A Yiddish ‘Fiddler’ to Honor Aleichem

Actor and Yiddish-language true believer Theodore Bikel grew up in prewar Europe, with German as his first language and Yiddish a quick second, partly due to his father reading his family Sholom Aleichem stories every Tuesday night.

“He picked the night,” said Bikel, now 81 and set to co-star in this weekend’s Sholom Aleichem Jubilee at the Emanuel Arts Theater in Beverly Hills. The event coincides with the 89th anniversary of the Yiddish writer’s death.

Sponsored by Yiddishkayt Los Angeles and the California Institute for Yiddish Culture & Language, the jubilee’s marquee event is “A Comedy That Honors a Legend/A Komedye Lekoved a Legende” in English and Yiddish, with Bikel and French actor Rafael Goldwaser. Bikel will perform selections from his seminal role as Tevye the milkman in the Aleichem-fueled perennial theater hit, “Fiddler on the Roof.”

But “Fiddler” will be performed in Yiddish, for the first time in the United States. (“Fiddler” is an English-language play based on a composite portrait of the Tevye character from Aleichem’s Yiddish-language stories. About 20 years ago, an actual Yiddish translation of the English-language “Fiddler on the Roof” was created. That play has been performed in Israel, Australia and Canada but never in the United States.)

“I’m rather looking forward to it,” said Bikel, who plans to showcase about 10 to 15 minutes of the play.

Aleichem has sometimes been compared to American humorist Mark Twain.

“There were a lot of similarities not only in their humor and their satire, but also in terms of how their lives developed,” said Miriam Koral, director of the California Institute for Yiddish Culture & Language.

“At one point,” she continued, “they both married into wealthy families, and then they lost it all with bad investments. So they both had to make a living from their pens, and by going on these reading and speaking engagements all over the world. And they each had a child who died early as an adult. They shared that common tragedy as well.”

The famed Yiddish writer was born in Russia in 1859 and died in New York on May 13, 1916. Some 100,000 people reportedly attended his funeral, and Aleichem’s will stipulated that his yahrtzeit always be marked not by reading one of his many tragic works, but with an excerpt from his comedies.

This weekend’s performance, Koral said, will have a “contemporary spin to it as well. It’s all been put together in a modern way.”

Bikel is on friendly terms with Aleichem’s granddaughter, Bel Kaufman. At Bikel’s 80th birthday celebration last June at Brentwood’s Wadsworth Theater, Kaufman said the real-life shtetl milkman who inspired Tevye “wasn’t at all like this handsome Theo.”

There are no plans for a full-length Yiddish-language “Fiddler” to hit Broadway or off-Broadway, the actor said, “because the budget is almost insurmountable,” at least $500,000 to $750,000 minimum.

Bikel said he probably will sing the Yiddish version of “If I Were a Rich Man” and “The Sabbath Prayer.”

Bikel’s Yiddish favorites also include the gritty prose of the late Issac Bashevis Singer. The actor noted that when Singer accepted the Nobel Prize for literature in 1978, it was “the only time that Yiddish was ever spoken at the Nobel ceremony.”

Koral, the Yiddish institute director, said she chose Goldwaser, because the French actor had done well-regarded Aleichem readings in Belgium, Paris and at Toronto’s Ashkenaz festival.

Goldwaser could not in any intellectual way explain why he loves performing Aleichem, only saying, “Can you tell me why do you like — or not — chocolate? To do Sholom Aleichem when you deal with Yiddish literature is a must.”

Koral said she hopes this month’s Aleichem celebration will be an annual event for the writer, whose Yiddish stories inspired one of the most enduring theatrical successes in the English-speaking world. To Koral, a Yiddish lover has not really lived in the language until that person has heard some part of “Fiddler on the Roof” in Yiddish.

“It has a whole ‘nother ta’am, a whole ‘nother flavor,” she said.

“A Comedy That Honors a Legend/A Komedye Lekoved a Legende” will be performed in English and Yiddish on Saturday, May 14 at 8 p.m. Emanuel Arts Theater, 8844 Burton Way, Beverly Hills. For tickets: $20-$8 call (310) 745-1190.

“Theater in Kasrilevke/Teater in Kasrilevke” the first U.S. screening of a Yiddish-language short animation, based on a Sholom Aleichem story screens on Sunday, May 15 at 2 p.m. Also, “Word Concert/Vort Kontsert,” modern Yiddish poetry performed by Rafael Goldwaser. L.A. Yiddish Culture Club, 8339 W. Third St. (Second Floor), Los Angeles. Tickets $5, members free. To R.S.V.P., call (310)745-1190.

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All by Himself

Few performers have the talent and magnetism to carry a one-person show by singing old Broadway show tunes, sentimental ballads and Yiddish classics.

But Mandy Patinkin, the Tony and Emmy Award-winning showman, consistently entertains, even electrifies, the most urbane audiences singing his eclectic mix of popular songs, usually sharing the stage only with his piano player and a flowering pot or two.

