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Forward 50 | Mikhl Yashinsky: Yiddish Renaissance Man

Mikhl Yashinsky has been casting a spell as the evil Bobe Yakhne in the Folksbiene’s revival of Abraham Goldfaden’s “The Sorceress.” Earlier this year he appeared as Mordkhe the Innkeeper in the Folksbiene’s smash-hit revival of “Fiddler on the Roof” in Yiddish, even pulling double duty for a time attending rehearsals for both shows.

A Harvard graduate fluent in seven languages, Yashinsky, 31, has directed opera productions, taught Spanish at Frankel Jewish Academy in suburban Detroit, where he directed students in a Yiddish play, taught Yiddish at the University of Michigan and worked as a fellow at the Yiddish Book Center, where he helped develop the Center’s new Yiddish textbook. He has also written and directed plays — his grandmother Elizabeth Elkin Weiss, a Yiddish-speaking theater actress and, along with her husband Rube Weiss, a fixture on early radio serials like The Lone Ranger and The Green Hornet, appeared in Yashinsky’s play “Lilies Among Thorns,” performed before a production of “Brundibár” he directed at the Detroit Opera House. And he even performed “Guns and Ships,” the Lafayette rap from “Hamilton” in Yiddish as part of the Folksbiene’s award-winning performance at Broadway Cares’ “Easter Bonnet” competition, for which he translated excerpts from ten classic Broadway musicals into Yiddish.

Michael Yashinsky

Mikhl Yashinsky Image by Mitty Carter

Breakfast I live on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, so will sometimes go for a good hot bialy at Kossar’s and think of my ancestors. Cream cheese is extra, though, and I am but an artist of slender means, so I have on occasion lowered myself sufficiently to eat it with one of the free mustard packets they have at the store. Even lowlier than humble Bontshe Shvayg, who upon being admitted to Heaven and told that he could have anything he wished there, asked that he merely be given every morning a “heyse bulke mit frishe puter,” a hot roll with fresh butter. I do feel a bit funny about my choices, then. But I eat with great happiness as I wend my way to the theater, for how can I not do anything happily when I am en route to a job playing upon a stage?

What’s the last thing you listened to on your phone? The one song I’ve listened to the most this past year, over and over again, is the Polish folk tune “Dwa serduszka” (“Two Little Hearts”). A sad Polish folk tune, about reckless love and anguished longing, that I first heard in a sad Polish movie, “Cold War.” Mama and I saw it in New York last year when she and Father came to visit for “Fiddler“‘s opening uptown, and both of us were much moved by it.

Earliest Jewish memory: The slaying of Yitzhak Rabin by a fellow Jew, which we heard about as first-graders at the day school I attended in Detroit, was announced to us as we spent our days learning the Hebrew alphabet and delighting in Bible stories and Israeli songs and the customs of the holidays. We became suddenly aware that even in such a many-gloried family as ours, the Children of Israel, and one that has faced such danger and hatred from without, there could exist the deepest enmities, and the vilest crimes enacted by brother upon brother. A sobering lesson for a child of six! May tomorrow’s children not have to learn it.

Hero: There is not much that could be called Jewish in his oeuvre, but Thomas Hardy is a writer who consistently leaves me in wide-eyed awe of the world, its beauty and horror together, while also lending me some deeper understanding of it, and a light to guide my way through it. So maybe that experience, of enlightened wonderment, feels a bit Jewish — as reading the Tanach does the same for me.

2019 memory: I have trouble shuffling through memories of the whole year past my memory like a deck of so many cards (I am not good at shuffling cards either), so I will just say today was rather filled with nice memories. The cast of the Yiddish “Fiddler,” which I am on leave from now playing the title role in the Yiddish operetta “The Sorceress,” came to see us in the latter.

I make my first entrance on tip-toe to my spooky theme-music, in a massive cloak, then throw it off to reveal the witch in all her garish glory, while doing my big Bobe Yakhne laugh. And when I flung the cloak off (such a classic opera move, dashing one’s cloak to the floor upon entering, and I relish it), my friends went fairly wild, and they remained very raucous throughout the show. One of my fellow witches said she felt like crying at the curtain call hearing them clap for me, because she could feel the fierce love and emotion in the room. And then, Joel Grey my director on “Fiddler,” showed up for our evening show and gave us us his fond congratulations afterwards and summoned me forward with “My Mikhl!” It was altogether too much happiness for one day.

Favorite thing about being Jewish: Being a son of the People of the Book means I never have to feel guilty about buying one.

Weekend ritual: The New York theatre person’s “weekend” is Monday. I like to sleep as long as I can until even the dark curtains cannot block out all the clamor and enticements of the city. Then sometimes the Met has performances on Monday nights. I saw the new production of “Porgy and Bess” some Mondays ago. It is the first opera my mother ever took me to, as a high school junior, and it still has a tremendous power over me.

Follow Mikhl Yashinsky on Twitter @mikhldarling and Instagram @mikhldarling

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