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The Return Of Yiddish Vaudeville

The Return Of Yiddish Vaudeville

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.

Beginning in the fifteenth century in a valley in Normandy called the Vau de Vire, from which its name derives, vaudeville became one of the most popular forms of entertainment both in Western Europe and America. Jewish immigrants who flooded into New York from Eastern Europe encountered vaudeville and made it their own.

Now two venerable institutions in New York, the Sholem Aleichem Memorial Foundation and the Congress for Yiddish Culture, are jointly sponsoring an evening of Yiddish vaudeville, "You Don't Have to Speak Yiddish to Understand the Truth." The benefit performance will take place next Wednesday evening at the Metropolitan Room in Chelsea.

Hosted by scholar and performer Shane Baker, known for his one-man show, "The Big Bupkis: The Complete Gentile's Guide to Yiddish Vaudeville," the show features a roster of Yiddish theater regulars, including Daniella Rabbani, Miryem-Khaye Seigel, Bob Greenberg, David Mandelbaum and the husband-and-wife team of Allen Lewis Rickman and Yelena Shmulenson.

Like much of the English musical hall and American burlesque, Yiddish vaudeville was known for its earthy humor. Playwright Jacob Gordin, who tried to raise the level of the Yiddish stage in New York at the turn of the twentieth century, sneered at Yiddish vaudeville as "the tail of the theatrical business, with disgusting shows, demoralizing recitations, vulgar witticisms, emetic beer, and debauchery."

Next week's show, most of which will be presented in Yiddish, will not shy away from this tradition; in addition to send-ups of Jenny Goldstein and Molly Picon, a Yiddish recitation of Shylock's "Hath not a Jew eyes" speech, and a skit about Jackie Gleason's supposed Yiddish-speaking father, will come highly suggestive, macaronic numbers like "Fochen" (which means "to fan" in Yiddish) and "Khaki Moon" (which takes on scatological connotations in Yiddish).

"Yiddish has a problem," Baker told The Jewish Week. "The outside world thinks that it's a funny language, and that everything that Billy Crystal makes up is Yiddish. But then you have organizations that want to preserve Yiddish for its rich literary and cultural resources."

Finding new audiences for Yiddish, Baker said, requires showing people that Yiddish is a language of both the gutter and the academy, and everything in between. "Yiddish is three-dimensional; it's not just what happened at Robert Klein's family table. If you've studied it inside and out, then it's okay to punch a few holes in it."

Nevertheless, a show that is so risqué, Baker noted, would "probably not have been dared" to be produced just a few years ago when Mina Bern, Shifra Lehrer, and other grand dames of the twentieth century Yiddish stage were still alive. "But now they are gone, and we need to find new audiences who will take this language further," he said. By doing the show in a nightclub, he suggested, the performers will be emboldened to expose the bawdier aspects of the language.

Baker pointed out that the theme of the show is summed up in an image that is being used to promote the show, a picture of a bride with a dress that is daringly short. "It's like the Yiddish expression that a bride should be less pretty and more gritty. We need to explore the hidden side of Yiddish too."

"You Don't Have to Speak Yiddish to Understand the Truth" will be presented on Wednesday, August 8 at 9:30 p.m. at the Metropolitan Room, 34 West 22nd Street. For tickets, $500 or $50, plus a two-drink minimum, call (212) 206-0440 or visit

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