Shane Baker performs a magic trick with a rubber chicken, in ‘The Big Bupkis’(Photo © Jordan McAfee)
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The Ventriloquist

How a latter-day vaudevillian from Kansas City got himself to speak perfect Yiddish

Ari M. Brostoff
December 04, 2009
Shane Baker performs a magic trick with a rubber chicken, in 'The Big Bupkis'(Photo © Jordan McAfee)

Shane Baker was about 5 years old, growing up in Kansas City in the 1970s, when he heard a Yiddish word for the first time. He had gone to see the Marx Brothers classic Animal Crackers, in which Groucho sings, “Hooray for Captain Spaulding//The African explorer//Did somebody call me schnorrer?” Baker asked his father what a schnorrer was; his father said it was gibberish. He asked his mentor, the local vaudeville veteran—Baker was already something of an aspiring vaudevillian and liked to perform magic tricks—and his mentor agreed. It wasn’t until several years later, in a high school English class, that Baker realized they had been mistaken. “That’s when I found out Yiddish was a language,” he said.

The current Yiddish revival movement, spurred by institutions like KlezKamp and artists like DJ Socalled, has attracted a small but devoted following among young Jews, largely through its ability to provide a cultural home for those who feel an affiliation with a secular, politically progressive, haimish—and slightly anachronistic—version of Jewishness. One of the most interesting things about the movement, though, is that it’s also swept up some non-Jews for whom Yiddish has no connection to a real or imagined ancestral past. No one exemplifies this better than Baker, who grew up Episcopalian and stumbled, apparently by intuition and chance, into New York City’s Yiddish scene, where he’s risen to the helm of not one but two Yiddish organizations: the Congress for Jewish Culture and the New Yiddish Rep, a theater company. The unlikely arc of his life so far is the subject of Baker’s new one-man-show, The Big Bupkis, which opens tonight at the New Yiddish Rep.

“I’m from the Midwest, and I was born just 20 miles outside of Peculiar, Missouri. It wasn’t at all clear that I was destined to stand before you here tonight,” says Baker, who is tall, thin, elegant, and prematurely graying at 41, at the start of the show. “Gosh, when I was a child, I was an acolyte in Saint Andrew’s Episcopal church in Kansas City…. But I remember even then, as I’d walk down the aisle carrying the crucifix, or wash the priest’s hands before he administered Holy Communion, I would daydream about Yiddish vaudeville.”

The reality was a little bit different, though no less bizarre. Baker really was an acolyte at Saint Andrew’s, where his father, a judge, and mother, a romance novelist, were active members. He was also, on a local level, a professional performer as a child, doing magic routines in ad-hoc neighborhood variety shows and occasional other gigs. (“I don’t know how this was arranged,” he said, “but when the circus came to town, I would ride the elephants.”) On Saturday mornings, as he notes in the show, he would visit Claude Enslow, an aging former vaudevillian and carny.

In the Big Bupkis version of the story—which is frequently interrupted by magic tricks, ventriloquism, rubber chickens being shot out of canons, and audience members being sawed in half—Baker left Kansas City after summoning the ghost of Yiddish vaudevillian Ludwig Zats in a séance. “I found out that Ludwig Zats was buried in New York, so naturally I packed my bags and hopped the fastest train to New York City, where I knew there was Yiddish vaudeville on every corner,” he deadpans. “This was in 1993.”

This is, once again, not entirely untrue. Baker came to New York a few years after college to pursue theater (he still performs regularly as a magician and has acted and directed off-Broadway and in regional theaters). He also became close with two octogenarian actresses, Luba Kadison Buloff and Mina Bern. Both were one-time stars of the Yiddish stage, which had been, in its heyday, a site of exciting theater not only for Yiddish speakers but for sophisticated non-Jewish audiences. Baker began studying Yiddish himself, and, he bragged, quickly excelled at it. Often, though, Yiddish speakers he met didn’t quite know what to make of him.

“I would go to an event—like, they would have a mock shtetl wedding at the Workmen’s Circle”—a fraternal organization devoted to promoting Yiddish—“and I would stand by the side and wait to run into somebody I knew,” he said. “Always, a pair of older women would come over: ‘So, are you Jewish?’ ‘No.’ ‘Have a Jewish girlfriend?’ ‘No.’ ‘Converting?’ ‘No.’ And they would shake their heads.”

