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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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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.”

 

‘Tosca,’ ‘Carmina Burana’ take Masada

Fifth opera festival presents two masterpieces in the desert

The Fifth Masada Opera Festival — the largest international cultural event in Israel — gets under way this week, as two masterpieces are staged at the foot of the majestic UNESCO World Heritage site.

The Israeli Opera, which is celebrating its 30th season this year, will present “Tosca” by Giacomo Puccini and “Carmina Burana” by Carl Orff over the weekends of June 4 to 6 and June 11 to 13. There will be four performances of “Tosca” and two performances of “Carmina Burana.”

“Every year I remind myself that it all started with a fantastic dream that was hard to believe would come true,” the Israeli Opera’s general director, Hanna Munitz, said. “Now our festival takes shape for the fifth year, and this time we are privileged to stage not one, but two huge productions that are totally different from each other, on the same gigantic stage, which is rebuilt every year especially for the Opera Festival at the foot of Masada.”

 

‘2 by Wolf’

New Yiddish Rep introduces old British playwright

“The hunted are all on the same side,” says the old Jewish merchant in the first of two one-act plays by British writer Wolf Mankowitz, now Off-Off Broadway at The Cell, 338 West 23rd St.

The merchant is speaking to an Irish revolutionary who is hiding out in his upstairs shtiebel in Cork in the early 1920s. That sentiment is central to Mankowitz’s worldview, as it was to millions of left-leaning Jews in the twentieth century. Their perspective arose in a world where most Jews were poor, and in the way of the world were often crushed under the heels of those who were richer and more powerful.

New Yiddish Rep has adapted two plays by Mankowitz that show off his deep Jewish roots and his identification with the oppressed. In the first, “The Irish Hebrew Lesson,” the aforementioned revolutionary sneaks into the house where the old man is davening to hide from the Black and Tans, or British police, who are after him.

 

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‘2 by Wolf’

New Yiddish Rep introduces old British playwright

“The hunted are all on the same side,” says the old Jewish merchant in the first of two one-act plays by British writer Wolf Mankowitz, now Off-Off Broadway at The Cell, 338 West 23rd St.

The merchant is speaking to an Irish revolutionary who is hiding out in his upstairs shtiebel in Cork in the early 1920s. That sentiment is central to Mankowitz’s worldview, as it was to millions of left-leaning Jews in the twentieth century. Their perspective arose in a world where most Jews were poor, and in the way of the world were often crushed under the heels of those who were richer and more powerful.

New Yiddish Rep has adapted two plays by Mankowitz that show off his deep Jewish roots and his identification with the oppressed. In the first, “The Irish Hebrew Lesson,” the aforementioned revolutionary sneaks into the house where the old man is davening to hide from the Black and Tans, or British police, who are after him.

 
 
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