The one and only Yiddish-language theater in Israel revives the Jewish underworld of days gone by
Before there were Mayer Lansky and Bugsey (Benjamin) Siegal there were their earlier counterparts in the Jewish underworld that existed in every stetl, in every Jewish neighborhood in pre-Holocaust Eastern Europe. Like all such underworlds, it was made up of people who had washed up in society and had nowhere to turn but to a life of thievery, prostitution, gambling, petty embezzlement, and the like. As is inevitably the case, the characters that inhabit these underworlds are tragic, but when it comes to Jews they were also hilarious.
The stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer, who, regardless of what Wikipedia claims, was neither American nor Polish, but in fact very Jewish and arguably the last great Yiddish language writer, capture that world in exquisite detail. In today’s humorless and whiny world the humor with which these long lost souls lived their lives, lives that were often full of misfortune and sorrow is well worth paying homage to.
We know that they wouldn’t want us to remember them by writing PhD theses and listening to humorless presentations in the sterile halls of academia. No, they would much rather we remembered them at their most human, their most humane, their funniest, and their most vulnerable. Most of all, they would want us to hear their voices again in their own language, Yiddish, the language that defined them more than anything else.
Yiddish was lucky, if one can say that about a language whose speakers were the subject of history’s greatest genocide. It was lucky because it could leave everything that is serious and holy to the ancient holy tongues of Hebrew and Aramaic, the languages of the Torah and the Talmud, letting it be the language of the everyday, a language that captured the sad and tragic Jewish life in exile in its funniest and at once its most profane.
Today Yiddish is kept alive by the rather somber ultra-Orthodox communities in Israel and in the diaspora, making its preservation as the language of thieves and whores as well as of rabbis and yeshiva students all the more important. The Yiddishpiel theater does just that, especially with its latest production “Gevaldt! The Jewish Underworld!” Catch it at the Beit Zionei America theater on 26 Even Gevirol Street in Tel-Aviv on June 5th at eight o’clock and you’ll see that even crime sounds better in Yiddish.
For future engagements: