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The Essence: A Yiddish Theatre Dim Sum

nytheatre.com review by Ed Malin
August 16, 2012

Yiddish, as Yelena Shmulenson explains, is such an expressive language that it simply sounds theatrical. To convey “I’m bored”, what comes out is “I feel like I’ve just died ten times.” Looking for a way to call someone an imbecile?  This show gives three dozen examples, the most extreme of which goes something like “Pet donkey of the Cantor of the Village of Chelm”.

Given the wisdom (and sarcasm) of the language, Yiddish theater simply had to bloom.  But it almost failed when Abraham Goldfaden tried to birth a very poetic performance style in Romania in the 1870s.  Musicals worked much better!  Transplanting Yiddish theater to New York in later decades also almost failed, because the established German Reform Jews, full of horror at the accents and manners of their Eastern European cousins, paid a lead actress to stay home on opening night.  And yet, Yiddish theater succeeded in New York and had an incalculable effect on American plays and musicals to come.  To hear this amazing story, do yourself a favor and see Essence:  A Yiddish Theatre Dim Sum.

Allen Lewis Rickman, Yelena Shmulenson (you might recognize them from the Coen Brothers film A Serious Man) and noted composer and accompanist Steve Sterner translate (verbally or with supertitles) some of the hit songs.  “Papirosen” (1920s), the story of a homeless orphan who sells cigarettes, is revealed to be so sentimental it’s funny.  You can tell that this show is not just for the old timers , and since there are over 3 million Yiddish speakers alive today (enough to motivate Christian missionaries to keep printing Yiddish versions of the New Testament) why not  give younger fans something they can relate to? To see the emotional range of the cast, contrast “Papirosen” with the truly sad Holocaust ballad “Dona” (1940). 

We are also treated to examples of Yiddish melodrama and musical revues on three continents down to the end of the 20th Century, plus Dzigan and Shumacher’s  classic “Einstein Weinstein” routine.   It wasn’t all laughs, fortunately; when the great Jacob Adler wanted to do The Merchant of Venice on Broadway, he played Shylock in Yiddish beside an English-speaking cast. Rickman, Shmulenson and Sterner bring their vitality (and ability to change costumes every two minutes) to a genre that is still appreciated and bursting with things to offer today’s audiences.  Their joy in what they do and happiness for the success of Yiddish theater in inhospitable places (believe it or not, Israel once banned the language) makes you want to laugh and cry.