Last weekend, I checked out a preview of The Adventures of Hershele Ostropolyer, a new Yiddish-language musical (with English and Russian supertitles) that opens tomorrow night at the Baruch (College) Performing Arts Center in Manhattan.
The show is produced by the National Yiddish Theater, or Folksbiene, and arrives as that 95-year-old troupe faces real competition from the New Yiddish Rep, which started three years ago partly in reaction to what its founders saw as a certain stuffiness in the older company. The New Yiddish Rep has been stealing a good deal of the very small limelight for Yiddish theater, and the companies have had their public spats. But Hershele seems to mark a reconciliation of sorts—New Yiddish Rep director Shane Baker (whom I profiled last year) appears in the new show. And Hershele is silly, but it’s not stuffy.
The Folksbiene’s program describes the Yiddish folk hero Hershele Ostropolyer as a Robin Hood figure, and it’s true that, as played by Broadway actor Mike Burstyn, he spends much of the show stealing from the rich and giving to the poor. But, unlike his noble English counterpart, he’s a mischievous, peripatetic bum, more Merry Prankster than Merry Man.
At the outset of the show, he bumbles into a shtetl controlled by Kalmen, a greedy pawnbroker. Kalmen’s the kind of guy who, when confronted by a sweet young couple begging to get an heirloom ring out of hock so they can get married, tells them they can have it … for 30 gülden! (Apparently, a lot of money.) Hershele, who’s had an unpleasant run-in with Kalmen himself, makes it his business to drive the miser crazy until he parts with some of his own stash of gold. This involves a range of implausible disguises and accents, some vaudevillian swagger, and a lot of singing.
It wasn’t quite Molière (though Hershele’s characters seemed similarly willing to believe that a person wearing a different hat is a different person), but it was energetic and charming and often very funny. One interesting thing: Kalmen, strutting around in his waistcoat singing an ode to his wife—yes, her name is money—sometimes felt a teeny bit uncomfortably like an anti-Semitic caricature. I’m not sure, however, that this was the fault of Itsy Firestone, the actor who played Kalmen, or of the show’s director, Eleanor Reissa. Instead, I’m going to have to blame this one on anti-Semitism itself. Yiddish folklore is rife with cartoonish greedy businessmen. They are known as rich men. Other European folklores are also rife with cartoonish greedy businessmen. They are known as Jews. The problem isn’t that our ancestors made fun of the Kalmens in their midst. The problem is that anti-Semitism is the socialism of fools.
Related: The Ventriloquist [Tablet Magazine]