Yiddish, in the perception of today's popular culture, often seems to be an odd collection of endearment terms (bubbe, mensch) and, of course, a fun collection of complaints and insults (kvetch, bubkes, schmuck, feh!). Many words have slipped into everyday English vernacular (schlep, schlock, schmaltz, schmooze) and even into TV theme songs (remember the Laverne & Shirley theme, "Schlemiel, schlimazel, Hasenpfeffer Incorporated"?).
For younger generations, Hebrew is most often considered the language of the Jewish people. Even just recently Aaron Davidman, artistic director of San Francisco's Traveling Jewish Theatre, believed that "Yiddish was for bubbes in old age homes." But it should be noted that at the start of the 20th century there were 11 million native speakers worldwide, according to the program notes.
To kick off its 30th season, Traveling Jewish Theatre is revisiting one of its first plays, an original script by co-founders Naomi Newman, Corey Fischer, and Albert Greenberg that Fischer said he wrote to "explore Yiddish without nostalgia, sentimentality, or trivialization." It focuses on the notion of an archetypal "last" Yiddish poet wandering through an abridged history of the Jewish people, from the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai through the stereotype of the Jewish immigrant to the gassing of the Jews in Lublin, Poland. Even in covering this sometimes somber and troubling history, the play is grounded with a subtle sense of humor and almost-magical whimsy — much like the Yiddish language itself.
Fischer and Davidman spend much of their time onstage playing Jewish comedians with humorously enlarged noses and exaggerated accents, confronting and playing with stereotypes, and pulling out plenty of Marx Brothers physical shtick (hey, there's a Yiddish word I use all the time). These bits, while a nice respite from the heavier material, feel somewhat forced and reflect a slapstick style from a long-ago era. They elicit smiles, but little laughter. This structure feels more like a Yiddish revue than a structured narrative, though that's probably the point.
Much of the beauty and resonance of the play, as well as the spoken Yiddish, comes from Davidman's assured and gentle portrayal of the Poet, and Fischer's ominous and tired Nakhman (a historical Hasidic rabbi). One standout scene has these two characters at New York's Cafe Royal, once a favorite hangout for Jewish intellectuals and artists, passionately writing poetry on napkins and hilariously attempting to compose a manifesto expanding the boundaries of Yiddish writing. Their dialogue, a fervent exchange of ideas woven into a tapestry of Yiddish and English, poetry and song, captures the true essence of this play — a beautiful celebration of a dying language's life and soul.