‘Yiddish is my mother language, and a mother is never really dead,” reflected Isaac Bashevis Singer in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech in 1978. Indeed, the mame loshen continues to play a vital role in the cultural life of the city, as one gathers from two overlapping productions running this month — one a translation of a rarely seen Yiddish play, and the other an evening of Yiddish music and poetry.
Currently running through May 20 at the New Worlds Theatre Project is H. Leivick’s “Welcome to America,” about a Jewish immigrant, Mordechai Maze (Donald Warfield), struggling to maintain his sanity while working in a sweatshop on the Lower East Side. Originally titled “Schmates” (rags, or remnants, in Yiddish), the play was originally presented by Maurice Schwartz’s Yiddish Arts Company in 1922. Its author, best known for penning “The Golem,” was a socialist paperhanger who emigrated from Belarus to Philadelphia after spending years imprisoned by the czar for revolutionary activities.
Directed by Stephen Fried and translated by the company’s artistic director, Ellen Perecman, “Welcome to America” speaks to the universality of the immigrant experience. This is underlined by the production’s multi-racial casting, in which African-American actors play most of the Jewish characters.
As Fried told The Jewish Week, “There’s an implicitly political act involved in putting a black actor on stage with a yarmulke and having him or her talk about the Jewish immigrant experience. It helps to break down stereotypes of what a Jew is supposed to look or sound like.” That the play was originally written in Yiddish, she said, is less important than its quality. As he put it, “It’s more important to say that it’s a good play than that it’s a Yiddish play.”
Also this month, for two performances only, is an evening of Yiddish song and poetry by Jewish performer Mendy Cahan. Cahan’s “Yiddish Bouquet” will range from chasidic niggunim to ballads by Itzik Manger and Mordechai Gebirtig to Yiddish versions of songs by Jacques Brel, George Gershwin and Peggy Lee. The Folksbiene’s musical director, Zalmen Mlotek, will accompany Cahan on the piano.
Cahan grew up in Antwerp, Belgium, as the child of Holocaust survivors. In an interview from his home in Tel Aviv, he recalled being raised “with my feet both in chasidism and in the secular traditions of European culture.” After making aliyah and graduating from Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Cahan founded a cultural organization, YUNG YiDiSH, to save Yiddish books and sponsor Yiddish musical and theatrical performances. The organization uses Yiddish, he said, to “connect communities in Israel that don’t interact, including the religious and the secular, the young and the old, Jews and non-Jews.”
Cahan finds exquisite irony in the fact that many Israelis who disdained the language are now fervently embracing it. “There are many who grow up hating their parents because they spoke Yiddish, but now that their parents have died, their discomfort has changed to longing — they want to transmit something that they didn’t get from their parents.”
“Welcome to America” runs through May 20 at the 45th Street Theatre, 354 W. 45th St. Performances are Wednesdays-Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. For tickets, $18, call (212) 868-4444 or visit www.smarttix.com.
“A Yiddish Bouquet” will be performed Sunday, May 20 at 2 p.m. and 6 p.m. at Baruch College, 55 Lexington Ave. For tickets, $35, call (866) 811-4111 or visit www.ovationtix.com.