Not a single candy wrapper, cough nor cell phone interrupted the New Yiddish Repertory’s January 13 reading of “Shaylok, oder der Koyfman Fun Venedig,” a Yiddish adaptation of William Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice,” at the Center for Jewish History. The evening was, in Broadway speak — a smash hit. Nahma Sandrow, author of “Vagabond Stars: A World History of Yiddish Theater” (first issued in 1977 by Harper & Row; last published in 1995, by Syracuse University Press), presented a literary overview of Shylock’s transition from Elizabethan English to Yiddish, noting that Shylock was, in fact, “a comic relief minor character a ‘stage Jew’ in what in Shakespeare’s time was akin to early 20th-century American theatre ‘stage Irishman.’” Described in the program as “adapted by Jacob P. Adler from Yoseph Bovshover’s translation of ‘The Merchant of Venice’… collated by NYR founder and artistic director David Mandelbaum with further emanations by the cast,” the readers included Allen Lewis Rickman as Antonio. Yelena Shmulenson (Rickman’s real-life wife) grandstands as Portia, who saves Antonio from the agony of the excision of “a pound of flesh” to pay a debt to Shylock, however, this sets in motion the ensuing tragic consequences.
Bravos to the ensemble members, who, directed by Lester Thomas Shane, read the Yiddish text as though Yiddish was their native language: Boruch Thaler (Solanio), Naftali Ejdelman (Solarino), Alec Burko (Lorenzo), Hy Wolfe (Bassanio), Buzz Roddy (Graziano), Miryam-Khaye Seigel (Jessica), Eve Jochnowitz (Nerissa) and Shane Baker (Launcelot, Duke and Tubal).
This one-of-a-kind extraordinary evening was presented in association with the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, the Congress for Jewish Culture, the Yiddish National Theatre (not to be confused with the National Yiddish Theatre-Folksbiene) and the Central Yiddish Culture Organization — New York’s only bookstore dedicated solely to the Yiddish word.
The evening commemorated the 109th anniversary of Adler’s historic premiere of the Yiddish adaptation seen on Broadway in 1901. As stated in Shane’s program notes: “Adler shaped his Yiddish play ‘Shylock’ to appeal to Jewish audiences as one of their own living in the ghetto. His daughter steals away with his money to marry a goy. He loses his contractual bond by a legalistic loophole and is then condemned to lose everything — the rest of his estate, his dignity and finally his religion, when he is forced to convert. He is condemned by a Christian court in the name of mercy. Oy! Perfect for the stature and ego of Adler.” What was not in the program notes but was included in an advance notice about the reading was the following: “First translated into Yiddish in 1899 by the poet and furrier Joseph Bovshover (who, upon completion of the work, entered a mental hospital, where he remained for 15 years until his death), ‘Merchant’ proved to be one of Adler’s most celebrated vehicles…. Adler took the show to gentile audiences, playing Shylock in Yiddish while the rest of the cast spoke English.”
In thanking the ensemble, Shane noted that he wanted “to thank [the cast] for their kindness to me, who worked from the original Shakespeare text with only the barest knowledge of Yiddish, but with a love for the language and for Yiddish theatre. As a child, my father took me to see many productions. I acted in English versions — in one case, with him…. I dedicate this to his blessed memory.”
Tucked away amid more than 30 offerings of the Jewish Film Festival, which runs from January 12 to January 27, was the January 19 premiere in the United States of Ivo Krankowski** and Jan Spiewak’s 2010 film “8 Stories That Haven’t Changed the World.” This much too short 35-minute gem of a film interfaces the childhood memories of eight Holocaust survivors, with not a single reference as to where any of them had been during the war, what they had suffered, and whom and what they lost. It is an uplifting, charming, at times, laughter-eliciting journey with a cast of travelers whose world vision is inspiring. The participants are Dora Tenenbaum (85) and her husband, Szymon Tenenbaum (88); Halina Elczewska (90); Feliks Nieznonowski (83); Krystyna Budnicka (77); Josef Hen (86); Jan Rochwerger (94), and spunky, handsome Marian Fuks (95), who has just completed his 14th book. After all Fuks has experienced, he declares: “I feel like I’m 50. [My aim] is to enjoy every moment of life, to love my wife. Life is interesting… travel… technology… life is worth living.”
Though Yiddish had been a first language for some of the cast members, in grammatically elegant Polish they reflect on their childhoods, early school life, first loves and parents, and, almost salivating, they remember food and its preparation by their mothers. “My parents poisoned me with cholesterol… the food was greasy, pickled,” one remembers. “Who cared?!”
As film clips from 1930s Yiddish films “Yidl Mitn Fidl” and “Mamele” and clips from Polish films, interface with the interviewees’ recollections, one survivor waxes poetic about the Sabbath meal — cholent. “Only Jewish mothers can make Jewish fish… Shabbos karp,” she said. Another recalls, “My mother was obsessed with raisins and would make [gefilte fish] with raisins.” None of the eight remembers alcohol at home. “I learned to drink with the Russians in Siberia. Maybe that’s why I survived,” one survivor recalls in one of the film’s only two incidental references to the war.
Childhood memories include school (boys and girls attended separately), wonderful teachers, sneaking into movies and climbing over a cemetery wall to watch a soccer game — but traveling in groups through Warsaw’s Okopowa area, which was unsafe for Jewish boys. An example of how widely the subjects varied came when Elczewska, who spoke of how she nearly died last year, recalled that “children never dared oppose parents… they were everything,” and then wanted to know where could she find “a good piece of pickled tongue with horseradish.” There was envy at wealthy boys having bicycles and real rubber balls (not ones made from cloth). And one remembers poor Jews “traveling from town to town” whom you invited to your home for Friday night dinner and Saturday morning breakfast. All this — and more — is packed in little more than half an hour. The bottom line for the eight survivors, whose wartime lives remain a mystery, is, as Hen declares: “The best part of being old is feeling young.”
Hopefully this film will find its way to schools, synagogues and Jewish centers everywhere. It is an uplifting postscript to the Holocaust. Though, as its title proclaims, this little film may not change the world, it will impact on everyone who sees it.