Beyond ‘The Dybbuk’

Two Young Scholars Expand the Library of Yiddish Plays Available in English

Published October 13, 2006, issue of October 13, 2006.
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Although recent years have seen published translations of Yiddish plays into Russian, German and Hebrew, the English language seems only to see reincarnations of “The Dybbuk.” In this respect, “Landmark Yiddish Plays: A Critical Anthology” (State University of New York Press), compiled by Jeremy Dauber and Joel Berkowitz, is itself a landmark. It brings to English audiences expert and carefully annotated versions of some of the finest Yiddish plays produced. The volume includes “Silliness and Sanctimony” (1795) by Aaron Halle-Wolfssohn, Shlomo Ettinger’s “Serkele” (1838), “The Two Kuni-Lemls” (1880) by Abraham Goldfaden, Peretz Hirshbein’s “Miriam” (1906) and “The Duke” (1926) by Alter Kacyzne. To mark the occasion, Yiddish theater scholar and Forward contributor Alyssa Quint spoke to Berkowitz, associate professor and chair of the Judaic studies department at the University at Albany, and Dauber, assistant professor of Germanic languages and literatures at Columbia University.

Alyssa Quint: How did this collaboration come about?

Joel Berkowitz: It was 1998, and I had just begun my first full-time academic job, teaching Yiddish literature at Oxford University. If memory serves, Jeremy proposed working on this the first time we met. The funny thing was that just before he asked that, I had been daydreaming about having English translations of some of the very plays Jeremy wanted to translate — plays that were pivotal to the development of Yiddish drama.

Why these five plays?

Jeremy Dauber: Well, there were a number of different criteria that we used; the first is that the plays hadn’t been translated before. The second was that the plays themselves had to be playable — I think both Joel and I both have this dream that one day, some theatrical troupe will take one of our translations of the plays and mount it off-Broadway or something. That emphasis wasn’t just for audiences, though, but for scholars, too. Finally, the plays also had to serve as examples of the development of the Yiddish theater as a whole. What we really tried to do was to tell the story of the modern Yiddish theater, or, at least, the modern European Yiddish theater, from its origins in Enlightenment-era Berlin to 20th-century Eastern Europe on the eve of the Holocaust. And I think that these five plays, as unique and individual as they are, are part of that larger story.

Berkowitz: We always agreed that any play we chose for the collection would have to be both historically important and aesthetically significant. These plays fit the bill in very different ways, from the “Tartuffe”-like play that opens the anthology; to the broad, sentimental “Serkele” that follows it; to the manic farce “The Two Kuni-Lemls” — possibly the most beloved, but also controversial, Yiddish comedy ever staged — to the touching, un-preachy naturalism of “Miriam”; to the mythic, outsized “Duke.” Some of these plays were works we loved before we started translating them; some we thought important and fell in love with them along the way… the hard part was letting go of some others we admire but had to set aside, the economics of publishing being what they are. Oddly enough, our publisher didn’t jump at the idea of a thousand-page anthology.

What was the most surprising revelation you made as you put this anthology together?

Dauber: The personal revelation is how much translation benefits from a collaborative process. Any time you’re translating material, you are acutely aware of how personal your choices are about how to render that material; working with someone else allows you to see another perspective on those choices, and, I think, to make them better. Also, I think it was fascinating to discover how profoundly these plays — which were, after all, written over a span of almost 150 years and over a range of a good part of Europe — echo each other in both large and small ways. There really are a set of themes, characters, motifs that work themselves out throughout the history of the Yiddish theater.

Berkowitz: When I first started reading Yiddish plays — starting with some of the works most esteemed by critics and historians — I would get to the end of a play and wonder: “Not bad, but is this the best we’ve got? Where’s the Yiddish Ibsen? The Yiddish Molière?” I was convinced that its main achievements were in performance and music. I haven’t exactly changed my mind about that, but in the course of years spent in search of the dramas most worth translating, I keep coming across hidden gems — some of which have been largely overlooked by the critics, and indeed some of which were rarely, or never, performed. One of the most important things we feel this book has to offer is to demonstrate that there was more to Yiddish drama than “The Dybbuk” and “God of Vengeance,” fond as we are of both of those plays.

What doesn’t translate? What will the English reader never experience in reading these texts?

Berkowitz: Oy. And I do mean oy. Often it’s the smallest words that gave us the most grief. Should “oy” be rendered “oy,” or “oh,” or something else? Should it depend on who is saying it, and in what context? And how should one translate “nu”? The single character who gave us the biggest headaches was a fellow named Shmelke Troyniks, proprietor of “The Spies” guesthouse, who we meet at the start of Act 5 of “Serkele.” Shmelke has a pronounced Litvak accent, the inability to make the “sh” sound so common to Yiddish and Hebrew. Where another Yiddish speaker would say “Shabbos,” for example, the Litvak says “Sabbos.” Side-splitting comedy, right? As translators, playing around with his sibilants, which I think is actually illegal in some states, struck us as more distracting than helpful — and to our ears, made him sound more like a W. C. Fields character than an Eastern European Jewish innkeeper. Ultimately, we chose to ignore his dialect, but give his English dialogue other distinctive qualities designed to capture other elements of his Yiddish speech rhythms.

As scholars who have played key roles in the recent advances in Yiddish theater studies, what do you think the field needs most?

Berkowitz: The field is maturing, but it has a long way to go. One of the field’s most striking features is its repertoire of legends. Even careful scholars — and I plead guilty to this myself — often feel obligated to repeat some of the old chestnuts about the development of Yiddish drama and theater. Only gradually are scholars unearthing evidence that debunks, complicates and sometimes confirms the myths that make up the collective story of the Yiddish theater. Give me about 10 minutes, and I could rattle off enough individual topics to keep seven generations of graduate students busily scribbling doctoral dissertations on Yiddish theater.

Keeping in mind the important tradition of cross-dressing on the Yiddish stage, what role might you imagine yourself playing?

Berkowitz: It’s been awhile since I’ve done drag. I’d probably be more at home playing one of any number of tortured scholarly types: the Young Duke in Kacyzne’s “The Duke” — in which case I’d want Philip Bosco to play my poppa in the Broadway production, and Michael Gambon to take over that role in the West End — the title role in “Uriel Acosta,” actually a German play that became a Yiddish staple, or young Baruch Spinoza in Chaim Sloves’s lovely postwar drama, “Baruch of Amsterdam.” (See article on page B4.) Just contemplating this question reinforces the notion that there are plenty more gems where these five came from.

Dauber: As disappointing as this might be for anyone who might like to see me in a dress, my own extremely limited theatrical ambitions tend toward playing either a melodramatic Goldfaden romantic hero or a standard Second Avenue supporting comic character: someone who gets either the girl, or the best lines.

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