(JTA) Yiddish playwright Sholom Asch is riding an improbable cultural wave — his scandalous, century-old “God of Vengeance” just wrapped up a sold-out Off-Broadway run, and Pulitzer Prize-winner Paula Vogel’s play about the making of “Vengeance” opens this week on Broadway. But there’s a rich irony lurking on the Yiddish stage: two of its main practitioners are not to the shtetl born, so to speak.
Veteran actor Shane Baker has performed in three productions of “God of Vengeance,” Asch’s classic about a brothel-owning family and their daughter’s lesbian relationship. The play, which was first staged in 1906, still resonates today as a treatise on morality, religion and sexuality.
In the New Yiddish Rep’s recent production, when Baker brusquely growls, in Yiddish, to his wife, Sarah (played with charm and poise by Caraid O’Brien) about wanting to own a Torah scroll, he really packs a punch. But while Baker and O’Brien are at the forefront of the Yiddish culture and theater scenes, neither is Jewish.
Baker, 48, who was raised Episcopalian in Kansas City, has been performing in Yiddish plays since the mid-1990s. He is also the first non-Jewish director of the Congress for Jewish Culture, an organization that brings Yiddish productions around the world. He also teaches a summer workshop on Yiddish theater at the YIVO here, as well as classes for the Workmen’s Circle, an organization that promotes Jewish culture and offers Yiddish lessons.
O’Brien, 42, grew up in Boston and traces her family’s roots back to Galway and elsewhere in Ireland’s Aran Islands. She has translated multiple Yiddish plays into English and has taught classes on Yiddish theater history. She’s finishing up a book on Seymour Rexite, a former star of the Yiddish stage known for translating pop and Broadway songs into Yiddish, as well as her friend and mentor.
Both Baker and O’Brien admit that people are often surprised to come across non-Jews who are so passionate about Yiddish.
“No one gets surprised if a Scotsman studies French or a German studies Russian,” Baker told JTA. “Why should it be such a shock if a gentile studies Yiddish? It’s reflective, in a way, of a sort of inferiority complex regarding Yiddish.”
Still, it’s nonetheless rare these days to hear anyone speaking Yiddish who was not brought up in a charedi community.
“Vengeance” rode the buzz around the Broadway debut of Vogel’s “Indecent,” which chronicles the real-life drama that surrounded “God of Vengeance.” When the play arrived in New York in 1923 after success in Europe, it staged the first same-sex kiss in Broadway history — and was subsequently banned after the cast and producer were arrested on obscenity charges.
O’Brien said she was first hooked on the Yiddish language while reading Isaac Bashevis Singer stories in high school. She scoured the two shelves of Boston’s public library dedicated to Yiddish literature and became enamored with other Jewish writers such as Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud and Chaim Grabe. She saw connections to Irish literature and culture: a similar quick wit, self-deprecating sense of humor and the suffocating influence of religion.
O’Brien then studied Yiddish literature at Boston University. During her senior year, while digging in the Yiddish theater archives at Harvard, she stumbled upon work by Joseph Buloff, a former Yiddish theater star. A librarian there suggested she meet with Buloff’s wife, Luba Kadison, who was living here.
Kadison, a former star of the illustrious Vilna Troupe, would become one of O’Brien’s mentors. “I wasn’t really meeting Jewish person to non-Jewish person with Luba,” O’Brien said. “It was artist to artist.”
“With the right choice of materials and marketing and exposure… there’s great growth potential for Yiddish culture.”
Baker, too, was mentored by Kadison. His interest in Yiddish theater was piqued when he saw a Yiddish play in the early 1990s starring Mina Bern. Entranced, he wanted to talk with her after the show — but language proved to be a barrier. Baker decided to learn Yiddish and soon began meeting regularly with Bern, who helped him make connections in the Yiddish theater scene (and introduced him to Jewish delicacies such as tzimmes and tongue sandwiches).
With the “God of Vengeance” now over, both O’Brien and Baker will continue pushing for greater appreciation of the language and culture they have grown to love.
“With the right choice of materials and marketing and exposure,” Baker said, “there’s great growth potential for Yiddish culture.”