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The Essence

A Yiddish theater dim sum

 
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This year’s New York International Fringe Festival offers a delightful introduction to the original international language — Yiddish! Three talented and familiar performers on the local Yiddish theater scene — Steve Sterner, Alan Lewis Rickman, and Yelena Shmulenson — have updated a revue they introduced in 2007 at the New Yiddish Rep, added new material and songs, and are presenting it at the Moss Theater at 440 Lafayette, right across from the Public Theatre.

Through songs, skits, and narrative, “The Essence” attempts to give the audience an overview of Yiddish theater from its origins in Romania to its establishment on New York’s Lower East Side, with some sidelong glances at the Yiddish theater in the Soviet Union and Israel. Writer-director Rickman avoids the standard sentimentality (although not the Eastern European biases against German Jews) and provides the audience with a fast-moving, funny, and informative show. One of the funniest bits is his deadpan interpretation of the lyrics to “Papirosen” as Sterner sings the maudlin Yiddish version of “The Little Match Girl.” Sterner is also hilarious as a Yiddish-speaking Jesus Christ in a skit dramatizing the fact that Christian missionaries are still publishing the Gospels in Yiddish. Who could their intended converts be?

Even for the viewer familiar with the colorful history of Yiddish theater, there’s a lot of interesting material here. Who knew that John Barrymore was a fan, going frequently to the Lower East Side? Or that Bing Crosby, “one of the whitest people on earth,” loved the Yiddish theater? Rickman makes the point that the acting styles of Yiddish theater, its set designs, its cult of personality, all affected the American theater as well. There was constant crossover, with Yiddish theater stars going to vaudeville and Broadway, and Yiddish theaters translating and performing English-language shows. When Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” was produced in Yiddish, people swore that it must have been the original, and the Broadway version a translation. That makes perfect sense to many Jews who know the play.

Fans of the Coen brothers will recognize Rickman and Shmulenson as the Yiddish-speaking husband and wife at the beginning of their film “A Serious Man,” and both actors have appeared off-Broadway, in film, television, and many productions of the Folksbiene — National Yiddish Theater. Musical director Sterner also has performed in many Folksbiene productions, as well as “Oh, Brother!” “Yiddle with a Fiddle,” and “Vagabond Stars.” He is the house pianist at the Film Forum, accompanying silent movies.

Although “The Essence” pays attention to the sad story of the Yiddish theater in the Soviet Union, where its champion Solomon Mikhoels was murdered by Stalin, the leader he’d revered, and in Israel, the only country that expressly prohibited Yiddish theater, most of the show is a celebration of the wit, charm, and verve of this integral part of Jewish culture. And the future looks promising, according to Rickman. After all, Yiddish is the preferred Jewish language of the gay community, and we all know that there is no theater without them.

Go to www.essenceofyiddishtheatre.com for more information.

 
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Trouble on Martyrs Street

“We are either a Jewish state or we are nothing,” says the Hebron settler Tsadok (Jonathan Raviv) in Misha Shulman’s earnest and compelling play, “Martyrs Street,” now at the Theater for the New City in the East Village.

Tsadok is prepared to offer a blood sacrifice if that is required to bring about the Israel he imagines. As he tells the Arab terrorist bomb-maker he pays for a suicide vest, “We are both fighting the same thing — peace.” A Jewish terrorist, Tsadok hopes to catapult the country into civil war.

Director Ian Morgan establishes the central conflict in the play immediately through the set designed by Stephen Dobay and Caleb Levengood, two rooms side by side on the stage, separated by a narrow alley.

 

Connecting through music

Yemenite singer from Tenafly to take stage in Dumont

An Israeli who has lived in Tenafly for almost two years and a Los Angeles native who has lived in Israel for the past seven years are teaming up for a series of area concerts featuring contemporary arrangements of Hebrew, Arabic, and Yemenite songs.

One of the concerts is set for next Saturday night in Dumont.

The duo is promoting the record they released in February: “The Seal of Solomon,” which they recorded as “Shlomit and Rebbe Soul.”

Shlomit is Shlomit Levi. She grew up in Kiryat Ekron, a largely Yemenite community in central Israel. Her parents came from Yemen as teenagers in the 1950s. Her singing career included recording with Orphaned Land, an Israeli heavy metal group, and performing with Boaz Sharabi.

 

Q&A with Jorma Kaukonen on Jefferson Airplane and Judaism

Jorma Kaukonen, who played guitar in classic rock bands Jefferson Airplane and Hot Tuna, recently released “Ain’t In No Hurry,” his first solo album since 2009.

While Kaukonen’s guitar skills are legendary, few people know that he bought his first electric guitar by cashing Israel Bonds he received from his Jewish grandmother. On the eve of Jefferson Airplane’s 50th anniversary, the 74-year-old Kaukonen, who lives in Athens, Ohio with his wife, a Jew-by-choice, talked about his Jewish family roots, the Torah scroll his great-grandfather worked on, and why so many blues guitarists are Jewish. This interview has been condensed and edited.

Q: So you’re half Jewish and you didn’t really have a Jewish upbringing, but I’ve read that if things went differently you could have been Orthodox?

JK: Interestingly enough, my father’s parents came over from Finland in the 1800s and my mother’s came over from Russia. So I’m Jewish on my mother’s side, which of course makes me Jewish. But my grandparents were a really interesting pair of people. My grandmother was a very, very secular Jew, even though she was a lifelong member of Hadassah and all that kind of stuff. And my grandfather, had he not been married to my grandmother, would have been an Orthodox Jew, but that’s not how it played out.

 

RECENTLYADDED

Singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen’s Jewish roots ‘very much intact’

At 80, Leonard Cohen fits many descriptions—singer, songwriter, poet, novelist, monk.

He also always has explored his spiritual side, beginning with his Jewish upbringing in Canada, and his search still is ongoing.

On May 8, the singer-songwriter released his latest album, “Can’t Forget: A Souvenir of the Grand Tour,” on iTunes; the CD version was released on May 12. It features live recordings from his 2012 and 2013 world tours. Last year, Rolling Stone magazine’s readers rated Cohen’s “Popular Problems” as one of the 10 best albums of 2014.

Cohen was born into a middle-class Jewish family in Westmount—an English-speaking neighborhood of Montreal —in September 1934. His mother, Marsha Klonitsky, was the daughter of Rabbi Solomon Klonitsky-Kline, the author of “Otzar Taamei Hazal,” a work that examined biblical verses as cited in the Talmud. His paternal grandfather, whose family had emigrated from Poland, was Lyon Cohen, founding president of the Canadian Jewish Congress. On the topic of being a kohen (descendant of the ancient Jewish high priests), Leonard Cohen has said, “I had a very Messianic childhood.”

 

The Jewish People’s Philharmonic Chorus

 

New community theater in Tenafly

 
 
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