Soviet Yiddish Writers Remembered; ‘The Essence' and More From the Yiddish Theater

By Masha Leon

Published September 02, 2012, issue of September 07, 2012.
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Soviet Yiddish Writers Remembered on 60th Anniversary of Their Murder

“Yiddish culture in the Soviet Union began with a flourish of trumpets and ended with a mute, strangled voice,” said Thomas Bird, a Queens College professor of European language and literature, at a memorial. held on August 12 , it was for the Soviet Yiddish writers who were murdered on August 12, 1952, and was held at the Center for Jewish History. “Between the two world wars, Yiddish flourished in an unprecedented way. Books were published in the tens of thousands [by] some 300 Yiddish writers… in the Belarusian and Ukrainian Republics alone. Schools, newspapers, theaters, publishing houses… teachers colleges were founded, purely devoted to Yiddish. At the end of the 1930s, the regime began to turn its back on Yiddish, [and] the persecutions increased after Stalin realized that [Communist] Party propaganda had not succeeded in rooting out of the hearts of the millions of Jews in the Soviet Union, their connection to the Jewish people and to the Land of Israel.”

Forverts Editor Boris Sandler read an original poem at the event. David Mandelbaum, the New Yiddish Repertory Theater’s founding artistic director; Shane Baker, Congress for Jewish Culture executive director; Paul Glasser, dean of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research’s Max Weinrich Center, and Hy Wolfe, actor and Central Yiddish Culture Organization director, all read the murdered poets’ works. Pianist Steve Sterner and folksinger Paula Teitelbaum offered a lively rendition of murdered poet Moishe Kulbak’s “Kh’bin a Bokher a Hultay” (“I’m a Party Animal”).

“Hundreds of writers, artists and scholars were arrested starting in the 1930s”, concluded Bird. “Many were sent to gulags in Siberia. Numbers of them were tortured and forced to confess to crimes they had not committed.. .then shot and killed on August 12, 1952. Today, after 60 years, we honor their memory.”

‘The Essence’: A 90-Minute Crash Course in the Joys and Oys of Yiddish Theater

Bravo to husband-and-wife team Allen Lewis Rickman and Yelena Shmulenson. They are the creators and stars of “The Essence: A Yiddish Theatre Dim Sum,” which attempts to boil down the century and a half of Yiddish theater’s history into a 90-minute laughathon. At the August 24 performance, held, at the Robert Moss Theater, the young, middle-aged and senior audience members chuckled as Sterner — onstage and at the piano — joined Rickman and Shmulenson in a roller coaster overview of the history of the Yiddish theater. Starting with the “father” of Yiddish theater, Romanian-born Avram Goldfadn, the show follows its trajectory across Europe through its arrival in America, where Al Capone was a Molly Picon fan and John Barrymore a weekly Yiddish theatergoer. Their overview included a tribute to Yiddish theater’s brilliant, intellectually short-lived era in the Soviet Union, and its underground luminescence in the Warsaw Ghetto, in concentration camps and in postwar displaced persons camps. It also included, regrettably, Yiddish theater’s ban by a newly established Israel.

With costume changes at the speed of Clark Kent transforming into Superman, the trio acts out vignettes from X-rated “shund,” or sleaze, productions as well as from sophisticated works. Reading the subtitles, I was able to add to my vocabulary some 30 — or was it 50? — Yiddish synonyms of the word “imbecile.” Among the production’s many gems is an Albert Einstein-themed skit that was either inspired by or was the inspiration for the insanely hysterical Abbott & Costello “Who’s on First?” shtick.

In an excerpt from Goldfadn’s opera “The Witch” (aka [“Koldunye” in Russian/Ukranian and in Yiddish as“Di Makhsheyfe”), an over-the-top Rickman portrays the character Hotzmakh, an unscrupulous peddler (a role made famous by Paul Muni). In the play’s marketplace scene he blatantly cheats naive little Mirele, played by Shmulenson.

Surprisingly, “Essence” contains one unsettling note. The classic tearjerker “Papirosn,” was written in 1931 by Herman Yablokoff and set to a traditional Bulgarian folk tune. The lyrics tell of a starving boy vainly trying to sell cigarettes. His family’s history is so tragic as to beg credulity: His father lost both arms in World War I, his mother died when he was small and one of his sisters perished. Yet the audience was laughing hysterically.

Naughty Second Avenue Center Stage at Yiddish Music and Vaudeville Bash

On August 8, Sidney Gluck, founder of the Sholem Aleichem Memorial Foundation, was honored at Manhattan’s Metropolitan Room at “ Vintage Vaudeville: You Don’t Have to Speak Yiddish to Understand the Truth.” Gluck, the 95-year-old husband of 101-year-old** Bel Kaufman,** said, “That which is old — like Yiddish theater — is forever new if we share it, if we celebrate it as a gift, but especially if we play with it as if we were holding it for the first time.” According to Beck Lee, press agent for the National Yiddish Theatre-Folksbiene, the event was meant to evoke “vintage Yiddish vaudeville circa 1912” and “a re-creation of naughty Second Avenue musical history.”

“Vintage Vaudeville” was co-hosted by the Sholem Aleichem Memorial Foundation and the Congress for Jewish Culture and was a benefit for both organizations. Baker was the host. The evening showcased Rickman and Shmulenson.

Sterner and clarinetist/composer Michael Winograd provided the music. The evening also starred songster Daniella Rabbani. Someone suggested that it was reminiscent of the Catskill’s late, late, late shows, for those who don’t mind off-off-off-color jokes — but in Yiddish. Among the guests were Paul Bernstein of Alliance Bernstein, and Bryna Wasserman and Jeffrey Wiesenfeld, Folksbiene’s executive director and board chairman, respectively. Wiesenfeld suggested that next time, there should be supertitles for “the Yiddish challenged.”

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