The 'Godot' We've All Been Waiting For

Samuel Beckett's Classic Gains Something in Yiddish Translation

They’ll Go On: ‘Waiting For Godot,’ which premiered in Paris 60 years ago, is now being performed in Yiddish.
Courtesy of Ronald L. Glassman
They’ll Go On: ‘Waiting For Godot,’ which premiered in Paris 60 years ago, is now being performed in Yiddish.

By Ezra Glinter

Published October 03, 2013, issue of October 11, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

On a recent Friday evening, I was sitting in Manhattan’s Castillo Theatre, on West 42nd Street, waiting to see a production of Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot.”

As the house lights went down, and the stage lights went up, the play’s minimalist set came into view: a low mound and a bare tree that looked more like a metal sculpture than like a living thing. On the mound sat David Mandelbaum as the rundown Estragon, wearing a misshapen hat and a pair of torn trousers held to his body by a rope belt. Shane Baker, playing the slightly more decorous Vladimir, stood nearby. As Estragon wrestled with his boot, trying to pull it off his swollen foot, he moaned, “Me ken goornisht teeee-yen.”

Anyone familiar with Beckett’s masterpiece, now celebrating the 60th year since its premiere at Paris’s Théâtre de Babylone, would recognize that famous first line, “Nothing to be done.” The difference was that, like the rest of this performance, it was said in Yiddish.

There’s a lot that’s perfect about doing “Waiting for Godot” in Yiddish, even if we needed this production, directed by Moshe Yassur for New Yiddish Rep, to make us realize it. Through Baker’s translation and the cast’s performances — Mandelbaum and Baker outdo themselves as the existential odd couple of Estragon and Vladimir, as does Avi Hoffman as the blustering Pozzo and Raphael Goldwasser as his masochistic slave, Lucky — the New Yiddish Rep has created a distinctive work that possesses its own power while shedding new light on the original.

Yiddish, of course, is not just a language spoken by Jews, but also a language bound up with Jewish life and tradition. Thus, translating “Godot” (or anything else) into Yiddish means relocating it into a universe of Jewish reference and idiom. Here, for example, “His highness” becomes “Der rebbe reb Tsots,” and “critic” (flung as an insult by Estragon to Vladimir) becomes “misnaged.”

And when Vladimir remonstrates with Pozzo over the latter wanting to get rid of Lucky, the original comparison of chucking away Lucky “like a banana skin” becomes “shlogn kapores mit im” — that is, discarding him like the sacrificial chicken swung around the head before Yom Kippur.

The performance also locates the play within a Yiddish world through the speech and mannerisms of the actors. While Estragon speaks an earthy Polish Yiddish, Vladimir has a more refined Lithuanian accent, giving the characters’ interactions a “tomayto/tomahto” comedy. Estragon, trying to figure out what day of the week it is (and when Godot might or might not arrive), employs the singsong tune traditionally used to work out a knotty bit of reasoning in the Gemara.

Most spectacular is when Lucky is instructed to “think” and embarks on a rapid-fire nonsense disquisition, delivered here with a grandiose Yom Kippur melody.

What all this adds to Beckett’s play, however, is a more difficult question.


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!
  • "What I didn’t realize before my trip was that I would leave Uganda with a powerful mandate on my shoulders — almost as if I had personally left Egypt."
  • Is it better to have a young, fresh rabbi, or a rabbi who stays with the same congregation for a long time? What do you think?
  • Why does the leader of Israel's social protest movement now work in a beauty parlor instead of the Knesset?
  • What's it like to be Chagall's granddaughter?
  • Is pot kosher for Passover. The rabbis say no, especially for Ashkenazi Jews. And it doesn't matter if its the unofficial Pot Day of April 20.
  • A Ukrainian rabbi says he thinks the leaflets ordering Jews in restive Donetsk to 'register' were a hoax. But the disturbing story still won't die.
  • Some snacks to help you get through the second half of Passover.
  • You wouldn't think that a Soviet-Jewish immigrant would find much in common with Gabriel Garcia Marquez. But the famed novelist once helped one man find his first love. http://jd.fo/f3JiS
  • Can you relate?
  • The Forverts' "Bintel Brief" advice column ran for more than 65 years. Now it's getting a second life — as a cartoon.
  • Half of this Hillel's members believe Jesus was the Messiah.
  • Vinyl isn't just for hipsters and hippies. Israeli photographer Eilan Paz documents the most astonishing record collections from around the world:http://jd.fo/g3IyM
  • Could Spider-Man be Jewish? Andrew Garfield thinks so.
  • Most tasteless video ever? A new video shows Jesus Christ dying at Auschwitz.
  • "It’s the smell that hits me first — musty, almost sweet, emanating from the green felt that cradles each piece of silver cutlery in its own place." Only one week left to submit! Tell us the story of your family's Jewish heirloom.
  • 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.