As a historic hub for both theatre and international immigration, New York is unsurprisingly home to many theatres created by and for ethnically specific audiences: Ma-Yi Theater Company develops new works by Asian American artists; multiple companies, from Teatro Latea and Pregones/Puerto Rican Traveling Theater to Repertorio Español, produce works in Spanish; the Irish Repertory Theatre and Irish Arts Center are key outposts for drama by and about this signature New York population.
Another integral immigrant population has had ample stage representation in the past: At one point in time, New York was home to more than 50 Yiddish theatres, where stars speaking the language of Ashkenazi Jews delighted audiences both Jewish and not, both fluent in the language and entirely unfamiliar with it. Today, reflecting both the relative decline and the cultural persistence of this unique heritage, there are two remaining Yiddish theatres in the city, New Yiddish Rep and National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene (NYTF).
The latter company had a crossover hit in 2018 with its Yiddish-language production of the classic musical Fiddler on the Roof, Fidler afn Dakh (now back in an encore engagement Off-Broadway through Jan. 1, 2023). The company had been no stranger to good fortune before then, keeping its doors open as competitors folded throughout the 20th century. But Fiddler has had the kind of mainstream success NYTF hadn’t experienced in years, leading critics to wonder if both the Yiddish theatre scene and the wider world of Yiddish were experiencing a rebirth. NYTF acknowledged the trend by naming a 2021 fundraiser “A Yiddish Renaissance.”
Many Yiddishists—the language’s champions, who include scholars, teachers, students, playwrights, musicians, archivists, podcasters, and more—dislike this term. “Renaissance” implies that the work of both professional and amateur Yiddishists stopped cold at some point or went underground of its own accord, rather than, as they see it, being deprived of funding and continued support. Too often, the Yiddishists feel, the theatre industry looks backward at Yiddish theatre as if paying homage to a bygone era is the only option left.
If we are in the midst of a Yiddish renaissance, it is one that has built up gradually, not sprung to life overnight. Long before the popular language-learning app Duolingo added Yiddish to its lexicon in 2021, organizations like YIVO and the Workers Circle offered classes in New York and online. Online learning options have gotten so popular that NPR covered the phenomenon last year. The Jewish Daily Forward, one of the oldest Jewish newspapers in the country, still publishes a Yiddish edition online (the print publication folded in 2019). In 2016, Sandy Fox launched Vaybertaytsh, a feminist podcast in Yiddish whose name refers to Torah commentaries written for (but not by) women, and WUNR in Brookline, Mass., releases their weekly Yiddish radio show, the Yiddish Voice, as a podcast as well. Cameron Bernstein, an alum of the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Mass., boasts over 44,000 followers on TikTok, where she posts Yiddish music, memes, translations, and tidbits of historical information. Students can take Yiddish classes at select universities across the country, or even pursue doctoral programs in the language and its literature. Beyond academia’s walls, Yiddish is a first language to hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers. Though Yiddish remains a minority language, it would be inaccurate—and exquisitely annoying to Yiddishists—to call it a dead one.
The Yiddish theatre community has remained similarly steadfast for generations, even as it gradually lost its wide audience reach and now faces a dearth of actors who speak the language. What was a mainstream component of the theatre industry a century ago, selling well over a million tickets each year, is now categorized as affinity theatre.
There have been high points in Yiddish literature and arts since that height: Writer Isaac Bashevis Singer, whose Yiddish stories are characterized by a witty, tongue-in-cheek embrace of death and disaster, won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1978. And then there was klezmer, the jazzy, folksy dance music of Ashkenazi Jews, which Zalmen Mlotek, the artistic director of the NYTF, credits with keeping Yiddish performing arts afloat; playwright and Yiddishist Rokhl Kafrissen, a 2019 fellow at LABA Laboratory for Jewish Culture, said in an interview last year that the 1990s klezmer revival was her gateway to Yiddish and its theatre. Indeed, the Klezmatics’ original score for the 1997 Public Theater production of Tony Kushner’s A Dybbuk, an adaptation of S. Ansky’s most famous Yiddish play, was considered one of the production’s high points.
These musical and theatrical strains, and the persistence of theatres like NYTF, led to the success of Fidler Afn Dakh, which bridged the gap between niche or cultural affinity art and mainstream success, effectively taking one of the most iconic Broadway musicals back to its roots.
Fiddler has, of course, been revived on American stages, including on Broadway, numerous times since its 1964 debut, but it had never been produced in the original language of writer Sholem Aleichem (whose stories inspired Joseph Stein’s libretto) until NYTF produced Shraga Friedman’s translation. (Aleichem’s own Yiddish-language play about the character of Tevye the Dairyman was not produced in his lifetime.) The production resonated with audiences, prompting a 2019 transfer to Stage 42, a cast recording, and a Drama Desk Award.
