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(photo credit: Segal Center)
The Mann Auditorium in Tel Aviv, or Heichal Hatarbut, as it is commonly known, was recently the site for an unusual theatrical performance, Yiddish fun Aleh Zaytyn (Yiddish From All Sides), celebrating Yiddish music and Yiddish vaudeville. What was unusual was not only that a Yiddish performance was staged in a citadel of Hebrew culture - which, like the Israeli cultural establishment has historically frowned upon Yiddish - but also the reality of what seemed to transpire on stage. Was it a celebration of Yiddish culture or a moving swan song reflecting the demise of Yiddish theater?
The show, which has also been staged at various venues throughout Israel in recent weeks and is playing again during Hanukka, featured Mike Burstein and Lea Koenig, two renowned actors with deep personal and family roots in the once illustrious Yiddish Theater. Playing before a packed house, they captivated the audience, myself included, with their energy and the quality of their performances. What distinguished me from the crowd, however, was that at age 57, I was clearly lowering the average age of the audience, which was composed primarily of enthusiastic senior citizens.
Despite this age gap, I found myself singing along with the audience as the performers belted out classic Yiddish songs such as "Romania, Romania", and tear-jerking traditional lullabies. Indeed, the deep sense of nostalgia for a vanished world tragically destroyed during the Holocaust, as Mike Burstein noted, permeated the evening.
Yet if you are imagining a maudlin or weepy atmosphere, think again. The sheer variety of entertaining, upbeat songs, along with the kitschy yet delightful vaudeville skits, showcasing in Sholom Aleichem style the bitter-sweet, often self-deprecating, tradition of Yiddish humor - which many claim can only be expressed in mama loshen(the mother language or Jewish oral tradition) - ensured a cheerful atmosphere.
What I saw exceeded my expectations - not only first-rate professionalism, but also a deep sense of authenticity, clearly manifested in the actors' natural relationship to both Yiddish as a language and to the milieu in which it thrived.
Lea Koenig's, mannerisms, facial expressions and movements are a true incarnation of the depth, beauty and comic tragedy which has been attributed to the classics of Yiddish theater. Mike Burstein shares many of these qualities, and he also brings to the stage his diverse talents as a performer, singer and comic. Indeed, both actors are nothing less than cultural icons in Israel. In addition to their Yiddish performances, they are widely recognized and adored for their multiple talents and roles in Hebrew-speaking films, TV shows, and theater.
Their Yiddish authenticity is hardly surprising. Both were born directly into the world of Yiddish theater. Lea was born in Lodz, Poland in 1930, to Dina Koenig and Joseph Kamen, stars in the famous Vilna Theater Troupe. With the outbreak of World War II, the family fled to Romania, where Lea became a star in the Yiddish State Theater. She immigrated to Israel in 1961, joining the prestigious Habimah National Theater, while continuing to perform in Yiddish productions.
Mike was born in the US in 1945. His parents, Lillian Lux and Pesach Burstein, were well-known actors in the Yiddish Theatre in America. Mike and his twin sister Suzy were child prodigies who joined the family troupe as childhood actors. The family traveled and lived wherever Yiddish theater was staged, including Europe, South America and Israel. The documentary film, The Komediant (1999), focuses on the lives and careers of the Burstein family, widely considered the first family of the Yiddish stage. Their globe-trotting activities, searching for audiences hungry for Yiddish theater, attest to the popular saying from the pre-war heyday of Yiddish culture: "Yiddish is a language without a country."
What then does the future hold for Yiddish Theater? With respect to Shmuel Atzmon's Yiddishspiel productions of numerous Yiddish plays in Israel, or the Folksbiene Yiddish Theater in New York, these productions often lack the sense of intimacy and authenticity that was so clearly present in Burstein's and Koenig's performance. These limitations are especially evident in the performances of younger actors in Israel and the US, as well as the various Yiddish troupes in Europe that often rely on non-Jewish actors who at best, learn a smattering of Yiddish, and basically repeat memorized lines.
None of this suggests that Yiddish is a dying language. On the contrary, not only does it continue to thrive in various institutes and universities that teach Yiddish literature and train young scholars, but in the last two decades, valiant endeavors have been instituted to insure its survival. Most notable are the activities of the Forward Association in New York, Mendy Cahan's Yiddish Cabaret in Jerusalem and Aaron Lansky's miraculous rescue efforts to collect, preserve and distribute Yiddish books through the National Yiddish Book Center, in Amherst, Massachusetts. Moreover, spoken Yiddish frequently continues to be the norm in ultra-Orthodox and Hassidic families and neighborhoods world-wide, even if there is no application of Yiddish in literature or other cultural forms.
Yiddish theater's future, however, may not be as promising. Sadly, it may be destined to suffer the same terminal decline as the hundreds of Yiddish newspapers and journals - published throughout the Yiddish-speaking world, including many dailies - which due to dwindling readership, have ceased to exist. Despite the enthusiastic applause of the Tel Aviv audience, there was - surprisingly and to the great disappointment of many - no encore, as is customary in Israel. Does this symbolically represent an approaching final curtain call for Yiddish Theatre?
Yitzchak Mais is a Jerusalem based historian. He is the co-author of Memory and Legacy: The Shoah Narrative of the Illinois Holocaust Museum, and editor of the anthology, Daring to Resist: Jewish Defiance in the Holocaust (2007).