Jewwis Telegraphic Agency
A classic play sounds more American when it is performed in Yiddish. Go figure.
BY ANDREW SILOW-CARROLL DECEMBER 5, 2017 12:19 PM
Actors appearing in “Awake and Sing!” from left to right: Ronit Asheri, Moshe Lobel, Lea Kalisch, David Mandelbaum and Eli Rosen. (Pedro Hernandez
NEW YORK (JTA) — Everything I love about the playwright and screenwriter Clifford Odets is found in the opening line of his 1935 play “Awake and Sing!”: “Where’s advancement down the place?”
The line is said by Ralph, the thwarted son in a struggling Bronx Jewish family in the heart of the Depression, in that wonderful, weirdly Yiddishesque language Odets created for Broadway and Hollywood. It means something like “I can’t get a promotion at work!” — but there’s no music in a sentence like that.
It’s the music heard in Odets’ 1957 screenplay for “The Sweet Smell of Success,” in which the sleazy denizens of New York’s nightclub society sound like they’re speaking Shakespeare translated into Yiddish then back into English.
“My experience I can give you in a nutshell, and I didn’t dream it in a dream, either — dog eat dog,” says Sidney Falco, the hustling PR man played by Tony Curtis. “In brief, from now on, the best of everything is good enough for me!”
And if it takes you a minute to figure out what a character like Ralph or Sidney is saying, that was part of the point: Odets created a version of English that sounded both familiar and alien because he wanted his working-class Jewish characters to sound both familiar and alien. Odets made his name in the ’30s in the proudly left-wing Group Theatre writing kitchen-sink dramas that transformed his own poor Jewish upbringing into a universal call for justice and fair play. When plays like “Awake and Sing!” and “Golden Boy” opened on Broadway, they thrilled and scandalized audiences with their risque content and occasionally radical politics.
So what happens to “Awake and Sing!” when you lose Odets’ conceit, and instead of characters speaking English as if they are speaking Yiddish, the characters actually speak Yiddish? That’s the challenge of a new staging of the play by New Yiddish Rep at Manhattan’s 14th Street Y, where a 1938 Yiddish translation of the play by Chaver Paver is being staged through Dec. 24. Performing Odets in Yiddish might sound both redundant and self-defeating, but it works. Thanks to an excellent cast and a sudden relevance for the play Odets couldn’t have dreamed of, something is definitely gained in the translation.
Luzer Twersky, left, and Ronit Asheri in “Awake and Sing!” at Manhattan’s 14th Street Y. (Pedro Hernandez)
I don’t speak Yiddish, but know enough Hebrew and Leo Rosten that I can hear how a Yiddish sentence gets from here to there. (The New Yiddish Rep production is presented with English supertitles projected above the stage.) Characters wail, flatter, gripe, coo, criticize and crow in the mameloshn. It’s a music all its own.
You do miss cockamamie Odets lines like “In life there’s two kinds — the men that’s sure of themselves and the one who ain’t! It’s a time you quit being a selling-platter and got in the first class.” (What’s a selling-platter? Who knows — but you get the point!)
But you gain something else: a connection to the Jewish past — and the political present.
The Jewish past is coded into Yiddish — not just because it is the language that Bubbe and Zayde spoke, but because it is a river that swept up and grew swollen on the history of the Jews going back to the Israelites. When Jacob, the fiery Marxist grandfather in the play, quotes Isaiah (and gives the play its title), the Hebrew recalls how Cynthia Ozick once described a similar moment in Sholem Aleichem’s Tevye stories: “the six scant Hebrew syllables instantly call up … the full quotation, the tremor or memory aroused by its ancestral uses.” The Bergers have always been a Jewish, if highly assimilated family; the Yiddish reminds you how Jewish they are.
