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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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There had to be a Jewish “Jersey Boy” — and there is. And he’s local!

Checking in with Lee Shapiro of the Four Seasons

When I think of Jersey, Brooklyn, and Long Island, I think Jewish and Italian — and I think about the frequent cultural intersections between these two groups.

Could it be that the famous singing group “The Four Seasons,” the subject of the hit Broadway musical “Jersey Boys” and the movie of the same name that opened last week — really had no Jewish members during its long history? Was it an entirely Italian-American group?

I thought it was until two weeks ago, when David Sachs, an editor at the Detroit Jewish News, clued me into Lee Shapiro, “the Jewish Season,” who played an important role in the mid-1970s revival of the fortunes of the band and its lead singer, Frankie Valli.

Mr. Sachs interviewed Mr. Shapiro in 2009, and I managed to catch up with Mr. Shapiro, who now lives in Hackensack, for a talk two weeks ago, just before he took the stage for a concert in Montana.

 

‘Klinghoffer’ the opera: Biased and banal

An opera about the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians might have been absolutely splendid. But one deep-seated defect of composer John Adams’s “The Death of Klinghoffer” is that he, along with librettist Alice Goodman, is biased against Israel.

Another defect: They are intellectual lightweights.

The opera has gotten loads of free publicity lately, thanks to the Metropolitan Opera’s decision not to broadcast the opera around the world come October but just to perform it on stage in Manhattan. A number of leaders of Jewish organizations — including Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League — had complained about the opera to Peter Gelb, the Met’s general manager, pointing out that it might inflame anti-Israel sentiments abroad and lead to anti-Jewish incidents.

 

Making music accessible — and viral

Six13 member celebrates singing, Jewish identity

What does it mean when a video goes viral?

It means wanting to introduce your children and grandchildren to a particularly delightful song only to find that they have already watched it — repeatedly.

Such was the case this year with the Passover parody “Chozen,” which this writer thought she was bringing to her family for the first time. In fact, it already was one of their favorites.

“That’s great,” said 22-year-old Franklin Lakes resident Josh Sauer, a member of the a capella group Six13, which made the musical video. “It means that our music is out there.”

Indeed it is. Mr. Sauer said the group — founded some 10 years ago at Binghamton University— has five gigs over the next two weekends.

 

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What’s next for Paul Shaffer?

David Letterman’s sidekick on his ‘dream job,’ Jewish upbringing

A Jewish upbringing taught Paul Shaffer, David Letterman’s musical director and sidekick for 32 years, the value of giving back.

After the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Mr. Shaffer served as musical director for “The Concert for New York City,” and in 2012 he accompanied Adam Sandler in “12-12-12: The Concert for Sandy Relief,” a fundraiser for Hurricane Sandy victims. He also was the national spokesperson for Epilepsy Canada.

“My mother taught by example,” Mr. Shaffer said. “She was a great supporter of Israel. She was a great supporter of local charities and gave her time to Hadassah, as well as to the ladies auxiliary at the hospital.

“Growing up, I watched this, so it just came natural to me. Getting involved in charities and fundraisers myself became a great opportunity for me to use my musical talents to do some good.”

 

Summer Concert

 

New museum partnership combines musicianship and exhibition

 
 
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