They say an Israeli Sabra, a term used to describe a native born Israeli and the personality traits he is meant to embody, speaks Hebrew and has shed himself of the "humiliation" that comes with being from "the old country." But why shouldn’t they speak both Yiddish and Hebrew, and hold both Israel and Yiddishland in their hearts? Yoni Eilat is one of a handful of young creatives paving the way for the confident, bold Yiddishists of the future - in Israel.
His foray into Yiddish was unexpected. Trained as a performing artist at Beit Zvi, the premier school for the performing arts at the time, Eilat began to study Yiddish not to sing in the language but simply out of curiosity. He says, “My ear was open to the language.”
Eilat spent half a year in New York after his studies at Beit Zvi. A great inspiration of his had always been Chava Alberstein, arguably the greatest Israeli folk singer of all time. He recalls, “at the time Chava was performing abroad, she had a show in Boston, and I went.”
Chava sang in Yiddish at the show and Eilat shares, that the memory of, “an Israeli shouting [from the crowd] stop with the Yiddish,” made a profound impression on him. “I got back to Israel and knew I had to do something. It’s funny I had to go to New York to start with Yiddish.”
A simple curiosity paved the way for a successful career balancing the performing arts with a passion for protecting his Ashkenaz heritage. He shares, “Had you asked me eight years ago, this would have sounded like a joke, to make a living performing in Yiddish.” Eilat’s Ukrainian-born grandmother, in her 90s, is shocked and delighted that her grandson, in 2012, is able to make a living in Yiddish, her mamme-loshn.
Eilat is heavily involved with Yiddispiel here in Tel Aviv as well as with various independent projects. His CD Zigayner Neshumeh (Gypsy Soul) was met with great success as well as recent performances of A Yiddishe Madre, a cultural event including Yiddish and Ladino songs. No matter what the project, Eilat always attempts to get the younger generation involved. Yiddish is not just for your bobie, but for everyone.
His latest undertaking is Kishke Monologues. Eilat believes that in order to project Yiddish into the future, the old needs to be blended with the new in order, to a certain extent, to reinvent Yiddish and attract a new audience. Kishke Monologues does exactly that. It is a show that proposes a theme central to Yiddish culture, food, but does so with a modern twist. The monologues are in Hebrew and the music is, naturally, in Yiddish. It blends the shtetl with modernity in a way that is accessible, this is key.
More than just a tribute to Eastern European nostalgia, Kishke Monologues attempts to bridge the gap between the shtetl world and contemporary Israel.
Eilat says, “Hopefully it will be a turning point for Yiddish theater. If it [Yiddish] wants to be alive it needs a new audience that doesn’t necessarily speak Yiddish.”
Kishke Monologues will premier on April 17 at Yiddishpiel in Tel Aviv, with an initial run of 15 shows that will last until July 24.
Eilat, who is actually only half Ashkenaz, says that, “the years of Yiddish have made him Ashkenaz.” He is fully supportive of everyone participating in the Yiddish community. “I want everyone to succeed.” Eilat understands that in order to be effective, the small but passionate Yiddish community must not apologize, and be confident in what they do.
Try it at home: A bisl Yiddish music
This week I’ll let the music do the talking! Enjoy!