilgrimage to the Yiddish theatre
Texts and Tunes

A pilgrimage to the Yiddish theatre

by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., January 28, 2002) -- A few weeks ago our family made our annual pilgrimage to the Yiddish theatre in New York.

Yes, that’s right, the Yiddish theatre.

Reports of the demise of the Yiddish theatre are premature. While the boards of Second Avenue haven’t been well trod for many decades, Yiddish theatre is still alive and well in New York, and based on our experiences, it isn’t going anywhere except up.

Take, for example, the two shows we saw in December at the Folksbiene Yiddish Theatre, the longest, continuously-producing Yiddish theatre company in the world. Both shows -- the musical “Songs of Paradise” and the family production, “2001: A Space Mishegas” -- were sold out. Both were performed by cast members speaking impeccable Yiddish. Both were superbly acted and sung, proving that you don’t have to pay Broadway prices to enjoy an afternoon at the theatre, even if it is so far “off-Broadway” it’s not even on the map. (Actually, the Folksbiene is located in a perfectly fine theater on West 55th Street, just on the fringes of the Theatre District.)

“The Producers” couldn’t possibly have anything on “Songs of Paradise,” which boasted an appealing, talented cast, clever lyrics by Itzik Manger and a fresh score by Rosalie Gerut incorporating a panoply of styles including folk, rock, jazz and Broadway pop (somewhat in the tradition of “Godspell,” lehavdil). The musical was a satirical retelling of portions of Bereishis, the Book of Genesis, in the great tradition of the purimshpils of the Old World. In this cheeky modern midrash, Adam was a surfer dude, Eve was a bored beachcomber, Abraham was hen-pecked, and Esau recalled the Marlon Brando biker in “The Wild Ones.” Throw in a bit of Marx Brothers-style slapstick, and you had a zany, playful farce, about half in Yiddish, half in English, and all incredibly enjoyable.

Equally as enjoyable was the children’s show, part of the ongoing “Kids and Yiddish” series. An all-star cast of Yiddish theatre, song and klezmer talent strung together skits, parodies and songs, infused with Yiddish and yidishkayt in a manner that never failed to capture the fancy of the theater full of children and parents. Much of the cast is drawn from the Mloteks, one of the first families of the Yiddish revival, including Folksbiene co-artistic director Zalmen Mlotek, and it was a genuine joy to see children and teen-agers speaking and singing Yiddish so effortlessly. The effect is easily contagious, too, and you leave the theater wanting to sprinkle as much Yiddish into your conversation as possible; maybe even take a class. Although there are currently no such plans to do so, this ensemble would be ideal to take on the road, spreading the seeds of Yiddish at JCCs and synagogues around the country.

In recent years, Mlotek and Eleanor Reissa, Folksbiene’s co-artistic directors, have reimagined and updated the Yiddish theatre by developing new plays based on traditional material as well as plays about contemporary Jewish life, in an effort to revive the Yiddish theatre’s early tradition of social relevance.

The Folksbiene’s first spring season ever will kick off on March 4 with an evening at the Jewish Museum celebrating the Renaissance of the Yiddish Theatre with a star-studded, multi-generational bilingual performance. Monthly staged readings this spring will include Der Yiddisher Kenig Lear (The Yiddish King Lear) by Jacob Gordin in March, an evening of three one-act plays by I.L. Peretz, Perets Hirshbein and Khaver Paver in April, and an evening of rarely heard, unknown scenes from Goldfaden’s Yiddish operettas in April.

Make a regular pilgrimage to the Folksbiene part of your cultural diet. More information on the Folksbiene is available at the Folksbiene website or by calling 212-213-2120.

[Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2001]

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