Yiddish theater — live on stage!


Los Angeles audiences have an opportunity to see selections from one of the groundbreaking works of Yiddish theater, “The Megillah of Itzak Manger,” Saturday at the Skirball Cultural Center as part of the “Art of Yiddish” program. Singer and performer Mike Burstyn — known internationally for his roles on stage, in films and on television — stars in this 40th-anniversary celebration of the work’s premiere in Israel.

“The Megillah of Itzak Manger” represents a turning point for Yiddish theater in Israel. Before it, “Yiddish theater was discouraged in Israel,” Burstyn said.

Israelis frowned upon Yiddish, even though countless Eastern European immigrants spoke the language.

“That performance of the Megillah,” Burstyn said, “was the first time Yiddish music was accepted by a large Israeli audience.”

It was a turning point for Yiddish theater worldwide, too, because it brought the work of Manger to a wider audience.

“They tried to translate Manger’s poetry into Hebrew, but nobody could capture the richness of his Megillah,” Burstyn said.

Manger’s work is a tongue-in-cheek version of the well-known Purim story, only his story is set in the shtetl.

“Manger’s poetry literally changed my life,” said Miriam Koral, founder and director of the California Institute for Yiddish Culture and Language. Thirteen years ago, Koral was an environmental planner.

She said that Manger’s poetry, written strictly in Yiddish, influenced her to devote her life to creating a home for the language in Los Angeles. This concert performance is a benefit for the institute.

“Tales and Songs from the Megillah of Itzak Manger” is a concert version of the original 1960s production, which starred Burstyn’s parents, Pesach Burstein and Lillian Lux. In this version, Mike Burstyn provides commentary and what he dubs “reminiscences” in English, with songs in the original Yiddish.

The evening opens with a skit created and performed by students from the Yiddishkayt LA Yiddish education pilot program at the New Community Jewish High School in Los Angeles.


“The Megillah of Itzak Manger,” Dec. 16, 8 p.m. Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. $15-45.

Arts in L.A Calendar


SEPTEMBER
 
Sat., Sept. 16
 
“The California Modernist Portrait.” Exhibition of portraiture from the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s by Victor Arnautoff, Otis Oldfield, Mabel Alvarez and others. Sept. 16-Nov. 11. Spencer Jon Helfen Fine Arts, 9200 W. Olympic Blvd., Suite 200, Beverly Hills. (310) 273-8838.
 
www.helfenfinearts.com.
 
“Vaudeville Extravaganza!” With variety acts by Janet Klein and Her Parlor Boys, Davis and Faversham and juggler Beejay Joyer; and screenings of a cartoon, vintage newsreel, Charlie Chaplin comedy “One A.M.” and Buster Keaton’s “Pardon My Berth Marks.” Alex Film Society. 8 p.m. $12.50-$19.50. Alex Theatre, 216 N. Brand Blvd., Glendale. (818) 243-2539.
 
www.alextheatre.org.
 
“Mexico — Mi Tierra y Mis Pasiones” by Grandeza Mexicana Folk Ballet Company. Features “De Cara al Mar,” choreographed by Viviana Basanta Hernandez in collaboration with Los Angeles’ Grandeza Mexicana. 8 p.m. $25-$30. Ford Amphitheatre, 2580 Cahuenga Blvd. East, Hollywood. (323) 461-3673.
 
www.fordamphitheatre.org.
 
Sun., Sept. 17
 
“Five Days of Freedom: Photographs From the 1956 Hungarian Revolution.” Images by Austrian photojournalist Erich Lessing. Opening Reception: 3 p.m., Sept. 17. “The Art of Photojournalism” symposium: 9:30 a.m.-2 p.m., Sept. 18. On view: Sept. 17-Dec. 17. Doheny Memorial Library, University of Southern California, Los Angeles. R.S.V.P. (213) 740-3270.
 
www.usc.edu/libraries.
 
