The Yiddish Play That Bewitched Israeli Theater-goers

By Donny Inbar

Published October 13, 2006, issue of October 13, 2006.
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More than the artistic peak of “The Dybbuk” or the moving tragicomedy of “Tevye the Dairyman,” another play from Yiddish theater repertoire has never failed to enchant theatergoers in Israel in the past 70 years. Surprisingly, the spell was cast by a piece that could easily be considered shund (trash) — naive, primitive, old fashioned, ridiculous. In fact, even the great Sholom Aleichem, Tevye’s literary father, was himself fascinated by this silly musical. This was also the first Yiddish play that was produced in America in the early 1880s, with teenager Boris Thomashefsky playing, in drag, the role of a poor orphaned girl. And this same shmatte was to make history across the ocean, among the Zionist pioneers and their descendants. And that’s not all: Unbeknownst to contemporary Israelis, a popular current saying can be traced directly to the play’s songbook.

In between a series of anti-Hasidic satires and historical operettas on Jewish nationalistic themes, Abraham Goldfaden, the father of Yiddish theater, composed, in 1879, an unpretentious musical fairytale, “Di Kishefmakhern,” or “The Witch.” (It’s also known as “Kaldunya,” “Di Tsoybern” and other titles, according to the dialect of the spectators in the Old World.) Mirele, the orphan, is a Yiddishe Cinderella whose evil stepmother schemes to get rid of her with the help of the local sorceress, Bobe Yakhne. She is sold to Gypsies who bring her to Turkey, where she is forced to sing on the streets. Luckily, the secret commando of Hotsmakh, the Yiddishe peddler, and Marcus, Mirele’s enlightened fiance, rescues the abducted maiden and brings her back home to a happy ending of song and dance, plus just retribution to the evildoers.

For those who look for realism, sophistication or highbrow ideology in a play, “The Witch” is an embarrassment. But for musical theater lovers, it was not only the first organic musical comedy written in Yiddish but a damn good one too. Mirele gets to sing an endless medley of enchanting waltzes, all nebbish orphan dirges that can compete with the tearjerker melodies of “Les Misérables” and “Phantom of the Opera,” and she could get a nice sponsorship from Kleenex; the Witch (traditionally, a male actor in drag) and her assistants get a chance to perform special effects that could inspire any director and designer; Hotsmakh swindles every possible customer, and his routines have long become comedy classics; the wealth of songs in the marketplace scene match the spectacular numbers of “Oliver!” This, exactly, was the approach to the first production of the play in Palestine. In 1935, Dr. Miriam Bernstein-Cohen, a physician from Kishinev who had studied acting with the great Stanislavsky before founding the first professional theater in Palestine, decided that it was time to mount a musical play from the Yiddish repertoire. “The Witch” was produced with the peak professional team of local talents and new refugees from Nazi Germany, several of whom were to become Israel Prize laureates. Her smash hit gave birth to a tradition: Since the 1930s and to this day, one production at least of “The Witch” has been produced by Israeli theaters each decade, probably more than most other plays from the world repertoire. (All have been successful.)

Furthermore, a virtual landmark was to be attained in the 1947 production of “The Witch” at the Ohel Theater of Ben Gurion’s Labor movement. One of Mirele’s sob arias opens with “Oy, ir Yidn bnei rakhmonim” (Oh, you Jews, sons of the merciful) — a Yiddish line virtually in Hebrew. But because of the Sephardic pronunciation in Palestine, it didn’t sound right, so the translator of that production, Abraham Levinson, changed it to “Yehudim rachmu rachemu”:

Oh, good Jews, have mercy, mercy For your heart’s as pure as gold. See a lonely soul so cursed, Starving, crying here in the cold. I’m an orphan begging you for any Kindness, slice of bread, or just a penny Oh, good Jews, have mercy, mercy For your heart’s as pure as gold.

The 1947 production, which was structured as a play within a play, celebrated life in the old Jewish world, lovingly parodied the schmaltz while avoiding sentimentality, became one of the most victorious post-Holocaust theatrical events in Israel and was revived in the following decade. As for Mirele’s sob song, it turned, once recorded, “Oh, good Jews, have mercy, mercy” into a smash hit on Eretz-Israeli radio, and the opening line of the song turned into an idiom in Hebrew. Every translator for subsequent productions of “The Witch” had no choice but to plagiarize Levinson’s ingenious line, and Nathan Alterman, by then the national poet of Israel decided to bury his own earlier, less effective translation, which was not to be included in his complete works.

Indeed, even people who have never seen the play or heard of Abraham Goldfaden use the phrase so naturally that in recent years it could be found in the most unexpected niches: A rock rendition of the song was performed at a special event by Moti Mizrahi, a radical political artist in 2004, and the idiom itself had been used repeatedly by both leftists and settlers on numerous political Web sites. (Apparently, it doesn’t matter if you feel victimized by the withdrawal from your home in Gaza, or support the territorial compromise: Nothing says it better than “Yehudim rachmu rachemu.”) Only recently, the idiom served several bloggers. And in the heated debates over the war in Lebanon this past summer, one very active contributor to talkbacks has even started using the screen name “Yehudim Rachmu Rachemu.” For the past 70 years, these three spellbinding words in Hebrew have topped any magic potion simmered in Bobe Yakhne’s kitchen.

Donny Inbar is an Israeli journalist, editor and theater director.

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