But Fiddler was not the first Yiddish play to take hold of the New York theatre world in the 2010s: In 2016 and 2017, New Yiddish Rep produced God of Vengeance, a controversial Yiddish play by Sholem Asch whose 1923 production featured the first kiss between two women on a Broadway stage, resulting in the arrest of the company and theatre owners for obscenity. Playwright Paula Vogel in turn chronicled Asch’s life and creative process and the history of the play in Indecent, which played on Broadway around the same time as New Yiddish Rep’s production and won director Rebecca Taichman a Tony Award. Indecent, which features both Asch and Hebrew and Yiddish writer I.L. Peretz as prominent characters, is primarily in English, but Vogel sprinkles Yiddish dialogue throughout the script and infuses the play with a spirit of song and dance essential to Yiddish theatre. The play ended up extending for six weeks after its initially announced closing date due to public outcry.
Yiddish cinema has shown strength as well: In 2017, Joshua Z. Weinstein released the Yiddish-language tale Menashe, featuring a company of native speakers from Brooklyn. The lead actor, Menashe Lustig, also lent his talent to the 2019 horror film The Vigil, an English and Yiddish production from Keith Thomas about a man hired to keep watch over the body of a deceased man from his Jewish community. The film’s protagonist, like the captivating Esty in Netflix’s controversial 2020 miniseries Unorthodox—the first American streaming series in Yiddish—is off the derech, or OTD, a Hebrew term for a formerly Orthodox person who has left the “path” (derech).
Many of New Yiddish Rep’s actors are OTD themselves, having been raised in Yiddish-speaking homes and communities in Brooklyn, Queens, and throughout the city. As OTD people face economic hardship after leaving their communities, New Yiddish Rep offers creatively inclined Yiddish speakers new opportunities.
Indeed, OTD artists and teachers from Yiddish-speaking backgrounds may be ideally suited to help foster a Yiddish theatre community committed to preservation of the language’s nuances and dialect differences; several of the OTD actors of New Yiddish Rep have also lent their voices to Duolingo’s Yiddish lessons. Not every Yiddish theatre company or program, however, requires performers to be native speakers, or even fluent: NYTF trains actors, Jewish and non-Jewish alike, in the dialogue and idiosyncrasies necessary to perform their Yiddish-speaking roles. NYTF’s approach views Yiddish as a component of actor training, not a disparate prerequisite for building a company of Yiddish-speaking performers.
“They’re learning phonetically,” Mlotek said in an interview last year about actors new to NYTF’s rehearsal processes. He said that Actors’ Equity Association allowed the Fiddler team to feed auditionees one sentence to repeat as a “test” of their Yiddish capabilities. “Of course they have to understand every word they’re saying so they can act in the language,” Mlotek said.
Though they both share the stages of a city once bursting with Yiddish theatre and its stars, NYTF and New Yiddish Rep sometimes clash ideologically over this core question: Is the Yiddish language an intrinsic part of the Yiddish theatre experience, or is it part of the acting?
“When you have a show with 27 actors, and only one of them speaks Yiddish or only two of them speak Yiddish, is it Yiddish theatre?” David Mandelbaum, the co-founder and artistic director of New Yiddish Rep, bluntly posed in an interview last year. “Would you go to see a French play with all non-French-speaking people onstage?”
Mandelbaum observed matter-of-factly that actors being coached in Yiddish dialogue who lack contextual knowledge of the language outside the script in their hands may not only struggle with their acting process but with a personal disconnect from their cultural heritage—one that plagues many Jews trying to learn Yiddish for the first time. Mandelbaum grew up in a Yiddish-speaking home with his parents, who were Polish Jewish immigrants. Mlotek’s father was a Yiddish writer who came to the U.S. after World War II, while his mother was an ethnomusicologist who “devoted her life’s work to collecting Yiddish songs.” (Bashevis Singer once called Mlotek’s parents the “Sherlock Holmeses of Yiddish folk songs,” according to Mlotek’s mother’s obituary.) This immersion in Yiddish language, let alone in the Yiddish literati, has grown rare outside of Haredi (or “ultra-Orthodox”) communities.
For many other American Jews, however, Yiddish has been the dividing line between religious and secular cultures, and some have chosen not to teach the language to their children to allow them—or force them—to assimilate into mainstream culture. My own family adopted this view generations ago; the Star of David atop a Christmas tree in Tom Stoppard’s Leopoldstadt, on Broadway this season, reminds me of my great-grandfather’s decision to put the Christmas tree near the windows so that the neighbors would know that the family was similar, secular, “normal.”
