Nostalgia in Yiddish theater

Yiddish is not dead – not even dying.

YIDDISH IS very much alive: Israel Treistman (left) with Yaakov Bodo. (photo credit: Courtesy)
YIDDISH IS very much alive: Israel Treistman (left) with Yaakov Bodo.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Some actors, for instance Meryl Streep, have chameleon-like abilities, changing their appearance, voice and accent to the extent that audiences struggle to recognize them. Others, such as Ya’akov Bodo, are always instantly recognizable, regardless of make-up or role, and yet always manage to take on the persona of the character they are playing.
Bodo is currently appearing in the Yiddishpiel production of The Actor, in the story of the decline of a great Warsaw Yiddish actor during the early days of the Second World War, of the fade-out of Yiddish culture in Europe.
The great Yiddish actor Elimelech is played by Israel Treistman. Elimelech is scheduled to give a final performance of Tevye the Dairyman – but he is sick mentally and physically and cannot remember his opening lines. Tracey Abramovitz, who plays his wife, also plays Golda in Tevye, and is fearful that her husband is unfit to go on stage. Yet for all that, the lecherous Elimelech, between bouts of fever and despair, sweet-talks his wife, the director of the production, played by Irma Stepanov, and the ingénue, played by Sivan Keinar-Kissinger, and gets physical with all three, who partially succumb, but not entirely – because Elimelech does not belong to the real world.
Everything he says comes from lines of plays in which he has appeared over the years, and the women know these lines by heart, and mouth them as he speaks them. Bodo plays Tanhum, Elimelech’s long-time and unappreciated dresser, who knows the lines of every play and for years has been protecting the great star against his own follies and foibles.
The set is very simple – a somewhat austere dressing room – but it works well. Director Yonatan Esterkin uses intermittent screenings of a grainy black and white film beginning with the outbreak of WWII on September 1, 1939 to help recreate the atmosphere of the period.
Superimposed on the newsreel is the face of Arye Blinder, who relates the history of Yiddish theater in Warsaw, starting with noted Yiddish actor, director and playwright Zygmunt Turkow, who together with his first wife Ida Kaminska established the Warsaw Jewish Art Theater in 1924, followed by the New Yiddish Theater established by Turkow’s brother Jonas in 1929 and the Young Yiddish Theater founded by Michael Weichert in 1932. There are also synagogue scenes in the film as well as flashes of Hitler.
(Both Turkow and Kaminska survived the war. He managed to get to Brazil and she to Soviet Russia. After the war she returned with her second husband and two children to Warsaw, where the remaining Jewish population was very sparse. She established another Yiddish Theater in the name of her mother Ester Rochel Kaminka, who was known as the Mother of Yiddish Theater. The Polish government subsequently subsidized the theater, but Kaminka did not remain in Poland. She and her family moved to the United States, where she played on stage and screen. Turkow migrated from Brazil to Israel and became an influential director at the Cameri Theater).
The program brochure includes a photograph taken in Poland in February 1928 of Turkow with a group of Yiddish actors. It could have just as easily been taken last year. Neither the hairstyles nor the clothes betray its provenance. The only giveaway is the soulful eyes, so frequently seen in Yosl Bergner portraits. Incidentally, Bergner also designed scenery and costumes for Yiddish theater productions.
Not everyone associated with Yiddishpiel is a Yiddish speaker. Yiddishpiel founder Shmuel Atzmon took in many young Russian actors who could not find work on the Hebrew stage, and had Yiddish language experts – primarily his wife – teach them the correct pronunciation for the part. Over time, most of them picked up the language. Sassi Keshet, who was appointed executive and artistic director six years ago, is also willing to accept people who didn’t grow up with mama loshen.
Esterkin, the director of The Actor, admits in a brief introduction in the program brochure that he’s the first member in the known history of his family who doesn’t speak Yiddish. That’s no coincidence, he writes. The rich Yiddish culture is not known to many young Jews, but it was important for him, he states, to make a connection, to touch base with the significant historical era depicted in the play.
In the early years of the state, Yiddish theater was all but banned. David Ben-Gurion wanted to rid European immigrants of a ghetto mentality and have them become Hebrew-speaking Israelis. But nonetheless there was a kind of almost underground Yiddish theater perpetuated by Dzigan and Shumacher and Pejsach Bursztyn and Lillian Lux among others, till Yiddish theater finally regained legitimacy with the support of then Tel Aviv Mayor Shlomo Lahat, who gave Shmuel Atzmon his enthusiastic backing and was at the premiere of every Yiddishpiel production.
To be honest a lot of the Yiddishshpiel shows, even the more serious works, were just a little too schmaltzy. The Actor is not in that category. Yes, Treistman is very theatrical – but that’s what he’s supposed to be – and he plays the part well. Bodo is a natural, and that’s maybe why he is always so recognizable. But the reception he got from the audience indicated that this is precisely why he is so popular. He is so natural that he brings reality to every role he plays.
Although most of the audience at the Jerusalem Theater were older, there were also quite a number of young people. Smatterings of conversation that could be heard before and after the show were in Hebrew, Russian, Polish, French and English – but interestingly enough, few heads were turned toward the screens on either side of the stage carrying Hebrew and Russian subtitles. Just as well because a couple of glimpses at the Hebrew proved that the abridged translations could not do justice to the Yiddish.
There was something infinitely satisfying in the knowledge that hardly anyone in the audience needed to resort to the translation of the text.
Yiddish is not dead – not even dying.
The Actor, like all Yiddishpiel productions do, is touring the country, and may soon be in a theater near you.