The easiest solution to the riddle—how did this Midwestern goy wind up in the Yiddish theater?—is that Baker is gay. Gay and thus a likely candidate to leave Kansas City to pursue theater in New York; gay and thus attracted to the campy elements of vaudeville, of Yiddish culture, and indeed, of speaking a “dead” language at all; gay and thus at home in the contemporary secular Yiddish scene, which itself has been shaped extensively by young gay Jews seeking to create an alternative Jewish culture.

Baker gamely discussed these connections, but refused to wrap things up quite so neatly; instead, he seemed more inclined to telegraph his sexuality and its relation to his adopted culture the old-fashioned way, through broad hints and knowing looks.

This is even more true in The Big Bupkis, which comes very close to making the gay/Yiddish equation explicit but never quite does. In the first gag of the show, Baker sings a Yiddish version of “There’s No Business Like Show Business.” When he gets to a line that means, “I say that as a Jew,” he gives the audience a huge wink, as though letting them in on the joke: that what’s really funny about the show is watching a young gay goy channel an old straight Jew. The play ends with Baker in drag as the Yiddish actress Annie Hoffman, who is having a catfight with Sophie Tucker (“No one sings that song but me, you little oysvurf !”) Whole books have been written about the connection between queerness and Yiddish, but Baker doesn’t talk about it, he performs it.

Baker earned a Master’s degree in Yiddish from the University of Texas in 2002, and when he returned to New York he became the director of the Congress for Jewish Culture, which hosts Yiddish-related events and publishes Yiddish books. More recently, he became a director of the New Yiddish Rep, which was founded two years ago by a group of Yiddish theater folk who wanted to produce shows that were too off-beat for the Folksbiene, New York’s long-established Yiddish theater. (The cadre includes Allen Lewis Rickman and Yelena Shmulenson, who play the shtetl couple at the beginning of A Serious Man.) They have taken an unusually aggressive approach to the goal that almost every Yiddish organization shares: attracting younger audiences. A page about the Rep in the Big Bupkis program, for instance, all but directly targets other Yiddish organizations: “The days when Yiddish theater could depend on audiences coming for the language itself are over. Nowadays the theater that we present must be the selling point, not the language that we present it in. We must present Theater That Happens to Be in Yiddish, not Yiddish That Happens to Be On Stage.” As a publicity stunt for the show, the Rep also announced that no one over 65 would be admitted into the theater. (When they’ve occasionally “enforced” this rule during previews of the show, audience members who appear to be over-age are sold fake IDs for a quarter. No one was “carded” on the evening this reporter attended, but the entire audience of 15 could have been.) This approach has exacerbated the Rep’s already strained relationship with the Folksbiene; in an offended response to the no-one-over-65 stunt, Folksbiene director Zalmen Mlotek told the New York Post, “I would hardly call them a theater company.”

Despite this rivalry and the generally argumentative culture of the remaining Yiddish organizations, Baker said he’s rarely felt marginalized or resented in the Yiddish scene for not being Jewish. In fact, “I’d say sometimes I get more respect than I necessarily deserve,” he said wryly. “Oscar Wilde said of women writers that they’re like a dog who speaks English: it doesn’t matter what they say. It’s the same with a gentile who speaks Yiddish.” Others simply assume he’s a member of the tribe, thanks to his ambiguous last name. “I get a lot of mail addressed to ‘Miss Sheyna Baker,’” he said.

Baker’s not in Kansas City anymore, but does the Yiddish world remind him at all of home? His answer was, as usual, satisfyingly odd. “I happen to like a little tongue with my pastrami, and I prefer the tip of the tongue,” he said. “That was something I learned from Mina and Luba. My mother used to serve tongue but I didn’t know what the parts were. Was it exotic or uncannily familiar? Both.”

Marissa Brostoff, a doctoral student in English at the CUNY Graduate Center, is a former staff writer at Tablet and the Forward.

Ari M. Brostoff is Culture Editor at Jewish Currents.