As for the present: No play about immigrants can avoid sounding topical in this age of travel bans and deportations. The Bergers may speak Yiddish at home, but let you know they speak English out in the world. They’ll lapse into English when they need to, as when Ralph is on the phone with a girlfriend, or when they want to, as when the conniving boarder Moe delivers his tag line, “Don’t make me laugh!” An “insurance policy” is an insurance policy, and “Teddy Roosevelt” is Teddy Roosevelt. A younger character like the daughter Hennie toggles between Yiddish and English, and is reluctant to marry a “greenhorn” (or “griner” in Yiddish), an immigrant only three years off the boat. This is the immigrant’s anxiety: eager to fit in, and sometimes disdainful of newer immigrants who remind them of their vulnerability.
It’s impossible to watch a struggling family crowded into a small apartment, speaking a”foreign” language, and not be reminded of the different families, from other countries, who would replace them. This is a play about immigrant dreamers meeting a harsh reality. It’s about a system that needs strong backs and cheap labor — until it doesn’t. The Yiddish in this “Awake and Sing!” makes it a more particular story and, Odets would no doubt kvell, a more universal one.
Theatre Is Easy
Vakh Oyf Un Zing
(Awake and Sing!)
By Clifford Odets, Translated into Yiddish by Chaver Paver;
Directed by David Mendelbaum
Produced by New Yiddish Rep
by Gabriella Steinberg on 12.10.17
BOTTOM LINE: A heartbreaking and gorgeous Yiddish version of the classic American play that wrestles with economic disparity in Depression-era New York.
When you ask those in the Jewish and Yiddish-speaking community how the language is doing, you can expect to hear the following answers: “It’s a dying language.” Or, “we’re experiencing a revival!” I may generalize a bit, but The New Yiddish Rep is able to answer the call of saving the language among mainstream Jews and theatre-goers. The Rep is also reviving the culture’s vitality, which to many, never went away in the first place—you just need to know where to look.
As a progressive Jew living in Brooklyn, I am fortunate to hear Yiddish everywhere. It’s still spoken as a first language in many Chasidic households, and on the other side of the spectrum, there’s a resurgence among leftists in the Ashkenazi community yearning to recreate the culture that almost died out at the hands of the Nazis (and with political turmoil bringing up that particular historical memory, no wonder they are clinging to the mother tongue.) The Rep provides both solutions—it won’t let the Yiddish language die, and it will revive Yiddish culture.
I appreciate the Rep’s attention to detail when choosing their productions. Clifford Odets’ Awake and Sing! is a great choice for a company looking to analyze the Jewish American experience in 2017. The 1935 play tells the story of the Berger family in the Bronx, a working-class Jewish family concerned with survival and importance. Matriarch Bessie (Ronit Asheri) holds the family together like glue with her strong will and ever-present fear of the unknown, including possible eviction and losing her family to assimilation. With her subdued husband Myron (Eli Rosen), a law school dropout who relies on gambling for any semblance of a financial future, Bessie has two children, Hennie (Mira Kessler) and Ralph (Moshe Lobel).
When Hennie becomes pregnant, her mother arranges a quick marriage with Sam (Luzer Twersky), a meek man who rents a room from the family. Another boarder, Moe Axelrod (Gera Sandler), who’s embraces a nouveau riche lifestyle, is full of boisterous masculinity; he pines for Hennie but has trouble expressing his feelings. Meanwhile, Ralph is in love with a girl in Manhattan, but cannot build a future with her because the little money he has goes towards supporting his own family. Appalled by his sister’s shotgun union, and constantly cut down by his mother, Ralph leans into his grandfather Jacob (David Mandelbaum), a jolly, leftist idealist who loves music and scripture.
The structure of this family is much more a commentary on economic disruption than it is a recalling of a family’s personal drama. Odets cleverly includes a multitude of perspectives that resonate with audiences to this day. The brilliance of this production, and Chaver Paver’s translation (Paver had translated Awake and Sing! for the burgeoning Second Avenue Yiddish theatre community of yore) is that it allows the family’s fears to resonate within a language that is second nature to many and at the same time, dying out for others. Listening to Bessie bemoan the fate of her family in a language that represents so much history (of both despair and joy) is a deeply moving experience.
