An Unsentimental Crash Course in Yiddish Theater

Yelena Shmulenson-Rickman and Allen Rickman, the couple who shot to fame after starring in the Yiddish fable opening the 2009 Coen brothers’ Oscar-nominated movie, “A Serious Man,” have been joined onstage by Broadway veteran Steve Sterner to present their fast-paced, anti-nostalgic crash course in history of Yiddish theater. It played at the New York International Fringe Festival in August.

The title, “The Essence: A Yiddish Theatre Dim Sum,” sums it up: a sampling of Yiddish theater delights served in a captivating manner. In this energizing and educational show, the trio performs comic sketches, songs and excerpts of Yiddish plays, operettas, and shund — mass-pleasing low-brow plays — while narrating the story of modern Yiddish theater from its indisputable father, Avrom Goldfadn (1840–1908), until now. The actors dazzle the audience with their versatile skills, portraying a vast array of Yiddish theater characters, from easily swindled teenage girls to theater managers trying to bring on the Messiah. The “house specials” include Rickman, accompanied by Sterner, offering a comical vision of what may happen to you when you “sin with a shikse” from the play “Yankel Boyle,” and a superbly hilarious parody of the famous “shamelessly maudlin” Yiddish song, “Papirosn.”

“The Essence” is “99.44% nostalgia-free,” as the 2011 published version of the play has it (Yiddishkeit, edited by Harvey Pekar and Paul Buhle), which is a welcome change in an often sentimental approach to Yiddish theater. The tone of the play is mostly sarcastic, poking fun at Yiddish melodramas, but it becomes serious in a poignant moment devoted to how Yiddish theater continued even during the Holocaust. Its survival in America was questioned as early as 1899 by Harvard scholar Leo Weiner, yet the Yiddish theater is still alive and kicking, as the sold-out shows of “The Essence” at the Fringe Festival confirmed.
Although the performers suggest that people unfamiliar with the history of Yiddish performing arts tend to think Yiddish theater “was all trashy melodramas. [But] of course, it wasn’t,” the play’s focus on the not-so-highbrow Yiddish theater may perpetuate that view.

Apart from a bow to the Soviet Yiddish theater (GOSET, the State Yiddish Theater in Moscow) — described by the trio as “the most exciting and innovative theater in the world” of the 1920s and 1930s, leaving Western European critics “stunned, as they had never seen anything like it” — there is surprisingly little said of more ambitious Yiddish art theater that flourished in Poland and the United States at about the same time. Sh. An-sky’s iconic play, “The Dybbuk, Or Between Two Worlds,” considered “the highest heights of Yiddish theater,” first staged in Yiddish by the Vilna Troupe in 1920 and continuously possessing the Yiddish and non-Yiddish stages around the globe until today, is mentioned off-handedly as something the Jewish audiences of the 1950s and 1960s did not want to see.

“The Essence” does give an impression that “the entire history of Yiddish theater” has been something of a boys’ club. Regrettably, the play says very little about the women of Yiddish theater. Zipora Spaisman, actress and pillar of the New York Folksbiene Theater for 40 years, and Molly Picon, the all-time superstar of Yiddish theater and film are mentioned only in passing. (A slightly longer skit is devoted to Madame Krantsfeld, an actress who jeopardized the beginnings of Yiddish theater in America by selling her soul to Yekes, German Jews, who were so appalled by the mere idea of Yiddish theater being established in the States that they paid her off to fake illness on opening night.) As a result of the androcentric approach of the play, the female characters portrayed in the show present women in rather stereotypical and not-so-flattering roles, while many great Yiddish actresses are left out. For instance, not a mention is made of the “mother of Yiddish theater,” Esther Rokhl Kaminska, and her daughter, “Grande Dame of Yiddish Theater” Ida Kaminska, who continued her mother’s legacy in Poland after the Holocaust and landed an Academy Award nomination for her role in the Oscar-winning movie “A Shop on Main Street.” Jacob Gordin’s “Mirele Efros,” featuring the role of the all-powerful matriarch outstandingly performed by many leading Yiddish actresses, is also not part of “The Essence,” even though Shmulenson-Rickman could easily shine — as she did in all her other incarnations here — as “the Yiddish Queen Lear.”

These omissions aside, “The Essence” has fantastic energy. It offers a great introduction to the history of Yiddish theater, and invites you to begin an exciting journey into the Yiddish world. This entertaining crash course in Yiddish theater, originally designed for the road, would be a natural fit for college campuses and community theaters. Although the trio says nobody knows what the future of Yiddish theater is, they end suggesting that “the spring will soon be here,” and they leave you wanting more.