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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 for more information.

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From the heart

The Hot Club of Cowtown’s Jewish roots

There is some music that comes from a violin — music that is sad or yearning or fierce or mournful or forgiving or pleading or frantic — that bypasses the brain and goes right to the heart and soul.

Sometimes that music can cross cultural divisions, defy expectations, and mock stereotypes.

That might be why Elana James, a nice Jewish girl from the suburbs of Kansas City, is one of the founders of Hot Club of Cowtown, a trio that will bring western swing, jazz, gypsy, and eastern European music to Mexicali Live in Teaneck on March 14 at 8 p.m., as it has brought it to clubs and theaters around the world for nearly 20 years now.

“I’ve played violin since I was 4,” Ms. James said. “I’ve always felt that it is a very Jewish thing.


Still your bubby’s Yiddish

Just a bit louder

Somehow, it seems a bit incongruous to see the words Yiddish and rock in the same sentence.

It’s even more startling to hear the phrase Yiddish rock. Still, says Jeffrey Shandler — a professor of Jewish studies at Rutgers and a scholar of contemporary Yiddish culture — that genre of music not only exists but is thriving.

“There’s a tendency to think of the history of the language as ending, or starting to die out, with the Holocaust,” Dr. Shandler said. “That’s not the case. What changed was who uses the language, and how.”

To demonstrate its use in the musical arena, Rutgers’ department of Jewish studies has joined with the Allen and Joan Bildner Center for the Study of Jewish Life at Rutgers to bring the rock band Yiddish Princess to campus on March 10 to perform a free concert.


Violinist Joshua Bell on rude criticism,  his teachers, feeling Jewish, and more

One thing that violinist Joshua Bell is not is: pretentious. Although he’s one of the most honored violinists in the world, he doesn’t put on airs.

He admits liking jazz, mentioning that he has performed with such artists as Winton Marsalis and Sting. His hobby: watching football on television. He also enjoys Broadway shows, and recently saw “Phantom of the Opera” — “I had a ball” — although his all-time Broadway favorite is “West Side Story.” And he admits that he’s hurt by negative criticism.

Mr. Bell will be performing at Bergen PAC in Englewood at 8 p.m. on March 27, in a program that includes Beethoven, Brahms, Bartok, and Grieg. (Reserve tickets at (201) 227-2030 or

Mr. Bell will use his famous Gibson-Huberman violin, made in 1713 by Antonio Stradivari, which he bought for just under $4 million in 2001. (It’s worth about $15 million today.) Bronislaw Huberman was a famous violinist who rescued some 1,000 people from Nazi Germany in the 1930s by having them play in the all-Jewish Palestine Symphony in Israel, now called the Israel Philharmonic.



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.


A parent’s plea

‘Do This One Thing for Me’

Jane Elias is a very good daughter.

Her one-woman play, “Do This One Thing for Me,” now at the TBG Theatre on West 36th Street, is a love letter to her father, a Greek Jew who survived Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen.

Whether the play has relevance to a general audience is another matter.

Elias is an actor and writer whose work has been developed with Naked Angels, Access Theater, Core Artist Ensemble, and Stony Brook Southampton. While touching in parts, “Do This One Thing for Me,” written and performed by Elias and directed by Tracy Bersley, feels like a work still in development. Elias has not yet translated her personal experience into a more universal one, or perhaps the play is not personal enough to become more than one woman’s story. It often feels that Elias is skimming over the surface of her emotions, hesitant to descend into depths that may be murky or frightening. Her father seems like a genuinely nice man, but a play should do more than express the anodyne sentiments appropriate to a family celebration.


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.

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