‘Gimpel’ Revival A Must-See


By Masha Leon

Published December 19, 2008, issue of December 26, 2008.
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From his literary perch in heaven or hell — both of whose existence he doubted — Nobel laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer must be applauding the National Yiddish Theatre-Folksbiene’s delicious musical “Gimpel Tam” (“Gimpel the Fool”).

Based on Singer’s 1945 short story, translated into English by Saul Bellow with Yiddish consultant Pearl Lang, the play chronicles the travails of the sweet fool, Gimpel (superbly portrayed by Adam Shapiro), who is a shtetl Forrest Gump and the butt of ridicule. Gimpel is wed to the town slut, Elke (played by the wonderful Daniella Rabbani).

In a 1973 lecture that I attended at Queens College, Singer averred that the worst thing a woman can do is present a man with another man’s child. No doubt he was alluding to Gimpel. In the Folksbiene production, these words have become “flesh,” as Elke bears six children fathered by different men; yet, the Candide-like Gimpel convinces himself they are his own. The musical boasts a gasp-eliciting flagrante delicto scene and a rabbinic trial reminiscent of Hester Prynne in “The Scarlet Letter.” Written and directed by Moshe Yassur, with music by Radu Captari and musical direction by Folksbiene’s artistic director, Zalmen Mlotek, the show is a must-see.

At the performance I attended, Mlotek stood in for I.W. “Itzy” Firestone in the role of Der Rebbe (Firestone was recovering from eye surgery), proving that “actor” can be added to his artistic résumé.

Applause, applause to the Folksbiene Band’s Joshua Camp, Louisa Strouse Boiman, Dmitri Slepovitch and Taylor Bergren-Chrisman; costume designer Gail Cooper-Hecht; choreographer Inka Justin; lighting maven Roger Hanna; assistant director and actor Motl Didner, and the entire cast, which helped give life to the multidimensional, long-gone world of shtetl life and its characters, who can still touch us across time.


In the midst of the current meltdown of nest eggs and 401(k)s, Horton Foote’s superb “Dividing the Estate,” presented at Broadway’s Booth Theatre, will resonate with anyone who has an estate or anticipates an inheritance. Though the accents are Southern and the setting 1980s Texas, this beautifully crafted play by Pulitzer Prize winner Foote (who wrote the screenplay for “To Kill a Mockingbird”) could easily have been set in a European shtetl or in present-day Boca Raton, Fla. Stella (Elizabeth Ashley) is stellar as the matriarch of a bickering extended family, as she holds the reins on a fortune that her children, who have fallen on hard times, want to access now! Amid the angst, shouting and pleadings by a superb cast, “Estate” provides more laughs than many a Broadway comedy. I suspect that no sooner did the delighted theatergoers reach home than phone calls were made to accountants and estate planners.

“Dividing the Estate” reminds me of Jacob Gordin’s Yiddish classic, “Mirele Efros,” a play that, as Nahma Sandrow notes in her classic “Vagabond Stars: A World History of Yiddish Theater” (Harper & Row, 1977), “many parents took their children to see to teach them the consequences of treating their parents badly.” When I called Sandrow to tout “Dividing the Estate” and its thematic similarity to Gordin’s play, she told me that she had just been awarded a prize by New York State Council on the Arts for her translation of “Mirele Efros” into English. Hurry! “Dividing the Estate” ends its run January 4, 2009.


The November 24 performance of Leonard Bernstein’s “Kaddish” Symphony No. 3 at Avery Fisher Hall was an event few will forget. The Juilliard Orchestra performed, under the baton of Alan Gilbert. Soprano soloist Jennifer Zetlan and the 400-strong combined voices of Oratorio Society of New York and the Young People’s Chorus of New York City BoyChoir were the backdrop for a personal j’accuse Kaddish recitation by prominent attorney and Holocaust survivor Samuel Pisar. Many in the audience wept. Pisar began: “Mine is a layman’s Kaddish, modern, universal and dedicated to your tormented children: Jews, Christians, Muslims and all others — believers and nonbelievers, yearning for peace, freedom and justice in our chaotic, fratricidal and suicidal world. I weep for them all.” With clenched fist, Pisar, an international lawyer, called out: “Equally indifferent were you when I agonized in Auschwitz, Maidanek and Dachau, where Eichmann’s and Mengele’s gruesome reality eclipsed Dante’s vision of inferno. To this day, I am haunted by guilt for having survived when so many of mine were murdered. Now I must atone, for the ritual mourner’s Kaddish I could never recite, because I had no dates of their demise… I mourn my father, David, tortured, executed by firing squad, tossed into a mass grave, my mother, Helena… sister Frieda, grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins and [all] of my schoolmates.” Intertwined with Bernstein’s music came the combined chorus’ “Yit’gadal v’yit kaddash sh’mei raba.…”

I first met Pisar at the December 4, 1988, International Elie Wiesel Holocaust Remembrance Award Dinner, held at the New York Hilton and sponsored by Israel Bonds. A few months later, in March 1989, I met with Bialystok-born Pisar, whose autobiography is titled “Of Blood and Hope” (MacMillan, 1978), at his suite at the Regency Hotel. A flip through his book’s photos shows Senator Edward Kennedy; Princess Grace of Monaco; Artur Rubinstein; “my Yiddish-speaking friend” Marc Chagall; France’s president, François Mitterand; Armand Hammer; David Rockefeller; Moshe Dayan; Henry Kissinger, and his classmate at Harvard, Sheik Ahmed Zaki Yamani. Though elegantly garbed in a Saville Row suit (with a red-silk lining), Pisar still felt ravaged by his Holocaust experience. “I could not kill after the war…. We found a few SS men and recognized them by the tattoos under their arms, and we took a few down into a basement and I added a few blows. But I could not kill.… There was a great emptiness after the war.… It was a tremendous struggle to even want to survive, to stay alive. But killing became totally meaningless.… “The only vengeance that made sense to me was to try to rebuild what was left of that which Hitler wanted to destroy. And so I decided that it was my duty to become a normal human being. To rebuild myself morally and intellectually, and that was the only meaning and sweetest vengeance I could imagine.”

I left the Regency Hotel and headed toward Bloomingdale’s. When I got to 59th Street and Lexington Avenue, there were police barricades and the street was jammed five-deep. From below 59th came a rumble as Mikhail Gorbachev’s entourage moved uptown. I managed to maneuver myself curbside as people began to shout: “Long Live Russia! Long Live Gorbachev!… Long Live America!” Suddenly the limousine stopped in front of me, and Gorbachev stepped out, and began shaking hands. When I got home, I flipped through Pisar’s “Of Blood and Hope” and read: “As counsel to Paul Austin, chairman of Coca-Cola, I helped to negotiate arrangements for supplying the soft drink the Stalinists had once excoriated as a symbol of the Americanization of the world…. With my assistance, William Hewitt of John Deere & Co. agreed to the exchange of know-how for construction of tractors… Seagram’s’Edgar Bronfman agreed to swap…. American bourbon and Scotch whiskey for genuine Russian vodka… Robert Armstrong of Revlon offered to upgrade the Soviet cosmetics industry… and Levi-Strauss undertook to produce blue jeans for an envious generation of demoralized Communist youth.” When I told Pisar about our post-interview run-in with Gorbachev, he laughed: “I was ahead of my time.”

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