New Yiddish Rep’s production at the 14th Street Y is fascinating, and the acting is the winning feature. Founding member David Mandelbaum directs and plays a delightful Jacob, and co-founder Amy Coleman is a gender-bent Uncle Morty (as Aunt Mimi) who often speaks in English—a symbol of her successful assimilation into mainstream society. As Bessie, Asheri is a powerhouse of matriarchal control who teeters on the ballistic, as Odets intended. Lobel plays Ralph with a heartbreak I haven’t seen in previous productions. The use of Yiddish lends itself well to the divide between Ralph and his love Blanche (who he keeps secret from his family)—he speaks to her over the phone in English. I’ve seen actors play Ralph with pent-up frustration, but Lobel reaches for the despair of this character with great maturity.
I am impressed with how this ensemble leans into gender dynamics and flips them on their head. Mandelbaum’s direction leaves room for male vulnerability—every male character cries audibly at least once—and lets the female characters stand as beacons of strength against the men who are putty in their hands (even Hennie has a line in the text, “I never cry,” before she breaks down in front of Myron—the one exception to this dynamic). I appreciate this foray into another layer of commentary in Odets’ text: a broken economy affects all genders.
The production is lovely and simple. In more elaborate productions of Awake and Sing!, the plentiful furniture can be difficult for actors to navigate in moments of great turmoil. This isn’t to say Nathan Rhoden’s design is subpar—he successfully executes a lavish set with great respect for the supertitles, which are easy to see when watching the action. But New Yiddish Rep’s production honors what a Bronx family of the time would experience. Gail Cooper-Hecht’s costumes offer subdued color palates for the family, with brighter hues for Moe and Mimi in their quest for economic success. And Jesse Freedman’s sound design, a kaleidoscope of 1930s Yiddish classics mixed in with some nostalgia pieces (period-specific radio ads and news items) is well done. Shout out to the show’s producers—your rye bread budget must be through the roof, but that small touch is worth it!
The New Yiddish Rep expertly balances the play’s nostalgia with an understanding that its themes permeate our current society. Yiddish theatre answers a unique call when it comes to Awake and Sing! In a time when speaking Yiddish evokes the perils of the past, experiencing a story like Awake and Sing! is a large task. This production shows how the hope for the future of Yiddish theatre lies in hearty pieces about economic disparity…and love, and heartache, and family.
Theater Pizzazz Review
AWAKE AND SING: DAVID MANDELBAUM’S 21ST CENTURY MIRACLE
by Myra Chanin
The New Yiddish Rep’s current production of Awake and Sing, Clifford Odets’ 1935 American masterpiece, is a 21st century miracle. It validates Artistic Director David Mandelbaum’s mishegas/obsession of establishing a Yiddish acting company performing modern plays, either written or translated into Yiddish, that attract diverse appreciative audiences of many ages, which describes the ticket holders at the performance I attended
The New Yiddish Rep’s firstborn, the groundbreaking Yiddish Waiting for Godot,was praised by both The New York Times and The New Yorker. It was not only a surprise hit here but also killed at the International Beckett Festival in Enniskillen, suggesting that the Irish may actually be a lost tribe of Israel. It starred and was translated by the astonishing Shane Baker, a would-you-believe Yiddish-obsessed Midwestern Episcopalian who now speaks Yiddish like he was raised in Berditchev. Since then, major New Yiddish Rep productions have included Death of a Salesman which received two Drama Desk nominations, one for Best Revival and a second for leading actor Avi Hoffman whose Willie Loman spoke the language he actually spoke. Last winter’s production of Sholem Asch’s God of Vengeance was very compelling. It was about a Jewish brothel owner willing to pay anything for a respectable rabbinical husband for his pure daughter, who unfortunately was already in lust with one of his sex workers. If the plot sounds familiar, it’s because the play became the cornerstone of Paula Vogel’s Tony-winning Indecent. Incidentally, FYI, Yiddish is once again hip. It’s being taught at our finest universities including UCLA, Columbia, Binghamton, Brandeis, even Duke and Emory. So Mazel Tov, ya’ll.
Why do I think the New Yiddish Rep’s Awake and Sing is a Miracle of Miracles? Because until now, multi-character Yiddish productions were forced to cast actors with little or no familiarity with Mamalushen – the mother tongue. They learned their lines syllable by syllable and garbled the Yiddish words so badly that even someone like me, who spoke Yiddish before she spoke English, had to check the English supertitles to figure out what they actually meant. But now Yiddish speaking actors are coming out of the woodwork. Mandelbaum has gradually unearthed enough aspiring young actors who grew up in Yiddish-speaking households and can express the emotions behind the words with their voices and body movements because the subtleties of Yiddish are ingrained in their DNA.
Where have these young’uns been hiding? In Brooklyn, encased in prayer shawls. They’re the offspring of that Orthodox Community who will no longer allow to have their lives constrained by Hassidism’s intellectual restrictions. One of them, Eli Rosen, a recovering lawyer, translated and starred in the company’s previous production, Eugene Ionesco’s Rhinoceros, and is presently translating two short plays by the Israeli playwright Hanoch Levin for a future production with his fellow players in what is becoming a Yiddish repertory company.
Awake and Sing contains the skeleton of every 1930 Jewish household I can remember. Myron Berger (Eli Rosen) is the passive, but hard-working lawyer/father. His wife Bessie (Ronit Asheri-Sandler), is the financially insecure, rejecting mother who only wants “the best” for their children. Daughter Hennie (a role shared by Lea Kalisch and Mira Kessler) is the modern working woman ensnared in an age-old trap. Her brother Ralph (Moshe Lobel) is the lost but ambitious son, too insecure to untie that apron strings that bind him to his mother. Their maternal grandfather Jacob (David Mandelbaum) is a revolutionary who endlessly talks rather than does … until he does. The family “success,” their unmarried, rich, dress-designer Aunt Mimi (Amy Coleman) most likely worked part of her way up the ladder on her back. Sam Feinschreiber (Luzer Twersky) is the schlemiel who was happily and hastily married off to Hennie without a clue to what was what. Boarder Moe Axelrod (Gera Sandler) is a petty crook wannabe bigtime gangster who loves Hennie despite his bluster. Amy Coleman (co-founder of the company and the wife of Artistic Director David Mandelbaum) is the only non-Yiddish speaker in the cast, and she cleverly gets to say almost all of her lines in English.
Despite my clichéd descriptions, every one of these characters comes to life as a complex, striving, unique human being, flaws and all. They all long for financial security and romantic love. The actors really inhabit the souls of their characters and bring them to life in ways that make your heart stand up and cheer.
The actors are hardly Moishe-Come-Latelys. Gera Sandler is an Israeli Yiddish Theater star/ director, TV personality, featured in international films and his wife Ronit has starred in many Israeli productions as well. As for the Brooklyn contingent, Luzer Twersky has appeared in HBO’s Transparent, will be soon seen in HBO’s High Maintenance. His life is the subject of the Netflix Film, One of Us. Moshe Lobel landed a Yiddish speaking role on a 2018 HBO comedy series and is also producing the new web series entitled Untold Genius. All of the others actors have appeared previously in New Yiddish Rep productions.
David Mandelbaum’s adaptation of Chaver Payer’s translation shortened and tightened the play by properly downplaying the political aspects. Under his direction, the actors perform so naturally that the man sitting beside me felt he was in his father’s house.
Praise and appreciation are also due those who work behind the scenes. Three cheers for Nathan Rodan’s living room’s pretentious perfection, lacking only crocheted antimacassars to extend the life of the upholstered armrests. Gail Cooper-Hecht’s costumes were tacky and equally period perfect. If Diane von Furstenberg sees this play, they’ll soon be the rage again. The music that Jesse Freedman chose to play between the acts particularly delighted me. Every Sunday Morning over WEVD! Joe and Paul’s! A Manischewitz commercial! And a personal favorite of mine “Levine and His Flying Machine.” The plane in which Levine rode lost the race with Lindbergh but became the world’s first transatlantic passenger.
One last comment. Do you have to know French to enjoy a François Truffaut film or German to appreciate Werner Herzog’s work? No siree. You just have to be able to read the English titles. The same applies to Awake and Sing. Go. Enjoy a moving, nostalgic but realistic play with a plausibly happy ending and titles that are easy to see.
Photos: Pedro Hernandez