Cabaret Act Revives Music of Warsaw

By Rivka Chaya Schiller

Published March 02, 2007, issue of March 02, 2007.
  • Print
  • Share Share

On a frigid January evening in New York City, Rebecca Joy Fletcher and Stephen Mo Hanan performed their two-person act, “Kleynkunst!: Warsaw’s Brave and Brilliant Yiddish Cabaret,” before a full house at Helen’s Restaurant, Cabaret & Piano Lounge in Chelsea, as part of a five-day-long European cabaret festival called Kabarett Fête.

The title of Fletcher’s act is an allusion to the kleynkunst theaters: Yiddish-language cabarets of the interwar period, popular in European cities that had major Jewish populations. One of the leading urban centers for this particular cabaret scene was Warsaw. These uniquely Jewish cabarets were considered virtual dens of iniquity by the more religious elements of the community; indeed, they were often frequented by Jews who had parted ways with their traditional and Yiddish-speaking upbringings. Kleynkunst theaters were also havens for Jewish underworld figures — smugglers, bandits and prostitutes — the likes of which appear in the works of Isaac Bashevis Singer, one of Warsaw’s own.

Fletcher, who is also a cantor and educator, received a standing ovation for her well-researched performance, which featured the archival songs and comedic material of past kleynkunst theaters in a new light, taking the audience on a journey into the beauty and rawness of the era stretching from the 1920s through the ’40s. By the end of the first song, “Mackie Messer” — otherwise known as “Mack the Knife” — Fletcher had already succeeded in mesmerizing the audience with her stirring voice and comic timing. Moreover, those audience members who could understand the Yiddish repertoire were in for a real treat, as Fletcher’s Yiddish flowed smoothly and naturally. She even managed to learn Yiddish in the Polish — or, more specifically, Warsaw — dialect, to bring a certain air of authenticity to her performance.

Although at its core, “Kleynkunst!” wove together a series of mostly satiric and humorous sketches set to Yiddish song lyrics, the hour-long performance was also interspersed seamlessly with English dialogue, jokes and songs. In this way, even audience members who did not understand Yiddish were likewise drawn into the overall message of the performance. “My goal is to bring enough empowerment to the audience, such that they can enter this magical world, even if they don’t understand every word,” Fletcher said.

Fletcher believes fervently in the broad appeal of “Kleynkunst!” — which she wrote and theater veteran Michael Montel directed. As such, she ultimately hopes to present this performance to audiences of Jews and gentiles alike, both locally and internationally. For now, she will reprise the show this month in New York.

“Kleynkunst!” will be performed in New York City on March 11 at Makor (212-601-1000), and March 20, April 12 and April 19 at Helen’s (212-206-0609). For information about other performances, visit www.rebeccajoyfletcher.com.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • At which grade level should classroom discussions include topics like the death of civilians kidnapping of young Israelis and sirens warning of incoming rockets?
  • Wanted: Met Council CEO.
  • “Look, on the one hand, I understand him,” says Rivka Ben-Pazi, a niece of Elchanan Hameiri, the boy that Henk Zanoli saved. “He had a family tragedy.” But on the other hand, she said, “I think he was wrong.” What do you think?
  • How about a side of Hitler with your spaghetti?
  • Why "Be fruitful and multiply" isn't as simple as it seems:
  • William Schabas may be the least of Israel's problems.
  • You've heard of the #IceBucketChallenge, but Forward publisher Sam Norich has something better: a #SoupBucketChallenge (complete with matzo balls!) Jon Stewart, Sarah Silverman & David Remnick, you have 24 hours!
  • Did Hamas just take credit for kidnapping the three Israeli teens?
  • "We know what it means to be in the headlines. We know what it feels like when the world sits idly by and watches the news from the luxury of their living room couches. We know the pain of silence. We know the agony of inaction."
  • When YA romance becomes "Hasidsploitation":
  • "I am wrapping up the summer with a beach vacation with my non-Jewish in-laws. They’re good people and real leftists who try to live the values they preach. This was a quality I admired, until the latest war in Gaza. Now they are adamant that American Jews need to take more responsibility for the deaths in Gaza. They are educated people who understand the political complexity, but I don’t think they get the emotional complexity of being an American Jew who is capable of criticizing Israel but still feels a deep connection to it. How can I get this across to them?"
  • “'I made a new friend,' my son told his grandfather later that day. 'I don’t know her name, but she was very nice. We met on the bus.' Welcome to Israel."
  • A Jewish female sword swallower. It's as cool as it sounds (and looks)!
  • Why did David Menachem Gordon join the IDF? In his own words: "The Israel Defense Forces is an army that fights for her nation’s survival and the absence of its warriors equals destruction from numerous regional foes. America is not quite under the threat of total annihilation… Simply put, I felt I was needed more in Israel than in the United States."
  • Leonard Fein's most enduring legacy may be his rejection of dualism: the idea that Jews must choose between assertiveness and compassion, between tribalism and universalism. Steven M. Cohen remembers a great Jewish progressive:
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.