DC Theatre Scene sat down with Artistic Director Adam Immerwahr to discuss Theater J’s newest venture, the Yiddish Theater Lab, which will revive nearly-forgotten Yiddish classics and reimagine them into English for a contemporary audience.
Adam, what can we expect from this reading series of Yiddish plays?
An incredible range. We’re doing a play called God, Man, and Devil that’s like Faust; God and the Devil are having this debate, and the Devil goes down to Earth and tries to turn a Jewish man evil. Then, on the far side, we’ve got Bronx Express, which is about an immigrant showing up in a Bronx subway car, where characters from ads like Mr. Clean and Aunt Jemima and the Doublemint Twins come to life before his very eyes. So we have two wildly different plays, and along the way, an adaptation of King Lear, and Miryam, about a Jewish prostitute who goes from a life in the country to a life of misfortune.
Do your performing artists speak Yiddish?
No. That’s part of what interests me—to take these plays in English translation and treat them like the classics they are. You wouldn’t hold Chekhov plays to the standard of having only Russian speakers perform it. It’s exciting to bring in people from all walks of life to take on these plays, just like if you were running a Shakespeare theatre or a Chekhov festival.
So the audience definitely does not need to know Yiddish to enjoy these plays?
Every time I mention Yiddish theatre, people always say, “But I don’t speak Yiddish!” No one says “But I don’t speak Russian” when you mention Chekhov! This is no harder than going to see Chekhov—and it’s more fun.
I hear you! I was surprised to find that Yiddish theatre was booming in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. With the exception of two theatres in the United States today—National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene and New Yiddish Rep—why did such a popular art form fall off the map?
For a number of reasons:
- The number of Yiddish speakers has plummeted tremendously. Jewish people came to America and Yiddish was the lingua franca, but as they sent their children to school, schools were teaching them in English. Then the kids would come home and respond to their parents in English as the parents spoke in Yiddish.
- Most other languages are geographically tied to a location where the language is still spoken, which fundamentally is not true with Yiddish. It was always co-territorial. You would speak Yiddish in an area that was predominantly Polish-speaking or Russian-speaking or German-speaking.
- There has been a fascinating shift between Yiddish and Hebrew. Back in the day, Yiddish was spoken by many Jews, and Hebrew only by the most learned. Hebrew was the language that you would use to study the Torah; Yiddish was how you told someone you needed them to sweep the floor. With the creation of Israel—with Hebrew as the language—Hebrew has become a living language again, and Yiddish has been relegated to a primarily academic language, which is a complete reversal.
Yiddish Theater Lab, 2018
all readings are free
The Jewish King Lear
January 8, 2018 at 7:30 PM
God, Man, and Devil
April 22, 2018 at 7:30 PM
at Tifereth Israel Congregation, 7701 16 St., NW, Washington, DC
June 18, 2018 at 7:30 PM
at Theater J
Has Theater J produced works of Yiddish theatre before?
Yes. There are currently three Yiddish plays that are well-known in the American theatrical landscape: The Golem, The Dybbuk, and The God of Vengeance. And beyond that, the canon is virtually untapped. Like any untapped body of literature, there’s bound to be jewels inside of it, and there’s bound to be a lot of junk.
Speaking of buried jewels, when PBS aired Paula Vogel’s Tony Award-winning play, Indecent, it trimmed some of the more provocative content. The play, which follows a theatre company performing Sholem Asch’s The God of Vengeance. Does Indecent paint a true picture of Yiddish theatre?
Indecent is a terrific new play that explores the controversies and stories that surrounded the initial writing and production of God of Vengeance. It is a gripping and beautifully told story, and the success of Vogel’s play has drawn much-deserved attention to one of the few more well-known plays in the canon of Yiddish theatre. Hopefully Indecent’s success will help drive a renewed interest in the remaining body of Yiddish theatre.
Is there a trope you see on stage in Yiddish theatre?
You don’t, and that’s what’s so cool about it. The range is enormous. Think about what people have written in the last 30 years in the American theatre, and the Yiddish theatre is similar; we’re only scratching the surface.
Will audiences enjoy Yiddish plays if they are not especially familiar with Judaism?
Actually, Yiddish culture wasn’t that religious. In fact, the people who started Yiddish theatre were already sort of violating some religious laws. The very earliest Yiddish theatre artists were performing on the Sabbath. These were the least religious Jews. Then, when immigrants came to America, many let go of religious strictures. So you saw cultural immigrant theatre in Yiddish that was about Jewish life, but not particularly religious.
Well, we all know that the religion of Washington, D.C. is politics. Why should Washingtonians attend these readings?
They are intensely political plays. Yiddish was the hip, rebel culture. And like all classic plays, they are particular to their time, but also universal. I don’t think anyone can do a King Lear right at this particular moment without thinking of aging leaders and their complex relationship with their children and their tenuous hold on their sanity. The classic play can still be true to itself while the audience brings those associations.
What else from this series feels pressing to this political moment?
One of the things that I find interesting in the immigration plays like Bronx Express is the universality of the immigrant experience. I think that play will resonate in particular not just for people like me—my great-grandparents emigrated—but with people whose families came to America much more recently. These ideas—of the American dream, capitalism, commercialism, language, and how you hold onto your own culture as you try to embrace and succeed in a new one—they are universal.
So, would your grandparents be excited about the Yiddish Theater Lab?
Oh no, absolutely not! My grandparents were vehemently anti-Yiddish culture!
Oi vey! Would your entire family feel that way?
My immigrant great-grandparents on my mother’s side—who spoke Yiddish—maybe would have been excited about this. But my grandparents, like many Jews of their generation, wanted to leave the old country behind. They were not bar mitzvahed, and their children were not bar mitzvahed. My grandfather famously forbade anyone for speaking a word of Yiddish in the house. So no, I don’t think they’d be too excited about this!
What do you see in the Lab’s future?
It would be a dream to get one of these plays ready for stage production. And then a fantasy goal would be to get another theatre to produce one of these plays. That’s part of what we should be doing. We are the nation’s largest and most prominent Jewish theatre. We have a huge obligation, as we find plays that are exciting and rich, to put our weight behind them and send them out into the world.
Learn more at Theater J