I used to think that only two people were crazy enough to work full time at keeping Yiddish alive. Who were they? The first is Zalman Mlotek, the Artistic Director and Guiding Light of the National Yiddish Theater - Folksbiene, who continues producing/directing/finding funding, etc. for Yiddish plays like The Golem or Sholem Alechim's comedies as well as plays translated for him into Yiddish, like Die Yam Gazlonim, aka The Pirates of Penzance, but as written by Gilbert and Solomon. The second person is Aaron Lansky, founder of the National Yiddish Book Center, whose 1989 MacArthur Fellowship made it easier for him to continue his life's work -- collecting and salvaging Yiddish books, periodicals and sheet music which had been discarded by collapsing Jewish cultural institutions or from the libraries of deceased cultured Jews.
Now you can add the name of a third part-time meshuganer to the above list, Beck Lee, who isn't even Jewish. Beck is the founder of MediaBlitz, a publicity firm that has represented the Folksbiene for so many years that he now actually believes he was born and bar mitzvahed in Berdichev.
This past Wednesday night at the Metropolitan Room, a Manhattan Cabaret venue, MediaBlitz Entertainment presented "An Evening of Vintage Yiddish Vaudeville," which brought 2nd Avenue if not BACK TO LIFE! at least back to life. The show didn't start until 9:30 pm and the room was packed. It was a revelation. "And they say old Jews don't go out at night," someone remarked. They say wrong. Besides there were young Jews there and a 6' 8" Jewish giant.
"You Don't Have to Speak Yiddish to Understand the Truth" was only booked for a one-night stand. Its klezmer overture by clarinet virtuoso Michael Winograd and accordionist Patrick Farrell started with a slow, melancholy wailing doina and climbed to a joyful wedding tune that tempted you to climb on the tabletop and stamp your feet. The host of the performance was emcee Shane Baker, who spoke flawless Yiddish but is actually Gentile, has a feeling for Catskill humor and did a piece called Essen describing a vacation as one nonstop meal. He also mentioned his favorite Jewish Native American chief -- Running with Coupons.
Perky Society songbird Miryem-Khaya Siegel stood in for Molly Picon and sang a song about how wonderful living in Beserabia had been. Jews may be the only people who sing sentimental songs about countries in which they were abused and exiled. Next came comic Moishe Pipick aka Bob Greenberg who gave a Jewish twist to his impressions of Jackie Gleason, Alfred Hitchcock and Lou Costello. Naturally no Second Avenue revival can exist without a Shylock; this one played by David Mandelbaum who receited a Yiddish translation of Shylock's speech that "was better than what Shakespeare wrote."
The icing on the kichel was a preview of the upcoming Fringe Festival's The Essence, A Yiddish Theatre Dim Sum, a music and comedy extravaganza which according to New York's top kvetchette, Jackie Hoffman is "more fun than Yom Kippur and a whole lot hipper." Created and performed by Allen Lewis Rickman and Yelena Shmulenson -- the shtetl couple from the Coen brothers' Oscar-nominated A Serious Man -- it also features Broadway veteran Steve Sterner. It was an irreverent introduction to all things Yiddish, including a crash course in the endless list of Yiddish words that mean imbecile. They also sang and translated a popular immigrant hit song, Papirossen, about a boy who is freezing and starving and trying to sell cigarettes which no one wants to buy. The second verse talks about the cigarette seller's father losing both his hands in the war. The third verse talks about how his mother died when he was little. By the time they got to the fourth verse about how his little sister died in his arms, there wasn't a dry eye in the room but the tears were tears of laughter. Their performance was so hilarious and smart, that I ordered tickets for The Essense: A Yiddish Theater Dim Sum at www.essenceofyiddishtheatre.com. The Essence will be performed between August 14 and August 26th at the Robert Moss Theatre at 440 Studios, 440 Lafayette Street, 3rd Floor, and will be touring also.