Tuesday, November 13, 2018

New York Extras: "Fiddler on the Roof" (in Yiddish) and "The Ferryman"

Most American Jews have an Eastern-European background. Many of our ancestors shared a common language: Broken English. Ha ha. No, it was Yiddish. The lingua franca for this subset of Germans, Russians, Poles, Lithuanians and many others, Yiddish enabled immigrants from many different origins to speak with one another. My grandmother spoke Russian and my grandfather spoke Rumanian, but when they met in Chicago, somewhere around 1910, they communicated in Yiddish, later supplanted by heavily-accented English with interplanetary grammar.

So most America Jews today feel a special nostalgia for Yiddish, and a separate but equally strong connection to the stories our grandparents told us of poverty, murderous Cossacks riding through villages, intolerant rabbis and hate-filled peasants, mud, dirt, disease and so on. We LOVE this stuff. And no Broadway play ever tapped into this almost incomprehensible nostalgia for the Bad Old Days than Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock's "Fiddler on the Roof." 

And now, the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, located in Battery Park in Manhattan, is offering a production of Fiddler in Yiddish directed by Joel Gray. Jerry Bock's melodies are the same, but the songs as well as all dialogue are sung and spoken in Yiddish. There are supertitles for those of us who barely know a pisher from a potch, but it is amazing how much we understand simply from the actors' body language. This is a spectacular show and one we suspect will come back every year from now until the Messiah finally comes.

Similarly, Jez Butterworth's "The Ferryman," though dealing with Northern Ireland in the 1980s, will resonate deeply with those whose origins are from the Ould Sod. Directed by Sam Mendes, every classic Irish meme is present here: huge stair-step families, corrupted priests, drunkenness, the IRA, men screwing up because they can't help themselves and their wives fixing everything because who else is going to do it?

"The Ferryman" is more or less the same length as Fiddler, but there are no songs. So, to us it felt somewhat long. BUT WE ARE NOT IRISH. It would probably be just as easy for an Irish reviewer to say, of Fiddler: "So the dairyman has five daughters. We all have five daughters. So what?"

The issues are the same in both shows: make enough money to survive, fight off the enemy invader and keep the family together. When you can't do that, the alternative is still there: America.

In these days, when many Jewish-Americans and Irish-American have forgotten their hyphens, as they rail against Mexicans and Syrians and Chinese who are still searching for theirs, it is perhaps too easy to love shows that celebrate our distinct heritages. But where better than in New York City, in the shadow of both the Statue of Liberty and the Freedom Tower?

"Fiddler on the Roof "in Yiddish
Museum of Jewish Heritage
36 Battery Place, Manhattan

"The Ferryman"
Bernard Jacobs Theater
242 W. 45th Street, Manhattan

Check theaters for dates and times

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