“What’s amazing about him, and everyone knows about him, is that he comes to this big hall — 3,000 seats — with just himself and a piano player, and you say to yourself, ‘How is he going to do this for an hour and a half, and with no intermission?’ And then he goes and goes and at the end you just can’t believe what you’ve seen,” said Jerry Mandel, president of the Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa, where Patinkin is scheduled to perform on Oct. 12.

Patinkin started his concert career in 1989 at Joseph Papp’s Public Theater in New York. Some critics’ reviews describe him as being “over the top” or “cloying,” while others say the dramatic tenor simply defies classification, calling him everything from actor and singer to musical theater performer and entertainer extraordinaire.

“Most singers are just singers, and not actors. But he’s also a consummate actor. He puts his entire body into it. It’s like a Broadway show,” Mandel said. Patinkin drew a sell-out crowd during his last appearance at the Performing Arts Center three years ago. “He gives you a package that very few people have.”

Growing up on Chicago’s South Side, Patinkin was a talented singer, a soloist with the children’s choir at his Conservative congregation. He heard snatches of Yiddish from his grandparents, but when he made his Yiddish CD “Mamaloshen” (1998) — as promised to Papp — the singer, who has come to personify a good Jewish boy, had to start learning Yiddish from scratch.

Yiddish songs are just one part of his repertoire. Patinkin typically performs tunes by composers Stephen Sondheim, Irving Berlin, Randy Newman and Harry Chapin.

Patinkin describes himself as the “messenger” of the songwriters whose work he performs and cited the theater as his surrogate synagogue. “Every theater I’m in is a synagogue — it’s the place where I feel in touch with God and humanity,” Patinkin told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

On Sept. 10, 2001, Patinkin had been performing a concert “as a prayer for peace in the Middle East,” but post-Sept. 11 he changed it to a “prayer for everywhere.”

Patinkin took a hiatus after the attacks, which struck especially close to home — his apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side is minutes from Ground Zero.

“Five to six weeks into it,” he told The Jewish Exponent in Philadelphia that he got “fed up.”

“I woke up one day and said, ‘I’ve had it.’ I wanted to desperately go out and do my concert of Sept. 10.”

“When I walk out front for those two hours, it’s the best part of the day.”

Patinkin’s performances had been patriotic even before flag waving became popular post Sept. 11. He’d often concluded his shows by singing “God Bless America” in Yiddish.

Peace and a better world are often a subtext of a Patinkin appearance — or nonappearance.

In April 1999, he stayed away from a celebrity-packed, televised Hollywood tribute to Israel’s 50th anniversary, saying that he opposed then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s attitude toward the Middle East peace process.

“I would love to participate but I feel like my hands are tied,” he told The Jewish Telegraphic Agency of the show that aired on CBS that year.

“It’s a tragedy, what’s happening. I pray with every ounce of my being that the peace process continues. It’s a symbol for the entire world, and if it’s not attended to, we’ll all have a heavy price to pay,” Patinkin said presciently at the time.

On the door of his apartment, beside a mezuzah, Patinkin keeps a sign: “Imagine all the people, living life in peace.”

What wasn’t in question was Patinkin’s love of Israel. During a recent Sondheim tour, he segued into “Children Will Listen” from “Hatikvah” in Hebrew.

Beyond the theater community, Patinkin is perhaps best known for playing Dr. Jeffrey Geiger, a singing cardiologist on “Chicago Hope.” His critically acclaimed performance won him an Emmy Award in 1995. (Other television performances include playing Quasimodo opposite Richard Harris in the TNT film presentation of “The Hunchback” and Kenneth Duberstein, the lobbyist assigned to navigate Clarence Thomas through his Senate hearings, in Showtime’s “Strange Justice.”)

The Jewish sensibility that Patinkin personified as the soulful Geiger is a recurrent characterization in his career and more recently in his off-screen life. On the big screen, he played the yeshiva study partner of Anshel (Barbra Streisand), a Jewish girl disguised as a boy, in “Yentl.” He also has numerous feature film credits, including “The Princess Bride,” “Ragtime,” “Dick Tracy,” “True Colors” and “The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland.”

In his Broadway debut in 1980, Patinkin won a Tony Award for his role as Ché in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Evita.” He also was nominated for his starring role in the Pulitzer Prize-winning musical “Sunday in the Park With George.” He has numerous other stage credits.

Although Patinkin, 49, started singing as a child in synagogues and community centers in his Chicago hometown, and attended Hebrew school and Jewish summer camp, he has said he essentially abandoned Jewish life in college. It wasn’t until he met and married his wife, author and actress Kathryn Grody, and then had two children with her, that he began to embrace religion again. Patinkin described his current Jewish life in New York as “home based.” He infrequently attends services at the neighborhood Conservative synagogue, where he reportedly is a member. Patinkin was unavailable for an interview, according to his publicist.