Mon., Sept. 18
 
Writers Bloc Presents Michael Tolkin in Conversation With Stephen Gaghan. Tolkin, the writer of “The Player” and “The Return of the Player” is interviewed by Gaghan, screenwriter of “Traffic” and “Syriana.” 7:30 p.m. $20. Fine Arts Theater, 8556 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills. R.S.V.P., (310) 335-0917.
 
www.writersblocpresents.com.
 
Tue., Sept. 19
 
Classical Pianist Gabriela Montero in Concert. 8 p.m. $35. Silent Movie Theatre, 611 N. Fairfax Ave., Los Angeles. (323) 655-2520.
 
www.livenation.com.
 
Wed., Sept. 20
 
“SIDES: The Fear Is Real…” Comedic play about six hopeful actors and their audition nightmares. East West Players. Sept. 20-Oct. 1. $20-$60. David Henry Hwang Theater, Union Center for the Arts, 120 Judge John Aiso St., Los Angeles. (213) 625-7000.
 
www.eastwestplayers.org.
 
Fri., Sept. 22
 
“Yosemite: Art of an American Icon — Part I: 1855-1969.” Includes works by Albert Bierstadt, William Keith, Maurice Braun and Ansel Adams. Sept. 22-Jan. 21. Free (children under 6), $3-$7.50 (general). Museum of the American West, 234 Museum Drive, Los Angeles. (323) 221-2164.
 
www.autrynationalcenter.org.
 
Sat., Sept. 23
 
“On Being Human: Expressions of Faith, Love, Shame and Hope.” Exhibit of works by figurative artists representing free and captive societies around the globe. Sept. 23-Oct.21. Johnson Art Collection, 8304 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles. (323) 655-5738.
 
www.johnsonartcollection.com.
 
Fri., Sept. 29
 
“Un Domingo en La Alameda/A Sunday in the Alameda.” World premiere play inspired by a mural by painter Diego Rivera. Sept. 29-Nov. 5. (All performances in Spanish, with English performances from Oct. 12-15 only.) $20-$35.Teatro Carmen Zapata, Bilingual Foundation of the Arts, 421 N. Avenue 19, Los Angeles. (323) 225-4044.
 
www.bfatheatre.org.
 
Garth Fagan Dance. Fagan is perhaps best known for his choreography of the musical “The Lion King.” Program includes “Prelude From Discipline Is Freedom,” “Oatka Trail,” “Touring Jubilee 1924 (Professional),” “Life: Dark/Light” and “Translation Transition.” 8 p.m. $20-$36. Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts, 12700 Center Court Drive, Cerritos. (562) 467-8818.
 
www.cerritoscenter.com.
 
Sat., Sept. 30
 
Jules Massenet’s “Manon.” The opera is performed by Anna Netrebko and Rolando Villazón, and conducted by Plácido Domingo. Pre-performance lectures occur one hour prior to each performance. Sept. 30-Oct. 21. $30+. Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Music Center of Los Angeles, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles. (213) 972-8001.
 
www.laopera.com.
 
OCTOBER
 
Sun., Oct. 1
 
2006 Mak Architecture Tour. Sample L.A. modernism with houses by Irving Gill, Frank Lloyd Wright, Rudolph Schindler, John Lautner and Peirre Koenig. 10 a.m.-4 p.m. $65-$135. R.S.V.P., (323) 651-1510.
 
www.makcenter.org.
 
Wed., Oct. 4
 
Cinema Italian Style. Screening series celebrates contemporary Italian cinema and is the official site for Golden Globes for best foreign picture eligibility screenings. In-person guests include actress Valeria Golino. Oct. 4-8. $6-$9. American Cinematheque at the Aero Theatre, 1328 Montana Ave., Santa Monica. (323) 466-3456.
 
www.aerotheatre.com.
 
Fri., Oct. 6
 
“The Marvelous Wonderettes.” The pop musical tells the story of four high school girls and features songs from the ’50s and ’60s. Oct. 6-Nov. 26. $40. El Portal Forum Theatre, 5269 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood. (866) 811-4111.
 
www.marvelouswonderettes.com.
 

