Yiddish theater for anglophones

At Johns Hopkins, reviving a dying art

In 1970, Cynthia Ozick published an essay suggesting that in light of the rapid decline of Yiddish among American Jewry, English could serve as the new language of the Jews: “a language for our need.” Ozick has since retracted this opinion-and yet, the issues that drove to her raise the idea remain: What role, if any, does Yiddish still play for Jews in this country? If it can be maintained, in what form?

Tamar Nachmany, a junior at Johns Hopkins University has a compelling new answer to these questions in the form of her new Yiddish-English play, an adaptation of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s erotic fable, “Teibele and Hurmizah.” In it, she offers a vision of Yiddish as an onomatopoetic language, which, used in combination with the native language of the audience, can be understood simply because of its sounds. The play, which is free to the public, opened this weekend at Arellano Theater at Johns Hopkins University, and will continue on Thursday, April 19 at the Jewish Museum of Maryland, and Saturday, April 21 at the Bell Foundry.

“Her directorial debut this weekend was an expression of both Tamar’s academic research and her artistic creativity. We are very proud of her,” said Ami Cox, who administers the Woodrow Wilson Research Fellowship, a competitive research grant that Nachmany received at the end of her freshman year, which made the play possible.

Nachmany’s inspiration for the play stemmed from both her older sister’s high school project on Yiddish newspapers, and her own personal love for the artist Marc Chagall.

“Before I applied for the Wilson Fellowship, I saw this book of costume and set designs that Chagall did for a Yiddish theater in Moscow and thought it was so beautiful. It was then that I made a plan to do experimental research, investigate questions and direct a Yiddish play myself,” said Nachmany.

The road to putting on this play, however, was not always met with hugs and pats on the back. Nachmany explained that certain academics of Jewish and German literature and history that she spoke with over the course of the past two years sometimes disapproved of her handling of the play.

“Teibele and Hurmizah” is about Jewish lovers in a Polish shtetl, engaging in romance, adultery and deception. There was some disagreement about Nachmany’s choice to not formally study the Yiddish language first.

Nachmany involved herself in theater at Johns Hopkins to learn more about directing, but also looked to immerse herself in the Baltimore arts scene for guidance and inspiration.

“One person I met through this process was a woman named Dara Weinberg. I had multiple friends say to me, ‘Oh my god you have to meet this person doing a theatre Fulbright in Poland!'” said Nachmany.

“I helped Tamar make a couple of initial connections within the Baltimore theater community, just introductions, and I think the way that she’s been able to follow up on everything and bring this project to completion is quite remarkable,” said Weinberg, a former Hopkins student and current artistic director of Parallel Octave, a Baltimore-based theater group.

Yiddish theatre, arguably a dying art form, has a few remaining practitioners that are protective of it, and desperate for it to survive.

“There are strong opinions about Yiddish and I’ve gotten heat from certain people that the way I’m doing this project doesn’t make sense to them. I think it’s important to not take that personally and remember that it’s just an area that is very sensitive. I think with Yiddish there’s a vulnerability that makes people extra sensitive to how you teach it and how you study it,” said Nachmany.

The fellowship provided Nachmany with some unique opportunities for her research and production. Last summer, she used some Wilson funds to travel to the Montreal International Yiddish Theatre Festival in Canada where she witnessed many plays from various Yiddish theater troupes from around the world, including the play that ultimately convinced her what play she should direct.

“In Montreal I saw this play by a Romanian Yiddish theater group and it was so inspiring. After the festival I read the script and I was again really intrigued by its love story,” said Nachmany. The Romanian group was the State Jewish Theatre of Bucharest, and they had put on Singer’s “Teibele and Her Demon.” And thus, Nachmany decided to direct a production that used this text among others.

For Nachmany, the costumes and set design were important pieces of this play’s essence. Looking again into the community, she hired a costumer-a graduate of the Maryland Institute College of Art named Amelia Beiderwell.

“I researched life in Poland in the 1880s and gathered as much imagery of Jewish shtetls and the wardrobe of the time,” Beiderwell said. She scoured thrift and vintage clothing stores in search of existing items she could build upon to create the eclectic look she had in mind. Of the styles she was going for she said, “I am very inspired by the influence of eastern designs and the crossover of style and prints from trade routes and shared goods of the time.”

A guiding question for Nachmany throughout this whole project was the question of what constitutes good Jewish art: What makes something Jewish? To make a good Jewish play, how much needs to be focused on specific Jewish elements as opposed to simple quality artistic elements?

“I asked myself often, what do I need to do as a director to make it a Jewish play? How much about Judaism do I need to teach to my cast? In a lot of ways the play’s story is not specific to this Polish society. Some of the themes are just more universal,” said Nachmany. One creative element of Jewishness Nachmany added to the play’s production was the accompaniment of the Charm City Klezmer Band during some of the performances.

The play is a mix of Yiddish and English. When she went to the Montreal Yiddish Theatre Festival Nachmany had trouble understanding plays that were entirely in Yiddish, yet she disliked that the festival chose to include subtitles. She found it noteworthy that the audience was so different from the audience classic Yiddish plays were intended for: This was a 21st century audience, watching for ideological reasons, as opposed to the original audiences of people who lived in Yiddish-speaking communities. Not only was this noteworthy, Nachmany was struck by the fact that no one seemed to be talking about this factor. This distinction became the frame for her research.

“The point of the Yiddish used in my play, is that it is not subtitled-the language expresses all the meaning that needs not be expressed. That’s one of the questions I was testing with my research. How much does the sound of Yiddish communicate?” said Nachmany. In effect, she wanted to test a theory that Yiddish is a language with a uniquely expressive auditory palate and that, if used in combination with some English, an American audience can still generally understand the unfamiliar tongue. Most scenes were a combination of Yiddish and English, however there was one dramatic scene towards the end that was performed entirely in Yiddish.

“The gestures and voice inflections were such that the play’s narrative was still very clear,” said sophomore and audience member Ben Ketter.

Another student who saw the play, sophomore Danielle Stern, said, “If anything, I would have loved more Yiddish.”

As much as it was a journey for Nachmany, it was also a meaningful experience for the actors and actresses involved.

 “Yiddish is a language I have been exposed to since birth thanks to my grandmother, however, that exposure was limited to small phrases such as schlemiel, schlep and schmear. It was personally very moving for me to study Yiddish for the show, because I felt as if in some way I was honoring a past that had been viciously wiped out,” said Rebecca McGivney, the lead actress in the play.

In many ways, the questions raised by Cynthia Ozick have not disappeared, and the future of the Yiddish language remains uncertain. Yet it is through the creativity of young, brave people like Nachmany that both its future and its past will be explored.

Rachel M. Cohen is a sophomore majoring in History and Sociology at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. She is interested in all types of journalism, and is a staff writer for the weekly political publication on campus. More writing can be found at rachelsnotebook.wordpress.com.

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