“They wanted their kids to be Yankees,” Mandelbaum said of the waves of Jewish immigrants who encouraged their children to speak only English. Mlotek referred to Yiddish as a “secret language” spoken between parents and grandparents, but not to children. This assimilation trickled down: From 1980 to 2011, the population of Yiddish speakers in the U.S. declined by almost half, sitting at around 250,000 now.
Still, Yiddish theatre artists aren’t sure that native speakers are the ones buying tickets to Yiddish theatre productions and noticing mistakes or regional variations. In fact, Mandelbaum joked that Yiddish theatre survives because Yiddish speakers aren’t coming to see shows and point out mistakes. While some Yiddish-speaking Haredi Jews do engage in secular pop culture, others restrict their exposure and may not feel comfortable at a theatre performance not explicitly designed for religious audiences. Others may be wary of Yiddish theatre’s historic penchant for depicting religious life as archaic or anti-intellectual; some playwrights in the golden age of Yiddish theatre were reacting to the shtetls where they grew up, while others had never experienced such a life and were poking fun at their countryside brethren.
“When the Museum of Jewish Heritage invited us to be the resident theatre company, I had to go through—not an inquisition, but a meeting,” Mlotek told me. A trustee believed that all Yiddish theatre had to offer was this stereotypical fare that denigrated religious Jews as primitive peasants. “I happen to be a traditional Jew in the sense that I keep Shabbos, I have a relationship with the Creator,” Mlotek said he told the trustee. “There’s no agenda to ridicule any segment of the Jewish population.”
By focusing on outreach work with OTD Yiddish artists, Mandelbaum also addresses the disparities between Jewish religious communities and Jewish performing arts. His work at New Yiddish Rep helps a niche within a niche: Yiddish speakers are a small demographic, and OTD people are an even smaller one who often struggle with tension in their former communities.
Onstage, however, neither New Yiddish Rep nor NYTF caters only to Yiddish audiences. The popularity of New Yiddish Rep’s God of Vengeance and NYTF’s Fiddler proved that the language is not a barrier but a part of the theatre experience, akin to going to the opera, with projected supertitles aiding comprehension. Assuming that there are no Yiddish-speaking Jews in the audiences of these shows may paint with too broad a brush, but we can safely assume that they are not the majority. Mlotek and Mandelbaum both spoke about trends they have noticed among Jewish audience members, but as of the time of my interviews, neither company had data about whether their patrons speak Yiddish at home or at all. Perhaps dividing Jewish audience members into groups of secular and religious, native Yiddish speakers and not, is an unproductive exercise—not all Jews will accept the labels applied to them. (You know the saying, “Two Jews, three opinions”?)
At the end of the day, most of the audience for NYTF’s storied Yiddish Fiddler production (also referred to as “Yiddler”) does not care if it represents an authentic linguistic interpretation of a language spoken mostly in cloistered communities, or if such a judgment can even be made. These conversations, while interesting from a scholarly point of view, feel more like splitting hairs to the average theatregoer. Fidler afn Dakh was popular enough to be revived this year, and may follow in the footsteps of other pre-COVID hits that have transferred to Broadway. Though Mlotek and Mandelbaum don’t agree on every facet of Yiddish artistic pedagogy, they don’t see themselves as rivals in their cultural and linguistic niche. Their companies simply offer different works from different perspectives, which Mandelbaum compared to the history of Yiddish theatre in New York.
“They used to do ‘claques,’ where fans of a particular impresario would be given free tickets to come to the theatre and clap, or to go to another theatre and create chaos,” he described. Yiddish theatre actors were not afraid to confront each other, directors, or audience members whose reactions they deemed not up to snuff. Perhaps this seems a little uncouth to the modern theatre attendee, but Mandelbaum called it a “wonderful, crazy, marvelous” time that encapsulated some of the vaudevillian spirit of Yiddish theatre.
The debate over accessibility versus authenticity—and whether these elements can live in harmony—grips the whole Yiddish world today, not just the Yiddish theatre. While some Jewish users and media celebrated Duolingo’s addition of Yiddish last year, others scoffed, deeming the program inferior to in-person, in-depth language learning. The platform does gamify learning to a degree, conflicting with pedagogical opinions of language acquisition, but it does incentivize users to keep coming back and, most significantly, it is free of charge. While organizations like YIVO and the Workers Circle offer classes, workshops, and immersion programs and sell textbooks for students to learn on their own, these pose financial barriers to many, and students outside New York don’t have the same opportunities for in-person learning.
Kafrissen thinks the level of interest that young people, Jewish or otherwise, have shown in Yiddish in recent years doesn’t match the level of investment from Jewish institutions. “Something like Duolingo sort of rushes into the vacuum to provide that [learning], because it’s free,” she explained. “Duolingo can’t answer your questions. A real teacher is expensive and valuable.”
