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The Messiah Comes to America!

Rokhl’s Golden City: A terrific new translation of Moyshe Nadir’s uproariously acidic take on Depression-era Jewish-American life

Rokhl Kafrissen
June 06, 2018
Collage: Tablet Magazine; inset images from the cover of Messiah in America.
Collage: Tablet Magazine; inset images from the cover of Messiah in America.
Collage: Tablet Magazine; inset images from the cover of Messiah in America.
Collage: Tablet Magazine; inset images from the cover of Messiah in America.
So sit yourself comfy to watch, to watch and to hear
As the gates of America open: The time’s drawing near.
The Goddess of the Dollar lifts high her hand
And watches offshore, o’er the Great Golden Land.

—Prologue, Messiah in America

If you were expecting subtlety then perhaps Moyshe Nadir’s classic Yiddish satire Messiah in America might not be for you. If, though, you’re looking for an uproariously acidic take on Depression-era Jewish American life, you might be interested in Michael Shapiro’s terrific new translation from Farlag press, a new nonprofit prioritizing “stateless and minority languages, as well as the writings of exiles, immigrants, and other outsiders.”

Moyshe Nadir (Nadir being a pen name playing on the Yiddish for “here, take it” in the most brusque way possible) was a prolific essayist, critic, and playwright, most of whose work still languishes untranslated. Even his most famous work, Messiah in America, has never been translated entirely into English. And it’s a shame because it is both hilarious as well as tragically apposite for our cultural moment. In the play, an unscrupulous theatrical agent is casting about for a new spectacle to promote. He hits upon a unique idea—his newly arrived greenhorn uncle, possessor of a truly impressive beard, will be exhibited as the Messiah, seven shows a week, matinees on Shabes and Sunday “and redemption on the installment plan.” Complications arise when the success of Menachem-Josef’s Messiah is challenged by another, younger Messiah, this one demanding a motorcycle, not an ass, to be mounted for redemption purposes.

This new edition comes beautifully packaged with an illuminating academic introduction as well explanatory notes. While some of the imagery and jokes are highly specific to the time period—Nadir was a partisan of the Communist press, especially the Freiheit, and the middle-of-the-road Forverts was a favorite target of his—the story itself, of hucksters and religious exploitation and the merging of redemption and entertainment, feels incredibly modern. My friend Shane Baker adapted Messiah in America for an experimental New Yiddish Rep run in 2012 and even in a very rudimentary, truncated form it absolutely killed.

I wouldn’t have known about this new edition except that an old friend of mine and now editor at Farlag, Daniel Kennedy, dropped me a note to ask if I’d like a copy. Hard to believe, but it’s been 10 years since Daniel and I met in the once and former Jerusalem of Lithuania, Vilnius, when we were both students in the Yiddish program there. I can’t say my Yiddish improved much that summer, but I did meet some extraordinary people, a number of whom have become dear friends. Daniel, an Irish scholar living in France and working on Yiddish, was just one of the many non-Jews in the program whose dedication and earnestness has continued to be a model for me not just for intellectual work, but cross-cultural cooperation.

From the Jerusalem of Lithuania to the Jerusalem of Israel … believe it or not I just got back from my second trip to Israel in six months. This trip was bashert in that I got to meet Tehila the Kosher Diva, aka Yael Yekel, aka the Yiddishpiel ingenue and genius behind the viral video parody of Eurovision winner Netta Barzilai’s “Toy.” If you haven’t seen “Goy” (say, in Tablet’s The Scroll, ahem), please take a minute and watch now:

As both a Yiddish snob, and perhaps the world’s most obsessive Mickey Katz fan, you can imagine that I take Yiddish parody seriously. After having numerous friends forward me Yael’s video during the lead-up to Eurovision, I finally clicked with, shall we say, trepidation. I’m already uncomfortable with the word goy. Would the Yiddish be any good? Indeed it was very good, and more. The word goy, usually plopped inappropriately into English (and other languages) feels much less jarring in an actual Yiddish text about, well, falling in love with a non-Jew. “Goy” is funny and intelligent enough to pull off silly without sliding into cringe. Something bordering on miraculous, for sure. But hey, #2018. At this point we all know anything can happen. It also helps that Yael collaborated with a scholar of Yiddish, Yaniv Goldberg of Bar Ilan University, in writing the song.