“Transforming Vision: The Wood Sculpture of William Hunter, 1970-2005.” First retrospective exhibition of the seminal artist’s work. Oct. 6-Dec. 10. Free (members, children under 12 and all Fridays), $6-$7 (general). Long Beach Museum of Art, 2300 E. Ocean Blvd., Long Beach. (562) 439-2119.
 
www.lbma.org.
 
Les Grands Ballet Canadiens de Montréal. The contemporary ballet company presents “Noces,” a fast, energetic piece choreographed by Belgian dance maker Stijn Celis, and “TooT,” by Dutch choreographer Didy Veldman, known for her humor and energetic dance theater. Oct. 6-7. $25-$95. Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Music Center of Los Angeles, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles. (213) 365-3500.
 
www.musiccenter.org.
 
Three Mo’ Tenors. The trio of African American operatic tenors perform Broadway and gospel music. Oct. 6-7, 8 p.m. $42-$67. Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts, 12700 Center Court Drive, Cerritos. (562) 467-8818.
 
www.cerritoscenter.com.
 
City Ballet of Los Angeles performs “Behind the Red Door.” The cabaret-style ballet explores the Greenwich Village jazz scene of the 1950s and celebrates the music of John Coltrane, plus classical ballet works. 8 p.m. $12-$20. Ford Amphitheatre, 2580 Cahuenga Blvd. East, Hollywood. (323) 461-3673.
 
www.fordamphitheatre.org.
 
Sat., Oct. 7
 
The Folk Tree Collection Presents Joel Nakamura. The award-winning illustrator and fine artist uses a sense of humor and critical social eye to reflect on contemporary issues in his paintings on tin. Opening reception: 2-6 p.m. On view: Oct. 7-Nov. 4. 199 S. Fair Oaks Ave., Pasadena. (626) 795-8733.

Performers Go It Alone and Like It That Way


Michael Raynor moves with the balletic grace and cocksure athleticism of a former pickup basketball player and street fighter. He simulates dribbling a ball between his legs with the adeptness of the highly recruited hoops star he once was, then he assumes his grandfather’s boxer’s crouch, takes on the gravelly voice of the onetime Louis Lepke associate and throws the jab. Effortlessly, Raynor switches time periods and voices, at one moment playing his sassy mother with her elbow against her rib, her wrist bent, and then his grandmother, with her stooped posture and her Old World idiosyncrasies.

In “Who Is Floyd Stearn?” playing at the Sidewalk Studio Theater in Toluca Lake, Raynor goes on a Rashomon-like search for the essence of his father, who left the family when the actor was a little boy. Was his father a deadbeat dad? A mentally ill genius? A con man?

The rugged-looking actor’s only props are a chair and a black-and-white photograph of his father with his arm around him as Raynor, the little boy, plays a guitar. Raynor speaks with the sing-song patter of the New York City streets. He is a Jewish man who hails from an older tradition — the Jews of the first half of the last century: tough Jews, who dominated sports like boxing and basketball and served disproportionately in the first two World Wars and in the ranks of gangsters. But he also has a vulnerability mixed in with that toughness, like John Garfield, to whom he has been compared.

Despite courageous performances by actors like Raynor, solo-show performers have been lampooned often by the likes of Martin Short and mocked by many as self-absorbed narcissists, bent on exploring their own navels rather than advancing the art form of the theater. Nonetheless, one-person shows continue to proliferate and provide performers with a unique outlet for meta-theatrical expression.

Stacie Chaiken, who runs a solo workshop in Santa Monica, says the medium is “a way for actors to take control of their destiny,” but she also admits, these shows are “cheap to produce. It’s very easy for a one-person show to travel around.”

