Ghosts In The Sukkah
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Ghosts In The Sukkah

Ted Merwin’s column appears monthly. He writes about theater for the paper and is the author of the award-winning “Pastrami on Rye,” a history of the Jewish deli.

Welcoming guests is a time-honored Jewish custom; we keep our wedding canopies open on all sides, invite others to share our Sabbath and holiday meals, and even set out a cup of wine for Elijah at our seders. On Sukkot, we extend our hospitality even to the dead, making room for our patriarchs, matriarchs, ancient leaders and kings through the joyful ritual known as ushpizin.

For Yiddish theater artists Jenny Romaine and Shane Baker, this supernatural aspect to the harvest festival, which derives from 16th-century kabbalistic ritual, provides a perfect opportunity for Halloween-like revelry. “The Haunted Sukke,” a multifarious evening of Yiddish-language music, drama and open-mic entertainment, runs next Tuesday night at YIVO, the downtown Yiddish research center. The score will be based on the music of Bernard Herrmann, the Jewish composer who wrote the theme for the 1960 horror film, “Psycho.”

Romaine, an avant-garde puppeteer and street performer, runs the pop-up theater company, “Sukkos Mob,” which puts on bilingual street performances at this season in Yiddish and Spanish in New York streets and parks. Baker created “The Big Bupkis,” a Yiddish vaudeville show, and acted, both in New York and Northern Ireland, in the recent much-praised Yiddish-language translation of Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot.”

This past summer, Romaine and Baker asked students at the annual Yiddish summer institute at YIVO to create theatrical pieces based on famous Yiddish tales of the supernatural, including S. Anski’s “The Dybbuk,” I.L. Peretz’s “The Ballad of Monish” and I.B. Singer’s short story, “The Last Demon.” Agnieszka Legutko, who directs the Yiddish-language program at Columbia University, and who studies the undead in Yiddish culture, consulted on the project.

In an interview, Romaine told The Jewish Week that her imagination was sparked by seeing chasidim in Brooklyn doing haunted houses for Sukkot. Because of its transitory nature, the sukkah, she said, “points to the idea of the Jew as the wanderer in our political imagination. This makes the sukkah a marvelous theatrical space.” Among her favorite pieces in the show, she said, is one based on Romain Gary’s 1968 novel, ”The Dance of Genghis Cohn,” (filmed in 1993), about a Polish ventriloquist who possesses the Nazi soldier who murdered him.

After the hour-long performance, which will take place around the masked audience as they move through different rooms, there will be an open mic, as YIVO has offered on two previous occasions. Baker said that he is perennially “surprised that so many people have a Yiddish song, poem, routine or recitation in their back pocket.” Despite the overall decline of Yiddish culture in New York, he noted, “people love to speak this language and to show it off.”

The Haunted Sukke” will be performed in Yiddish on Tuesday, Oct. 14, 7 p.m., at YIVO, 15 W. 16th St. For tickets, $8, call SmartTix at (212) 868-4444 or visit www.smarttix.com.

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