Duolingo’s Yiddish voice actors also represent different backgrounds, which can affect accents, pronunciations, and even some words. These differences (which were once determined by regions of Eastern Europe and are now also determined by regions of New York) account for an inconsistent, and thus inauthentic, auditory experience on the app. Some Yiddishists may liken the disparity between Duolingo and other Yiddish learning experiences to the conversation about which Yiddish stories gain pop culture prominence: While quotable and beloved, stories like Fiddler and other depictions of the shtetl may not paint entirely accurate pictures of Jewish life—sometimes because Yiddish writers of the haskalah, or Jewish enlightenment, intended them that way.
Kafrissen, for example, admitted that she has a love/hate relationship with Fiddler.
“I love musical theatre and I love Fiddler, Fiddler is amazing,” she said. “At the same time, I’m done with Fiddler. I never want to see another revival.” She’s in good company: Jewish literary critic Irving Howe said the original 1964 production represented “the spiritual anemia of Broadway and of the middle-class Jewish world,” while Jewish novelists like Philip Roth and Cynthia Ozick similarly dismissed it as “kitsch.” Kafrissen likened the choice to revive Fiddler and even Funny Girl again and again rather than patronize new Yiddish playwrights and stories to “malpractice.”
“You would think that with the tremendous success of things like Hamilton that people would understand the value of developing new voices and seeing that new works can be financially successful,” she said.
Nostalgia, of course, comes with an economic cushion. But nostalgia can also erase the vibrant, living world of modern Yiddish. The presentation of Yiddish art that focuses only on the past can lead Americans, Jewish and otherwise, to believe that Yiddish only exists in the past. Art that relies on the jokes, insults, and quippy proverbs that Yiddish offers can sometimes reduce the language and its culture to such quips. When Billy Crystal performed Yiddish “scat” at this year’s Tony Awards, spouting off gibberish and almost no actual Yiddish words, some Yiddishists were perturbed. Kafrissen, for her part, said that Crystal’s performance of Yiddish as “a pre-verbal string of guttural grunts […] index[ed] Yiddish speakers in a way that reflects unconscious discomfort/disgust with Yiddish itself.” Like the question of whether or not to teach novice actors Yiddish, such displays can easily toe the line between appreciation and appropriation.
Perhaps this is why terms like “Yiddish renaissance” have become such a thorn in the side of some Yiddishists.
“Nostalgia is a kind of story that American Jewry tells itself,” Jessica Kirzane, a professor at the University of Chicago and the editor-in-chief of the Yiddish studies journal In geveb, said at a YIVO talk last June. (The talk was appropriately titled, “Are We in the Midst of a Yiddish Renaissance?”) Every generation of Yiddish students and speakers tussles with this debate of the Yiddish revival, and “renaissance,” Kirzane said, becomes nothing more than a marketing term.
“Renaissance” also risks dismissing the ongoing, active work of Yiddish creators and their compatriots. Within the theatre field, projects like the Digital Yiddish Theatre Project at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee document translations, digitize scripts and interviews, and review new Yiddish performances. The project, which functions as a living archive, hosts a database of Yiddish plays (including new ones), and scholars and critics alike can contribute work. The University of Haifa’s DYBBUK project has similar goals and hopes to soon launch its own database. The Royal Dramatic Theatre Stockholm staged Shane Baker’s Yiddish translation of Waiting for Godot in 2021 with the Congress for Jewish Culture; it was first produced with New Yiddish Rep and Castillo Theatre in 2013. Across the country, Yiddish artists gather, read, collaborate, and draft and redraft bold new Yiddish works.
In many ways, the challenges facing Yiddish theatre are no different from those facing any emerging or under-resourced artist or arts organization: Yiddish artists must find a way to uplift their work and strive for further recognition without relying only on legacy institutions for validation, in much the same way that theatre artists of color and the avant-garde disrupt, for example, the Broadway/Off-Broadway dichotomy. The origins of Yiddish theatre in America can offer a blueprint for a way forward. Kafrissen noted that amateur Yiddish theatres popped up alongside professional ones in the U.S., and were more likely to be “playwright-friendly” rather than produce only audience favorites.
“The amateur-professional theatre tension within the history of Yiddish theatre was very productive and generative,” Kafrissen said. With more Yiddish artists working and more Yiddish theatre projects springing to life, perhaps this sense of friendly competition—with or without the zealous staged clapping of the turn of the century—can return.
Or if not, as it is said: Az me ken nit vi me vill, men vi me ken (If you can’t do as you wish, do as you can).
Amelia Merrill (she/her) is a journalist, playwright, and dramaturg. A contributing editor at American Theatre, her work has been featured in Mic, Hey Alma, Narratively, and more. @ameliamerr_
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