Michigan Opera Director Turns His Hand to Yiddish Theater
“You can’t dance at two weddings with one tukhes,” goes the old Yiddish saying. Tell that to Michael Yashinsky, a 26-year-old Detroit area Yiddishist who divides his time between a Jewish day school and Michigan Opera Theatre.
Yashinsky, whose showbiz lineage includes grandparents who were professional actors and an uncle who was a rock star, recently directed an opera called “How Nanita Learned to Make Flan.” And now he’s fulfilling his dream to direct a Yiddish play.
“After Midnight,” a fantastical drama by Samuel Daixel, will be performed entirely in Yiddish by students at the Frankel Jewish Academy in West Bloomfield, Michigan. Two performances will take place on April 30 and May 3. Yiddish-impaired audience members can follow along with the help of English subtitles projected over the stage.
“When it comes to Yiddish-language art, this heritage is too often ignored, at least in the modern Jewish day school,” Yashinsky told the Forward. “We are very proud to revive it, take delight in it, and discover through it more about our ancestors and our own identity as American Jews today.”
Yashinsky seems to have a facility for languages. He teaches advanced Spanish at the Frankel Jewish Academy. Last summer he enrolled in a Yiddish study program at the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Massachusetts. Yashinsky applied for and received a grant for the production of “After Midnight” from the Fishman Foundation for Yiddish Culture. It requires grant applications to be made in Yiddish and Yashinsky says the pages he wrote were “challenging but pleasant.”
When I met Yashinsky at the Yiddish Book Center last summer he told me that it was largely his grandmother, Elizabeth Elkin Weiss, and his mother, Debra Weiss Yashinsky, who instilled a love of Yiddish in him. He describes the walls of his grandmother’s home as towering with books on theater, the Holocaust and the civilization that disappeared with it.
Yashinsky created a character for his 89-year-old grandmother in the otherwise teenage production. She’s “der gayst fun der levone”, the Spirit of the Moon, and has a poetic monologue to perform. It’s not the first time he enlisted Weiss in one of his theatrical productions. A retired actress who appeared in Shakespeare productions, radio drama and TV commercials, she recited a Yiddish poem on stage prior to a 2014 performance of Brundibár — the children’s opera originally performed at Theresienstadt — that Yashinksy directed at the Michigan Opera Theatre.
Yashinsky’s other connection to Detroit showbiz royalty is his uncle David Weiss, aka. David Was of the rock group Was (Not Was).
Yashinsky’s selection of Daixel’s play should come as no surprise, given that the young director toggles from an opera about flan to a Yiddish play that draws on kabbalistic teachings and Native American thought.
“There is much meat in this piece: illicit romance, murder, class conflict, hunger,” Yashinsky said. “I was intent on not picking something that might live up to people’s stereotypes [of Yiddish theater], their expectations of the shmaltz and broad humor, the yentes and fools.”
Yiddish can now be heard from time to time in the hallways of the Frankel Jewish Academy. During the first week of rehearsals for the play, the high school actors all adopted Yiddish names. One girl, who for reasons unknown to Yashinsky is known as “Noodles,” now goes by “Lokshn” in rehearsals.