Making the Very Model of a Modern Yiddish Musical

By Max Gross

Published April 30, 2004, issue of April 30, 2004.
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At some point, most readers have probably met a “Savoyard,” one of the ardent admirers of William Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan who nickname themselves after the famous Savoy theater in London where the dynamic duo staged their famous comic operettas, “The Mikado,” “H.M.S. Pinafore” and many others. But, undoubtedly, no reader has ever met a “Savoyid”— because, as far as we know, Al Grand is the only one.

Grand, a jaunty former New York City public school teacher with thinning gray hair and silver-rimmed spectacles, came to the Forward offices from his home in Long Island. Before he would accept his interviewer’s authenticity as a fellow Gilbert and Sullivan enthusiast, he offered a quick test:

Grand: “‘If you want to know who we are…’”

Reporter: “‘We’re gentlemen of Japan,’” (the chorus’ first line from “The Mikado”)

Success. The interview was allowed to continue.

Grand, 73, earned his self-appointed title in ways that other Jewish enthusiasts of Gilbert and Sullivan have not. True, Grand is not the most active member of New York’s Gilbert and Sullivan Society, attending their monthly meetings only erratically. When he joined the Gilbert & Sullivan Light Opera Company of Long Island in 1970, he was just a chorus member, and he hasn’t sung with them for many years. But Grand has made a unique contribution to the ever-widening world of Gilbert and Sullivan: He translates their Victorian topsy-turvy into Yiddish.

On May 2, Grand’s “Di Yam Gazlonim” (a.k.a. “The Pirates of Penzance”) will have a reading at Temple Shaaray Tefila in Manhattan by the Folksbiene Yiddish Theatre in honor of Theodore Bikel’s 80th birthday. Grand translated the opera in the mid-1980s. This is the first time that the Folksbiene is giving Gilbert and Sullivan a full-fledged, costumed performance.

To be sure, Grand is not the first person to translate Gilbert and Sullivan into Yiddish. In the 1940s, a woman named Miriam Walowit translated songs from “H.M.S. Pinafore” into Yiddish, and they were performed by members of the Jewish women’s organization, Hadassah. But Grand is the first to translate an entire opera — from opening curtain to the last note.

Grand first heard Walowit’s translation when he was singing with the Gilbert & Sullivan Light Opera Company of Long Island. He would entertain his fellow cast members — many of whom were Jewish — with Yiddish versions of their songs backstage during performances, always to great laughter and acclaim.

After a while it occurred to Grand that since many of the troupe’s performances were at synagogues around Long Island, they might try some of Walowit’s songs. He asked the head of the company if they could perform a show in Yiddish.

“The answer was a firm ‘no’ for three straight years,” Grand remembered.

Then during a performance of Gilbert and Sullivan’s shortest opera, “Trial By Jury,” Grand was offered the chance to teach five or six member of the cast the Yiddish lyrics and see if the audience had any interest. The audience went wild and the rest, as they say, is history.

Eventually, the group split in two, with one remaining the Gilbert & Sullivan Light Opera Company of Long Island and the other emerging as the Gilbert & Sullivan Yiddish Light Opera Company. Under the coaxing of his friend, Bob Tartell, Grand translated everything Walowit had neglected in her “Pinafore” translation. After “Pinafore,” Grand translated “Trial By Jury” (“A Tuml in Besdin” — literally, “A Commotion in the Rabbinical Court”), and spent two years translating “The Pirates of Penzance.”

Grand has no formal musical education. He grew up in the East New York section of Brooklyn, where music lessons were an unthinkable extravagance. But he did get a first rate Yiddish education. Mameloshn spilled out of the streets, the neighbors, the signs and his Russian immigrant parents.

Grand was drafted into the army shortly after the Korean War ended. He returned to New York in 1956 to get married and become an elementary school teacher, first in Queens and later in his old neighborhood. He taught his fifth and sixth graders arias from “Carmen” when he wanted to teach students about French history, and songs from “Rigoletto” when he wanted to teach them about Italy. After he retired, Grand became more interested in music; in addition to his translations of Gilbert and Sullivan, Grand has also penned translations of “Over the Rainbow” and “White Christmas” into Yiddish (“Ikh kholem fun a vaysn yontef,” in Grand’s version — leaving out the dreaded ‘C’ word.)

While he sang with his theater company, Grand attended Gilbert and Sullivan society meetings where he met the science fiction writer Isaac Asimov. Grand showed his Yiddish librettos to Asimov, who was wowed.

“Gilbert and Sullivan operettas are quintessentially British,” Asimov wrote in an essay, “Ikh Bin Der Major General” about Grand’s translations. “And not only that: They are quintessentially Victorian British.”

Asimov continued, “It is hard to think of difference more extreme than those between the Victorian British and the Jews of any time or place in the last 2,000 years… The music of Sullivan — cheerful, bouncy, busy! It is worlds different from the bittersweet minor mode of Jewish music.”

But, Asimov added, “Al Grand doesn’t change Sullivan’s notes; they’re all there; every one of them. And he doesn’t change Gilbert’s words in essence. He changes them into Yiddish, to be sure, but he keeps the rhymes, the lilt and the wit.”

Indeed, it would be impossible to write a word-for-word translation of Gilbert’s libretto and still retain the comedy and the poetry. Yet by many accounts Grand has done an exceptional job —keeping things relatively close to the original and at the same time making them Jewish.

“‘Ikh bin der Groyser General un ikh bin oykh a gutter Yid,’” sings the Major-General in “Pirates.” “‘Ikh gey oysrekh’nen yetst mayn ale mayles in a Yiddish lid.’”

“‘I am the very model of a modern Major-General, I’ve information vegetable, animal and mineral.”

The phrase bounces along, like the original. But the meaning is a little closer to “I am a Major-General, and also a good Jew. And I’m going to enumerate all my good qualities in a Yiddish song.”

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