Both of my grandmothers spoke Yiddish to me, even when they were speaking English. Their efforts to converse with their little American grandson were as inescapably polyglot as Yiddish itself, a mixtuchre of homeland and immigrant reality too jumbled to deconstruct. Both of my grandmothers had been living here for over thirty years by the time I was born. Both spoke English a bissel. Their Yiddish essences, however, invariably overtook them.
I found myself thinking of my grandmothers this past week as Yiddish overtook me at the theater. On Monday, April 16, I attended a concert at Carnegie Hall billed as From Shtetl to Stage: A Celebration of Yiddish Music and Culture, part of Carnegie Hall’s massive Migrations: The Makings of America festival. Then, purely by happenstance, I followed up with a performance of Fiddler on the Roof in its current all-Yiddish incarnation Off-Broadway.
Even with Carnegie Hall’s august impramitur, there was a vaudeville-esque quality to much of From Shtetl to Stage, which is only appropriate. Vaudeville, after all, was significantly derived from the mishigas of Yiddish theater.
Yiddish was the spoken daily language of the European Diaspora, a coarse, colorful mash-up of Old German, Slavic, Hebrew and Aramaic argots. Transported to America, Yiddish cross-bred with English to bring forth the wisecrack, the one-liner, the double entendre and, in time, much of the Great American Songbook.
At Carnegie Hall, the performers proved an appropriate hodge-podge of Yiddishists, , Broadway babies and classical titans; including Klezmer clarinetist David Krakauer, a Tony-Award-winner, Katrina Lenk, from The Band’s Visit and pianist Evgeny Kissin. The concert ventured a very rough chronology, from “The Old World” — a series of backward-gazing chestnuts like Abraham Goldfaden’s immortal “Rozhinkes mit mandlen”(“Raisins with Almonds”) — through “Welcome Greenhorn,” to assimilation, with “Yiddish Swings.” Along the way, it made an absolutely heart-arresting stop-over for “Let Us In,” a group of songs that ran through Ellis Island (“Elis-ayland”) to culminate with a turn-of the-last-century anthem by Joseph Rumshinsky and M. Jaffe (“Lozt arayn” “Let Us In) that should be sung daily at our southwestern border today.
In an particularly emotional moment, Mr. Kissin stopped the show via a very personal, at times genuinely poetic, reminiscence about his Yiddish-speaking grandparents (“My Grandmother-Tongue”). He sure spoke to me.
There is filmed footage, hand-held, 8mm, of my sister, my brother and me performing our version of Fiddler on the Roof in my parents’ living room around the time of the show’s initial run on Broadway in the 1960s. Fiddler was the first Broadway musical I ever saw live. I have since seen it many times and even wrote about taking my daughters to see it for the first time a few years ago. None of these performances touched me quite the way I was touched to hear and see it unfold in Yiddish (with English subtitles), as eloquently restaged by Joel Grey, of all people, a musical theater performer of infinite talents, but best known as the Master of Ceremonies in Cabaret.I could get lost kicking around the conceit that Cabaret (which opened on Broadway a little over two years after Fiddler) actually stands as Fiddler’s mirror image, with Sally Bowles as a female Tevye, incapable of leaving her own personal Anatevka, namely Berlin, before it burns. I will resist. What Fiddler on the Roof highlights in Yiddish is the empathetic universality of Joseph Stein’s book, and the unalloyed beauty of Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick’s score as a precision-cut instrument of dramaturgic enhancement.
What particularly struck me watching the extraordinary Steven Skybell, as Tevye, and his lovely supporting cast, was how Yiddish seemed to bleed Fiddler of its own vaudeville shtick. Fiddler always was a balance between Old World authenticity and New World comicality – particularly in Zero Mostel’s definitive creation of Tevye. In Yiddish, this Fiddler simply faded away. The shticky punch lines and shtick-driven characters, like the schlemiel tailor who marries Tevye’s eldest daughter, largely didn’t land in Yiddish. Which was fine. What came through far more profoundly was the humanity beneath the shtick, the mensch beneath the mousy tailor. Like my grandmothers’ Yiddishe neshamas, this was always there underneath the English language. Here, in Yiddish, it simply bloomed.