The Forverts’s Rukhl Schaechter once heard a Yiddish professor complain that his American students knew nothing about Stalin’s execution of 13 Soviet Jews, which took place in August 1952. Even more discouraging, he added, was their “complete lack of interest” in the Yiddish culture that once thrived in the Former Soviet Union.
Two days before the premiere of “The Twenty-Seventh Man,” Schaechter talked to author Nathan Englander about this phenomenon and what inspired him, a self-proclaimed Yankee from Long Island, to write about it.
Rukhl Schaechter: What inspired you to write about Stalin’s execution of Soviet Yiddish writers?
Nathan Englander: I guess it’s because I read a lot, and I believe in imagined worlds. I learned about that period when I was in Israel, in my junior year abroad at Hebrew University, and the Iron Curtain was about to fall. My teacher, Edith Frankel, who was a Russian studies expert, mentioned it as an aside. I thought it was strange that no one talked about it, and I felt that these writers deserved a story about them. So I waited a few years. It was shocking to me that this nefarious event occurred and because of it, a whole world was destroyed, and yet no one wrote about it. When I began working on the story myself, I discovered there was almost no information, just an entry here and there in the Encyclopedia Judaica.
Do you know Yiddish yourself?
No. But I went to yeshiva my whole life, and got a musar education, a real shtetl education, so even though I don’t speak a word of Yiddish, and neither do my parents, I was taught by men whose speech patterns had a certain Yiddish syntax and speech pattern. Surprisingly, Ron Rifkin [who plays Yevgeny Zunser] does know Yiddish. A real Williamsburg [Brooklyn] boy. That was actually very helpful during rehearsals.
Why did you decide to turn the book into a play?
When [“For the Relief of Unbearable Urges”] came out, Nora Ephron took me out to lunch and said she loved “The Twenty-Seventh Man” and she thought it should be a play. I thought it was a great idea. So she optioned it, and I thought she was going to write it, but once she became the producer, she told me that she wanted me to write it. “But I have a novel to write!” I told her. So she agreed to wait. When I finished the novel [“The Ministry of Special Cases”], four years ago, I started working on the play.
Wasn’t Ephron ill by then?
Yes, but she was always there, never missed a reading. And I think it was a brilliant idea to send it to the Public Theater. That’s when [Barry] Edelstein read it. He kept sending me off to do rewrites, but I didn’t mind, because it showed he believed in me.