In 1998, after learning Yiddish, Patinkin recorded the compact disc “Mamaloshen,” which features an unconventional mix of classic Yiddish songs, such as “Oyfn Pripetshik” and “Raisins and Almonds,” with traditional American songs, such as “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” and Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas.” Another song is a medley that starts with “Ten Kopeks” and ends with “The Hokey Pokey.”

“God almighty,” Patinkin told a reporter, “I am so lucky to have this right now. It’s a great gift that I have the chance to perform for other people at this moment. I feel very blessed. It’s the most extraordinary experience to sing words written by genius lyricists who put down on paper what they wished for the world. Well, now those prayers are wished for more than ever. And I’m just the mailman. I’m the messenger boy.”

Patinkin will be the second artist featured in the Performing Arts Center’s Spotlight Series on Sunday, Oct. 12 at 8 p.m. Tickets range from $28 to $52 and are on sale at The Center Box Office, online at The Center’s Web site at www.ocpac.org, or by phone through Ticketmaster at (714) 740-7878 or (213) 365-3500.

UJ Stages ‘The Quarrel’

About 10 years ago, give or take a year, I was invited to director Arthur Hiller’s home to attend a reading of a work in progress. About 80 to 100 people turned out and listened raptly as two wonderful actors, script in hand, read the work in progress. It was a play called “The Quarrel,” written by two friends, David Brandes and Rabbi Joseph Telushkin and based on a short story by Yiddish writer Chaim Grade. I mean no exaggeration when I say that everyone seated in Hiller’s spacious living area knew they were listening to a play that was special.

On the one hand, it was a character sketch of two quite different Jewish men who encounter one another by accident in the middle of a city park. On another, it was a powerful drama about two Holocaust survivors who knew one another as children and who now grapple with one another over such matters as faith, disillusionment and belief or the lack thereof.

It came as little surprise to hear, several years later, that the script had become a small independent film, and that it had won 8 international awards. And it comes as no surprise again to discover that it had also been cast as a play. That play will be performed locally at the University of Judaism, Tuesday through Thursday, Jan. 26-28, and on Saturday, Jan. 30.

The stage production is part of the UJ’s Dortort Writers Institute, which brings eminent novelists, poets, playwrights and screenwriters to the university. The institute is named after David Dortort, the television producer of “Bonzana” and “The High Chaparral” who will himself be honored at a pre-theater dinner on Tuesday, Jan. 26.

For tickets and information, call (310) 476-9777, ext. 201.

Radio Yiddish

When she was 16, KCRW General Manager Ruth Seymour was captivated by her studies with the Yiddish scholar Max Weinreich. “Yiddish is magic,” he told her. “It will outwit history.”

Seymour took his words to heart. Of late, she has been doing her part to help the mamaloshen survive. In 1995, she and KCRW teamed up with the National Yiddish Book Center to create “Jewish Short Stories,” a National Public Radio series read by actors such as Leonard Nimoy and Jeff Goldblum. The program was a peculiar excursion in time-travel: back to the days of golems and rebbes and schlemiels all living together in the shtetl. Yiddish, apparently, worked its magic: At least half the NPR network ran the program, including markets as unlikely as Coos Bay, Ore., and Bozeman, Mont. KCRW sold well more than 1,000 cassette sets of the series.

This year, the program is back by popular demand, and because Seymour wanted to bring the series into the postmodern era.

“This is a darker, edgier series,” says Seymour, adding that a Sholom Aleichem story explores the suicide of one of Tevye’s daughters.

Once again, celebrities agreed to work for the union base rate of around $11 an hour — perhaps because of the Yiddish yearnings latent in Ashkenazi DNA. William Shatner, Richard Dreyfuss and Ed Asner signed on, as did directors Arthur Hiller, Jeremy Kagan and Claudia Weil. “Chicago Hope” star Hector Elizondo, of Puerto Rican heritage, said that he was drawn to the series because he has converso blood.

The 18-part series, dubbed “Jewish Stories from the Old World to the New,” includes stories and novel excerpts by authors such as Bernard Malamud, E.L. Doctorow, Saul Bellow and Max Apple. It also includes a number of works by women writers: Allegra Goodman’s “The Four Questions” humorously explores the conflict between three generations of American Jews; Pearl Abraham’s “The Romance Reader” focuses on a restless Chassidic woman; Leslea Newman’s “A Letter to Harvey Milk” examines the friendship between an elderly Jewish man and his lesbian creative-writing teacher.

Ironically, Seymour, who has created Mexican and Korean short-story programming for KCRW, says the only critics of “Jewish Stories” have been…Jewish. “Some people fear that publicly celebrating our Jewish heritage will excite anti-Semitism, which is ridiculous,” she says.

To buy a CD or audiocassette of the series, or for programming information, call (310) 450-5183 or (800) 292-3855.