The Comedian and the Rabbi: A Tête-à-Tête


By Masha Leon

Published August 29, 2003, issue of August 29, 2003.
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Avi Hoffman, actor and Yiddish advocate, was Rabbi William Berkowitz’s guest at the August 13 American Jewish Historical Society-sponsored “Dialogue Forum” at the Center for Jewish History. Hoffman, whose credits include “The Golden Land” and “The Rise of David Levinsky,” recounted how he came to write his long-running one-man hit show, “Too Jewish?”

“It was nine years ago. Casting directors would not hire me; the name Avi Hoffman was ‘too Jewish,’” he said.

Hoffman turned to the audience, saying, “Why are we so self-conscious about being ‘too Jewish’? Who ever says: ‘He’s too Irish! He’s too Italian?… I was desperate, in debt, expecting a child, just evicted from an illegal sublet…. A friend suggested I write a show about what I know.

“I grew up speaking Yiddish…. My father [the late Mendl Hoffman, a past board member of YIVO] survived Auschwitz and other camps. My mother [Miriam Hoffman, a contributor to the Yiddish Forverts] was born in Siberia, spent her early years in a D.P. camp in Germany and is a professor of Yiddish at Columbia University.”

“Yiddish lives in me,” Hoffman continued. “In 1969, when I was 11, we moved to Israel…. Yiddish was banned, orphaned. The only ones who spoke Yiddish were the survivors…. [Israelis] looked down on Yiddish as a ‘language of death.’”

“The irony,” Hoffman said, “is that when I went to [an Israeli] Hebrew public school, no one spoke English, and the only person I could communicate with was the principal, who spoke Yiddish.” Hoffman left Israel 10 years later.

“So I wrote about my life… my pride in my Jewishness…. Yiddish. And the rest is history…. Two thousand performances later, ‘Too Jewish?’ has been seen by one-quarter million people around the country and was recently on PBS.” The show is a pastiche of song, nostalgia, jokes, Yiddish garblings of English works and more.

Hoffman credited legendary comic Menashe Skulnik as a major influence. “I believe he was the father of [solo] stand-up comedy… the self-deprecating Jewish comedian. His jokes were in Yinglish — a mix of Yiddish and English. Skulnik influenced Lenny Bruce, Woody Allen, Sid Caesar, [Jerry] Seinfeld, Rodney Dangerfield and Billy Crystal.” Imitating Skulnik, Hoffman donned a checkered jacket, assumed a convoluted posture and wowed the audience with Skulnik’s signature classic, “In the Middle.”

Apropos Skulnik and “Yinglish,” I found the following eyebrow-raiser in Nahma Sandrow’s book “Vagabond Stars”: “By 1948 Cue magazine was reviewing ‘What a Guy!,’ starring Menashe Skulnik, as ‘a bilingual laugh riot.’ (Ironically, Abraham Cahan may be said to have encouraged the process of corruption… for he deliberately incorporated many English words into… his Daily Forward in an effort to help his readers learn to be Americans… to this day there are Yiddishists who have not forgiven him for it.)”

* * *

The air was humid, and squirrels scampered through the Tavern on the Green’s patio as politicians, construction mavens and friends of honoree James Muscianesi, senior vice president of HRH Construction, schmoozed during the reception at the August 12 Metropolitan Council on Poverty Annual “Builders’ Luncheon.” Met Council provides housing for more than 1,200 elderly, mentally ill and homeless individuals — plus a roster of health-food-safety support services.

Emceed by Met Council executive director and CEO William Rapfogel, the indoor lunch got underway with Rep. Charles Rangel praising Met Council for bringing “comfort to people that other people find to be uncomfortable around.”

Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum praised Met Council for finding shelter for a Nigerian woman with quintuplets who had “no place to go.” Rep. Anthony Weiner presented sobering statistics: “There are 5,000 applicants for 125 [housing] units…. There are more than 200,000 seniors awaiting housing — a 10-year waiting list.”

After praising honoree Muscianesi for his “active role in the drive for more affordable housing,” City Council Speaker Gifford Miller addressed New York City’s “$500 million issue.”

“Thanks to [Governor George] Pataki, the city’s budget… agreed to a little more than a month ago by the [City] Council and the mayor… now has a gaping $500 million hole in it,” which Miller said “would result in such cuts as canceling the incoming Police Academy class and eliminating after-school programs.”

“The governor,” Miller said, “used the World Trade Center attacks as a pretext for asking the federal government for funds to build highway bridges and railway crossings upstate…. New York sends $3.5 billion dollars more to Albany than we get back in services… New York City has been denied its fair share from both Albany and Washington, D.C. for decades.”

Lunchers included Jonathan Greenspun, commissioner of the Mayor’s Community Assistance Unit; Rabbi Jacob Goldstein, staff chaplain of the New York Army National Guard, and Bronx-raised Queens Borough President Helen Marshall, who told me that she and her family are longtime Forward fans.

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