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A Yiddish ‘King Lear’ for the Ages, on an Empty Stomach

Rokhl’s Golden City: A superb new production of Jacob Gordin’s Shakespeare adaptation, a dive into the Yiddish folksong archives of proto-ethnomusicologist Ruth Rubin, and a first farewell drag act

Rokhl Kafrissen
May 02, 2018
Photo: Tanya Parks
Joel Leffert in The Jewish King Lear.Photo: Tanya Parks
Photo: Tanya Parks
Joel Leffert in The Jewish King Lear.Photo: Tanya Parks

I wasn’t even that hungry when we got on the train. Curtain time was 7:30 p.m.. I figured we’d be out of the theater and slurping the best East Village ramen by 9, latest. Who needs dinner at 6? Turns out I did and I do. Lesson learned. Make sure you have a snack before the theater, especially when the show you’re seeing opens with a sumptuous Purim feast and ends with a broken old man begging for food. You might end up relating for the wrong reasons.

This was last weekend—I was taking an Israeli friend for his first Yiddish theater experience, the superb new Metropolitan Playhouse production of Jacob Gordin’s The Jewish King Lear. We might have had an advantage insofar as hunger has a way of keeping your mind focused even when the house is extremely stuffy and the play is about an hour longer than expected. I have a feeling the guy on my other side, who started snoring at the end of Act 1, probably had a large pre-show meal. His loss. This new Lear, in English, using Ruth Gay’s wonderful translation, is one of the best English adaptations of Yiddish theater I’ve seen in a long time. Gay’s elegant script goes a long way in making the adaptation experience seamless.

Further praise must go to this new Lear, Dovid Moysheles, played with majesty and heartbreaking pathos by Joel Leffert. But the whole cast deserves praise, including the troupe of singing purim shpilers (including my friend Miryem-Khaye Seigel) deployed to great effect throughout the play. The smallness of the theater and closeness of actor and audience lent the play the just right atmosphere of domestic familiarity as well as, at times, claustrophobia.

Gordin’s themes, the triumph of rationalism over superstition, contempt for mystical cults, the futility of Jewish escape from Europe to Palestine, even the mundane drama of in-laws quarreling over money and control, all feel as vital as they were at the turn of the century, when Gordin set out to reform and naturalize the Yiddish theater in his own image as a Russified, Yiddish speaking maskilic artist.

In other words, this is no mere translation, (there are plenty of straight Yiddish translations of Shakespeare) but rather an energetic, historically-specific adaptation, with some startling changes to the original. I don’t think I’m spoiling too much to reveal that this Lear has a happy ending that can seem jarring to modern audiences. Keep in mind, though, how radical Gordin’s intertextuality and daring must have felt at the time. Scholar Barbara Henry writes, “if the borrowed plot imposes its own order, the happy ending to Gordin’s Lear play argues that it is not an order that is impervious to revision. Repetition need not doom one, like Haman, to making the mistakes of the past. Gordin’s play itself represents the ‘new word’ that ensures its survival through incorporation of the old texts of Shakespeare and Turgenev, but with a modern, Jewish difference. Cognizance of the plots that structure the world of Der yiddisher kenig lir is the means of liberation from it.”

From high culture to folk culture: April saw the launch of a wonderfully exciting new online resource from YIVO, one that I’ve been anxiously awaiting for quite some time, the new Ruth Rubin Legacy Archive of Yiddish Folksongs. The Archive is the culmination of years of work on the part of the Sound Archivists and other tireless YIVO workers. Until now, Rubin’s work was mostly accessible through two still important works, Voices of a People, her songbook, and a series of recordings she did for Smithsonian folkways. But now, her thousands of field recordings and other unpublished texts are available for use by anyone.

Though she started collecting decades earlier, to understand Ruth Rubin, possibly the most important collector of Yiddish song of the 20th century, you have to look to the great folk music revival of the 1950s and ’60s.

In this video from the mid-1960s, Rubin explains to Pete Seeger that she originally started as a collector of American song until a friend of hers asked the question that surely set off many careers in Jewish music: Why are you bothering with everyone else’s music when you have your own? That is to say, Rubin’s career as a folklorist and musician is just as much an extension of her identity as a politically conscious, highly educated North American as it is of her Jewish identity. When, a couple years ago, I was writing something about Yiddish folksong and hunting down an article Rubin had written, I headed to the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, not YIVO, to pull old volumes of Pete Seeger’s Sing Out off the shelf.

Right now the YIVO exhibition offers over a thousand songs, as well as videos and documents, and that is sure to grow as more is added. Translations are being crowd sourced and will begin to grow, as well.

Rubin wasn’t just a collector, she was a singer too, and a superb practitioner in the folk style. Aside from her own versions, though, one finds hundreds of voices of ordinary people, captured in intimate moments, as they occasionally stumble over words, introduce themselves and how they came to know the songs (in Yiddish and English), and give us remarkable glimpses into the lively world of 20th-century Yiddish folk culture. Sh’koyekh to YIVO and everyone who made this great work possible.


Watch: If you have the stamina, and don’t share my anxious Jewish metabolism, you can see not one but two Kings Lear right now. In addition to the Jewish King Lear at the Metropolitan Playhouse (through May 27), Sir Antony Sher’s new critically acclaimed Lear is at BAM by way of London, with a hefty run time of three hours. And if you just want to learn more about Yiddish theater, at your own pace, with your own snack schedule, sign up for YIVO’s innovative new online course, Oh Mama, I’m in Love! The Story of the Yiddish Stage.

Listen: You could spend days just exploring the universe of recordings on the new Ruth Rubin Legacy website. (And obviously, I hope you will.) If you understand Yiddish you should also give a listen to a recent episode of the Yiddish feminist podcast Vaybtertaytsh. Host Sossye Fox conducts an imaginary interview with her hero, Ruth Rubin, in a delightful session of what she calls “redn mit di toyte.”

ALSO: I don’t know why everything happens on the same day, but you’re going to have make some tough choices on Sunday, May 6: The great Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem (Sholem Rabinovitch) requested that every year on the anniversary of his death people gather to read his stories. This year marks his 102nd yortsayt and as has become the tradition, a reading will take place at the historic Brotherhood Synagogue. Sunday, 8 p.m., registration required. … One last chance to catch the New Yiddish Rep’s production of Hanoch Levin’s Di zoyne fun ohio, 1:30 p.m. at the Sholem Aleichem Center, 3301 Bainbridge Avenue. … My new friend Evgeny Kissin will be giving an intimate concert at Florence Gould hall at 5 p.m. … On May 7, klezmer clarinet wunderkind (and new artistic director of Klezkanada) Michael Winograd hosts Klezmer Night at Balkan Mondays, 8:30 p.m., at Sister in Brooklyn. … The Queens Public Library has some terrific programming for Jewish Heritage Month. On May 7 at 6 p.m. Miryem-Khaye Seigel will be giving a Yiddish concert and on May 10 Shane Baker brings his drag act Miss Mitzi Manna to the QPL for her First Ever Final Farewell Tour. Expect poetry, song, and just the right amount of tea-spilling.

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

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