You Don’t Have To Be Jewish…To Perform In Yiddish

You Don’t Have To Be Jewish…To Perform In Yiddish

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.

It’s a well –worn joke: A couple dining in a Jewish deli on the Lower East Side at the turn of the 20th century are astonished when their Chinese waiter takes their order in flawless Yiddish. “Shh,” the manager tells them. “He thinks that I’m teaching him English!”

Fast forward a hundred years later, and the spectacle of non-Jews speaking Yiddish is an ever-increasing phenomenon, as Jewish culture has become an object of affection and fascination for non-Jews. Indeed, while the largely non-Jewish cast of the National Yididish Theatre Folksbiene’s new production of Joseph Rumshinsky’s zany 1923 operetta, “Di Goldene Kale” (The Golden Bride) are well aware that they are speaking and singing in what Jews call the mameloshen, the irony for them is that it is not actually their own mother’s (or father’s) tongue.

Of the three hundred singers who auditioned for “Di Goldene Kale,” the vast majority were not Jewish. The twenty who were ultimately chosen needed to demonstrate that they could prepare a few lines and a snatch of a song in Yiddish—and sound like authentic members of the tribe. And then they needed to learn about Jewish religious customs, so Zalmen Mlotek, artistic director of the Folksbiene, invited the cast to his home in Teaneck, N.J. for Shabbat dinner to teach them, he said, “what Shabbes and Kiddush are.”

The show has garnered rave reviews (Laura Collins-Hughes of The New York Times called it “deeply satisfying”) and the audiences have been visibly younger and more diverse than for many recent Folksbiene productions, suggesting that non-Jews can be drawn to Yiddish entertainment as much as Jews are. The Yiddish theater, which was almost exclusively performed by and attended by Jews in its heyday, is becoming the province of non-Jews as well — and not, as Ruth Ellen Gruber wrote in “Virtually Jewish,” her 2002 book about contemporary Yiddish cultural festivals in Eastern Europe, because of the absence of Jews, but because Jews have become so acculturated into America that Judaism is becoming a kind of common property of Americans of all ethnicities.

Glenn Seven Allen plays the rich, young American who woos the "sister" of the title character. As he told The Jewish Week, “I’ve never had so many parts of my brain firing all at once, to make sure that I remember not just the Yiddish words but all the different aspects of Jewish culture.”

The opening performances of the show coincided with the first few nights of Chanukah. “We lit the menorah and sang Chanukah songs backstage,” Allen recalled. “I’ve never felt before the kind of kindness and open arms that the people who run this theater and produce this show are wrapping around us.”

"Di Goldene Kale" is being performed at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, 36 Battery Place, New York, through January 3rd.

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