Since the days of the Thomashefskys taking on Shakespeare, Yiddish dramatists have mounted productions of classic plays in translation. Recently, these have included Eugène Ionesco’s Rhinoceros, Waiting for Godot, and Death of a Salesman. The latest work to get this treatment (courtesy the New Yiddish Rep) is the Clifford Odets classic Awake and Sing!, one of the best-known plays about the American-Jewish experience.
Awake and Sing! is far from an unusual choice to be performed in the mamaloshen; it originally debuted in 1935, and only three years later a WPA production ran in Yiddish. The play presents Jewish immigrants and native-born Americans alike as they would be at home, speaking in their native language. The Yiddish (which I do not speak) is mesmerizing, with English and Americanisms scattered throughout the language like holes that will one day wear away the fabric entirely.
Awake and Sing! deals with character archetypes that border on “stock”: The survival-focused mother driven to being overbearing, her henpecked husband, their idealistic son. And the narrative too is a familiar one. A Jewish family comes to America, casts off at least some of the old ways. As they work in terrible conditions for low wages, they slowly make something of themselves. Some find financial success through hard work, or luck, or being a gonif if they must. Some become politically emboldened by the inequality they see.
This play takes place in the 1930s, but it’s easy to suppose what will become of the Bergers in the decades to follow. The children will rise socioeconomically. They will remain progressive, but soften their more radical ideologies. They will move to the suburbs. Some of their children will assimilate. Their descendants will go on Birthright.
But this story of Jews in America isn’t, in fact, universal, and, ironically, it’s this production of Awake and Sing! that serves as a reminder.
This play takes place a few years prior to WWII, when Yiddish’s very existence wasn’t yet under threat. In the years that were to follow, the mamaloshen was to fade from most non-Orthodox homes, while an influx of Hasidic refugees postwar would bring in their old Yiddish culture. These days, most native Yiddish speakers aren’t born to homes trying to fulfill the American dream, but rather preserve their way of life. The Haredim and Hasidism wish to be frozen in time in a way that would make the Bergers balk.
But the ultra-Orthodox have maintained Yiddish as a first language in a way few other Jews have, and it is those who leave those communities to help bolster secular Yiddish culture today. In this show, multiple cast members come from ultra-Orthodox backgrounds. Luzer Twersky, for example, was one of featured ex-Chasids in the recent Netflix documentary One of Us. Then there are Russian-Israelis in the cast, recent immigrants to the United States. One actor is even Swiss-born, from the continent the play’s family left, never looking back.
None of these people had grandparents like the Bergers, even though they grew up as Jewish, and as Yiddish-speakers, like the more secular Yiddishists involved in this production. This diverse group of Ashkenazim by their very existence speaks of a wider Jewish experience than the play does.
(It’s also perhaps worth noting how incestuous the cast is; one married couple plays father and daughter, and another man must seduce the “daughter” that is his real-life wife onstage.)
This isn’t to say the play isn’t worth a revisit. This straightforward production (directed by David Mandelbaum, who is also in the cast) lets the text (albeit in Yiddish,) speak for itself. For better or worse, this is a classic living-room play of too many people with too many differences thrown into a pot and left to boil over.
The universal tsuris of children bickering with parents, lost love, faded ideals bring together the cast, and its audience, in a way the specific context of the play may not.
Awake and Sing! runs at the 14th Street Y through December 24.