Simon Says, In Yiddish

By Masha Leon

Published February 02, 2007, issue of February 02, 2007.
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From the moment Theodore Bikel and Fyvush Finkel commandeered the stage at the January 7 one-day-only Yiddish reading of Neil Simon’s “The Sunshine Boys,” “Di Komediantn” (the 1975 film version starred Walter Matthau and George Burns), they had the overflow audience at Manhattan’s Symphony Space roaring. Directed and narrated by Symphony Space’s artistic director, Isaiah Sheffer, the masterful Yiddish translation of Simon’s play was accomplished by playwright Miriam Hoffman, a Columbia University professor of Yiddish. By sprinkling the dialogue with idiomatic and syntactic Yiddish, Hoffman provided Bikel and Finkel — as the two estranged vaudevillians who had not spoken to each other for more than a decade — with such lush verbiage that the audience was in mameloshnheaven. Though the excellent English and Russian supertitles at times missed some of the linguistic nuances, those who were Yiddish challenged still laughed with gusto. What a joy to watch Bikel as the irrational, unforgiving Matthau character, Willy Clark (now Anshel), and Finkel as the more amenable Burns character, Al Lewis (now Velvel), hurl venom-tipped verbal javelins at each other.

Anshel’s nephew, Herschel (Allen Lewis Rickman), an actor’s agent, fights an uphill battle to reunite the two in a comeback of the famed doctor skits that they had performed for some 40 years. As Bikel and Finkel’s characters thrust and parry, scabs of past hurts are laid open, and cardiac overreaction to such vaudeville shtick as the “finger stab” and the “Enter!” /(“Kum arayn!”) discrepancy threaten the doctor skit’s revival. The two do reluctantly resolve to re-create the skit. It’s a hoot! The blond-wigged, white-uniformed, hourglass-shaped Yiddish-speaking nurse, played byYelena Richman-Schmuelson, looks as if she’d spent that morning posing for a (fully dressed) Playboy layout. This production deserves a reprise with an extended run. But if no reprise is on the horizon, then check out your cable listing for “The Sunshine Boys” and imagine the dialogue in Yiddish.



The next night (January 8), dressed-in-dramatic black, energetic, octogenarian, guitar-toting Bikel was the guest artist at a Meretz USA-hosted evening at the Harmonie Club. Bringing a bit of Yiddish to the uninitiated, inserting a bit of “guilt for those who forgot the language,“ Bikel said: “I sing Jewish songs for non-Jews and non-Jewish songs [for everyone else]. Each is entitled to a glimpse of the others’ world…. Yiddish is important. We are very intelligent people and can handle both Yiddish and Hebrew.”

When not plucking the strings or singing a cappella, Bikel was accompanied on the piano by Tamara Brooks. Opening with “In My Own Lifetime,” the Sheldon Harnick/Jerry Bock song about escaping from the Frankfurt ghetto (from their musical “The Rothschilds”), Bikel segued to a lesser-known Yiddish song about a coachman who drinks away his fares and wagon and is with nothing but a whip. Switching languages, he then chose “an erotic song,” “Les Deux Amants”. He recounted how, as a young man in Paris, he learned his Russian repertoire from Gypsies who had fled the revolution and were performing in Parisian bistros. Afterward, he got toes tapping with one of his signature “yai-dai-dai-dai” Gypsy melodies. He mentioned singing a song smuggled out of the Soviet Union in front of the Soviet Embassy in Washington, D.C., and his group being arrested. “We refused to disperse, and the protesters, singing ‘Let My People Go,’ were put into the paddy wagon.” Impishly, Bikel recalled the arresting officer telling him, “You I’m leaving for last, because you have the best voice.” Bikel closed the evening with “If I Were a Rich Man” from “Fiddler on the Roof.” He has performed the number countless times as Tevye in “Fiddler” productions worldwide. The program notes state: “Meretz USA, is a non-profit organization that supports a full and just peace between the State of Israel and its neighbors, including the Palestinian people…. Meretz USA supports full civil and human rights for all Israelis, regardless of ethnicity, race, religion, gender, national origin, or sexual orientation.”


During our 1989 chat atop the 65th floor of the RCA building, Bikel told me: “My father was a Zionist — Poale Zion — a strange creature, but a Yiddishist and a Hebraist. In addition, he liked to go to synagogue even though he was an atheist Jew, because [he felt] that was the only place you could argue your atheism.… But even my grandfather was an erratic Jew. He would have periods when he did nothing at all, then all of a sudden there he would be with tallis and tefillin, davening away. In the middle of all this, he’d say ‘Efsher vet dos helfn — Maybe this will help.’ When I was 6 years old, I visited my grandfather in Bukovina, Czernowitz, and he took me to see the Vizhnitzer rebbe. When we got there, it was like sardines, wall to wall with Hasidim. My grandfather had a small kretchme (inn), and he brought with him two bottles of brandy — you don’t come empty-handed…. He dragged me and pushed and pushed, but we never got near the rebbe where he held court. When he could push no more, he gave the two bottles to one of the Hasidim, said it was for the rebbe and left.”

During a dialogue in 2002 that Bikel had with Rabbi William Berkowitz at the Center for Jewish History, Bikel was adamant: “We can’t live like flies captured in amber.… Fur hats, shtraymls in 95-degree heat! You don’t have to submerge yourself in the mainstream culture or lower your cultural essence to the common denominator, [but] we cannot leave it to the Orthodox to retain the essence of Judaism.… We are the ‘People of the Book,’ I am making a pitch for language, culture, and it does not mean a trip to the synagogue but a pilgrimage of the mind.” Still, Bikel asserted: “I am a secular Jew, but when I was in jail in Alabama, I told them I would not eat unless I got kosher food. They had to know I was a Jew.”



Seniors in Japan who have practiced, enriched and husbanded their country’s national artistic forms are designated as National Treasures during their life span. Notwithstanding a lifetime of accomplishment, international renown, devoted fans and scrapbooks full of reviews, most Yiddish actors never hear the accolades heaped upon them in post-mortem, all-jealousy-and-acrimony-forgotten eulogies. For a brief moment in 1985-1987, the Goldy Awards — the Yiddish version of the Tony Awards — were established by the World Congress for Jewish Culture under the direction of Joseph Landis, who at that time was chairman of Queens College’s Yiddish studies department. Then the honorees included Yiddish megastars Seymour Rexite, Miriam Kressyn, Dina Halpern, Henrietta Jacobson, Julius Adler, Leon Liebgold — who are now gone.

Nothing like it was mounted until the Congress’s recent “Veterans of the Yiddish Stage” benefit for Yiddish theater “treasures” Mina Bern (in the early 1940s, she performed Yiddish theater in Uganda!); Shifra Lerer (the first Argentine-born actress, aka “Argentina’s Spitfire”), and Vilna-born David Rogow — each one well into his or her 90s and still “onstage.” The program opened with greetings by Congress co-president Dr. Barnett Zumoff (also president of the Forward Association), followed with presentations by Zalmen Mlotek (executive director of the National Yiddish Theatre-Folksbiene), Hy Wolfe (actor and director), Michael Baran (Yiddish educator and activist) and the Congress’s executive director, Shane Baker. There were rare archival black-and-white film scenes, excerpts from Yiddish film classics and clips of Bern and Lerer from Hollywood films, including Woody Allen’s “Deconstructing Harry.” Performances by Wolfe, Eleanor Reissa and California-based Mike Burstyn (who wowed the audience with his rendition of Aaron Lebedeff’s “Rumania, Rumania!”) rounded out the program at the Lucille Lortel Theatre. Hopefully this benefit will become an annual event.

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