I got to sit down with Yael at perhaps the most un-Yiddish Tel Aviv hipster setting imaginable, a vegan cafe near Rabin Square. We sipped coffee substitute and ate pistachio tiramisu and chatted about her journey to Yiddish. She grew up in a secular, Hebrew-speaking home with Yiddish-speaking grandparents. Her arrival at Yiddishpiel was accidental—they needed a soprano who could pull off a Yiddish song and she, a new drama-school graduate, needed a job. One job led to the next and, when the theater wisely offered its non-Yiddish speakers scholarships to attend academic Yiddish programs she took full advantage. Her Yiddish is now proficient enough that she and the other 20- and 30-something actors text each other in their “secret language.”

The video for “Goy” was pulled together on a shoestring budget with the help of friends with a studio and her own pro editing skills. Yael says that while the inspiration for “Goy” hit her out of the blue (and was recorded and edited in record time) Tehila, the Kosher Diva, is a character she’s been developing for a while. Tehila is a way of giving voice to the women in traditional communities who find their own voices silenced. It’s both a critique of the stringencies of Judaism in Israel as well as a loving engagement with it. What surprised me most during our talk was how much Yael was impressed and empowered by her encounter with American Judaism when she came to Arizona as a counselor at a Reform summer camp.

Though she couldn’t share the subject of her next song, Yael promised me that we’re going to be hearing a lot more from Tehila very soon. I couldn’t be more excited. Next year on YouTube…


Read: Messiah in America isn’t out until August but it’s available for preorder now from Farlag. If I’ve piqued your interest about the genius of Moyshe Nadir, I highly recommend Joel Schechter’s still definitive Messiahs of 1933. I know last week I said all I wanted to see was a new, Yiddish, A Doll’s House, but what I’d really love to see is a double bill of false messiahs, with Messiah in America and Sholem Asch’s gripping historical drama, Sabbatai Zevi. Can we make that happen?

ALSO: Sholem Aleichem’s Motl Peysi dem Khazns (Motl Peysi the Cantor’s Son) is one of the classic texts beloved by, and familiar to, pretty much everyone who has studied Yiddish. Last December at Yiddish New York I was truly blown away by the League for Yiddish’s new bilingual edition of Motl Peysi, both because of its usefulness to students looking for good, modern bilingual texts as well as the beauty of this new English translation. The League for Yiddish is having a book launch for the new edition, Wednesday, June 6 at 7 p.m., Workmen’s Circle, 247 West 37th Street. … If you haven’t started your Yiddish learning journey yet, may I recommend you attend this Instant Yiddish event with master teacher Kolya Borodulin. You’ll be amazed how much you can learn in less than an hour. It may even convince you to enroll in one of New York’s many intensive Yiddish courses. … One of the coolest aspects of the upcoming Yiddish Fiddler is that the iconically acerbic Jackie Hoffman will be playing Yente. Let’s all take a moment to flail our arms in excitement. OK. Good. Jackie will be hosting the Folksbiene’s Yiddish Under the Stars concert at Central Park. June 13, 7 p.m., Central Park Summerstage. … If you’re in the Philly area you can attend the memorial concert for funky klezmer matriarch Elaine Hoffman Watts, whom we lost last year. Both Sides of Love, a memorial concert for Elaine Hoffman Watts, Sunday, June 17, 4 p.m. at Temple Beth Hillel, 1001 Remington Road, Wynnewood, Pa. … June 17 is also the date of not one but two fantastic New York street fairs, both featuring great Jewish music. Egg Rolls, Egg Creams, and Empanadas celebrates the cultures of the Lower East Side and includes the party-down Litvaks of Litvakus. Noon, at the Eldridge Street Synagogue, 12 Eldridge Street. And if you’re in midtown you can stop by the Workmen’s Circle Taste of Jewish Culture street fair. Aaron Alexander’s New York Klezmer Series All Stars will be performing there all day. Despite a number of address changes over the years, Aaron’s New York Klezmer Series has been the home of the best klezmer jam in this here capital of Yiddish culture. If you haven’t made it to one of the Thursday parties, make sure you catch the All Stars on Sunday. … And finally, Klezkamp is dead, long live Klezkamp? That’s right, after a few years of hiatus, Klezkamp is back, in summer form. Now at Ashokan, the traditional music and dance camp in the Catskills. Reserve your spot today.

Rokhl Kafrissen is a New York-based cultural critic and playwright.

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