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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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‘This Is Our Youth’

It is the early 1980s, and three Jewish young adults meet in an Upper West Side apartment.

They are the children of relatively affluent left-leaning parents, “the last pathetic remnants of Upper West Side Jewish liberalism,” as one of the three describes them, but of course that has not protected them from the vicissitudes of life.

In “This Is Our Youth,” playwright Kenneth Lonergan captures with humor and pathos that particular stage of our lives when our psychic pain has not yet calcified into bitterness but has begun to set into its final form. Lonergan’s sensitive ear for the way young people express themselves makes the play both bitingly funny and deeply insightful into the myriad ways we disappoint ourselves and others.


Are you listening?

The case for Israeli music

Growing up in New Jersey, we didn’t listen to much Israeli music. Sure, we would sing “Al Kol Eileh” and “Bashana Haba’a” from time to time, but that was about it. The lyrics were hard to understand… and since the internet hadn’t been invented yet, you needed to find a real, live Israeli to translate for you.

Jewish music, however, was a different story. The music was available at my local Judaica store, the lyrics were either in English or borrowed from prayers we recited regularly in shul, and of course, we listened regularly to Art Raymond on WEVD Radio. As the son of a cantor, I grew up listening to Jewish music… but Israeli music was completely off my radar.



What’s the most sacred concept in American Jewish life today?

Religious ritual? Sex? Motherhood? Of course not; those topics are routinely mocked, often savagely.

Israel? Maybe, but there are plenty of voices willing to criticize, especially when there is no war.

No, it’s the Holocaust. That seminal event quickly shuts even the most irreverent mouths, and it’s that nimbus of inviolability that makes the one-man play “Hoaxacaust! Written and performed by Barry Levey, with the generous assistance of The Institute of Political and International Studies, Tehran” so exciting.

It should be said right off that Mr. Levey takes the Holocaust very seriously, so seriously that he is able to poke fun at the excesses and trivializations to which it is subject. In the same way that “The Producers” used broad comedy as a weapon, “Hoaxacuast!” uses sharp satire to pierce the gasbags declaiming on the subject.



Two opportunities to laugh

Stand-up comic, Israeli theater troupe perform in Manhattan

The next month offers theatergoers two chances to exercise their Jewish funny bones.

The performances represent different aspects of the Jewish humor tradition, but both succeed in making the audience laugh with delight. Brad Zimmerman’s “My Son the Waiter: A Jewish Tragedy” stands firmly in the Borscht Belt school of stand-up, and I mean that as a compliment. Although Zimmerman adds some poignant reminiscences of his parents, this show is built around jokes. Zimmerman has a laconic, deadpan delivery, just right for his story of moderate success, long delayed, and the audience at the Triad Theater, 158 West 72nd St., lapped it up.


Violinist Rhodes a special guest at JTS Israeli Chamber Project


Theater party set for November

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