How does an Irish Catholic become a translator of Yiddish drama? It’s a question I am asked, over and over. The short answer is that I came to study Yiddish literature, and later Yiddish theater, through my love of the Anglo-Irish and Gaelic literary traditions. The longer answer requires a bit of history.
The Irish and the Yiddish theaters both emerged at the end of the 19th century, both as alternatives to mainstream theater, with the aim of educating as well as entertaining their populaces. William Butler Yeats and Augusta Lady Gregory started the Irish National Theater to instill a sense of national identity among the Irish, separate from the English culture that had dominated the country for centuries.
Just as Lady Gregory collected poems and folk tales from the Irish Gaelic-speaking peasants whose stories provided inspiration for many of her plays, the ethnographer S. Anski collected folklore from the Jewish communities of Eastern Europe, basing “The Dybbuk,” the most famous of Yiddish plays, on the stories he discovered in his travels. And the early plays of the Yiddish theater spread the word about the Jewish enlightenment. In addition to creating operettas culled from Biblical tales, the founder of Yiddish theater, Abraham Goldfaden, wrote comedies satirizing arranged marriages and the strictly religious.
Unlike the Irish theater, however, the writers of the Yiddish theater also looked outside their own tradition, introducing their audience to other cultures through translations into Yiddish from world literature, as well as through original plays. The first season of Maurice Schwartz’s Yiddish Art Theater in 1918 included translations from two Irish playwrights — Oscar Wilde’s “An Ideal Husband” and George Bernard Shaw’s “Mrs. Warren’s Profession.” Yiddish songs and plays popular in America often dealt with the foibles of the immigrant as he stumbled his way through a new culture.
While the Irish National Theater began as one theater in Ireland, the Yiddish theatrical movement had dozens of theaters and traveling companies throughout the world, and yet the importance of the Irish theater in the history of world drama is more readily acknowledged. The primary reason for this is that the Irish National Theater, founded in 1899, commissioned and presented its plays in English. But the two theaters had another, more tragic, feature in common: The Potato Famine of 1846-1850 decimated the Irish language by causing a third of its speakers to emigrate, a third to die and the surviving countrymen to be ashamed of it — not unlike the way the Holocaust would impact the Yiddish language a century later. During my junior year at an all-girls Catholic high school in Hingham, Mass., I was introduced to the work of Isaac Bashevis Singer. From there, I went on to his brother, Israel Joshua, the writer Chaim Grade and more. I began to recognize certain similarities between the Gaelic and Yiddish cultures — a self-deprecating sense of humor, an appreciation of the supernatural, a history of material poverty and intellectual wealth as well as religious persecution. Most of all, I saw how Yiddish culture influenced mainstream American culture much the same way the cadence of the Irish language was behind the work of the best of the Anglo-Irish writers.
In 1997, I met the Yiddish performer Seymour Rexite, who would become a friend and mentor. Seymour derived great pleasure from the fact I was interested in Yiddish theater as someone from outside the culture. To him, it was a sign that word about the richness of the Yiddish theatrical tradition was getting out there, a mission to which he and his wife, the actress and translator Miriam Kressyn, dedicated their life.
We first met when I arrived at his dusty one-bedroom with its view of Washington Square Park — he had taken it over from Molly Picon a half-century before — to interview him for an article about the Yiddish theater. The space was jam packed with scripts, sheet music and hundreds of reel-to-reel tapes. Most of Seymour’s archives focused on the Maxwell House-sponsored radio show “Memories of the Yiddish Theater” that he hosted with Miriam for over 40 years. When he heard my name, he began hunting through the tapes overflowing off his desk until he came across just the right one. He wound the tape onto his Wollensak machine, pressed play and soon the room was filled with the strains of the popular Irish song “MacNamara’s Band” — only in Miriam’s Yiddish translation — “Oy, mayn nomen iz MacRexite, ich bin der firer funem band…” — from a show they did one Saint Patrick’s Day. Later, when I began to visit Seymour several times a week to learn about the Yiddish theater, he played Abe Ellstein’s musical “Der Scotsman fun Orchard Street” (close enough) and showed me the accompanying photo of Yiddish actor Menashe Skulnick in a kilt.
In the six years we worked together, Seymour and I listened to hundreds of his radio shows about the Yiddish theater in America, which included Miriam’s inspired translations of English-language songs into Yiddish and Yiddish songs into English. As we cleared some space in his living room, organizing the archives spilling from every corner of his apartment, I began to pay more attention to a large painting of a fisherman by the sea that hung above the couch. Poland looks a lot like Ireland, I thought, assuming it to be a painting from the country of Seymour and Miriam’s birth. Finally, I read the inscription underneath which read: “A Fisherman from Galway,” the city where I was born.
It was Miriam’s work as a translator that inspired me to begin translating Yiddish plays. Since then, I’ve been repeatedly struck by the relationship between the two theatrical traditions. Just this past summer, in fact, while attending the marathon of the complete works of the Irish playwright John Millington Synge at Lincoln Center, I couldn’t help but note the kinship to his Yiddish-language contemporary Sholem Asch. Both were masters at depicting strong, sexy women and both courted controversy as much for exposing religious hypocrisy as for their frank depictions of sexuality on stage. Synge’s one-act “The Tinker’s Wedding,” which comically depicts an itinerant family tying up a priest, was considered so controversial that it was not produced in Ireland until 1971, more than 60 years after it was first written. In Asch’s “God of Vengeance,” the brothel owner’s hurling of the Torah caused enormous controversy. (In 1923, the Broadway cast was actually arrested after a Reform rabbi protested its onstage depiction of Jews.) Similarly, the opening of Synge’s “The Playboy” caused a riot in Dublin over its depiction of the Irish in its 1907 premiere.
The plays of Synge and his way of capturing the rhythms of the Irish language through English became my blueprint as I attempted to render into American English the sounds of Jewish life in Poland from another century. Just as the Synge plays depicting life in the Irish-speaking fishing villages of a century ago are studied and produced throughout the world, so too should the plays of Sholem Asch, David Pinski, Peretz Hirshbein and many other gifted Yiddish dramatists be performed and appreciated the world over.
Caraid O’Brien is a performer, playwright, and producer, and a three-time recipient of a new play commission from the National Foundation for Jewish Culture for her contemporary adaptation of Yiddish plays.