There are some big-name Jewish performers like Billy Crystal, who recently toured with his Tony-winning homage to his father, “700 Sundays,” and Eve Ensler, creator of the “Vagina Monologues.” But in recent months, many L.A. theaters have produced one-person shows featuring lesser-known Jewish talent, such as Judi Lee Brandwein, star of “Fornicationally Challenged,” which played at the Hudson Guild and is moving to New York; Linda Lichtman, whose one-person show, “The Bride Can’t Stop Coughing” is playing at the Actors Playpen; and Carla Zilbersmith, a singer and actress who revisits her days on the wedding circuit in “Wedding Singer Blues.”

While each show follows its own trajectory, Chaiken points out that many Jewish-themed plays explore the issue of legacy. These performers describe conflicted feelings about their parents and the aspirations held out for them. As clichéd as such scenarios may seem, they speak to the pain and humor of family, a commonality that usually resonates with audiences.

Zilbersmith, who has a music degree from the New England Conservatory of Music and a theater degree from NYU, cites the lineage of the art form: “The ancient conversation we call theater has always contained some form of solo performance, and I would argue that the most successful solo pieces acknowledge these theatrical roots.”

Those roots surely include King David, who soothed Saul by singing and playing the harp or lyre, troubadours during the Middle Ages who wandered from town to town and entertained crowds, and, in the past century, Lord Buckley, the now-forgotten, Beat-era monologist who started out in vaudeville and later told tales in a bebop idiom that centered on historical and biblical characters like “the Nazz,” a jive take on Jesus. Buckley’s influence could be seen in the work of Lenny Bruce and Bob Dylan, the latter a modern-day Jewish troubadour, who cites Buckley in his recent “Chronicles, Vol. 1.”

Notable works in the field include, of course, Hal Holbrook’s Mark Twain in “Mark Twain Tonight!” and Julie Harris’ Emily Dickinson in “The Belle of Amherst,” formal one-person shows about external subjects. In the past 15 years or so, as memoirs, particularly those of addiction and recovery, have staked out a dominant place on the bookshelf, solo shows too have become much more personal, including the work of performance artists and monologists.

Chaiken, who teaches acting and solo performance at USC and who studied with Spalding Gray at the Performance Group in New York, credits Gray with formulating “a me that was very close to the me that was him,” and ushering in a new sensibility for monologists.

Fred Johntz has partnered with Mark Travis for seven years in writing and directing numerous one-person shows, including “Fornicationally Challenged.” Johntz says that performance art by L.A. performance artists such as John Fleck (whose work was denied NEA grants due to its provocative subject matter) and Sandra Tsing Loh are “pretty much in the same vein” as the one-person shows he directs.

The trend in self-involved storytelling, which may have reached its apotheosis in the blog phenomenon, has also led to the dissemination of many factual errors and even hoaxes. Likewise, one-person shows and their variants often could benefit from editing. Many suffer from poor storytelling if not outright posing.

Not surprisingly, there have been parodies even in one-person shows. In “Wedding Singer Blues,” Zilbersmith at one point portrays a performance artist as a brain-dead, pot-headed character who spins naked on a rotating East Village stage.

Women have been among the pioneers in this avant-garde art form. Anna Deveare Smith used journalistic techniques for her solo gigs. In the aftermath of the 1991 Crown Heights riots in Brooklyn and the 1992 Rodney King riots here in Los Angeles, she took to the streets with a tape recorder in hand and captured the colloquialisms that would later inform her award-winning performances in “Fires in the Mirror” and “Twilight: Los Angeles 1992,” respectively.

Most one-woman shows, however, favor sexual politics over political or racial issues.

Lichtman regales us with stories of her liaisons with younger men in “The Bride Can’t Stop Coughing” — a brave performance, not least because she is in her 60s. She invokes Jewish icons like the Dodgers of the 1950s, intersperses her act with Yiddish expressions and speaks in characteristically Jewish syntax when she utters lines like, “Lucky, I didn’t set myself on fire.”

Are Jews particularly well-suited to one-person shows?

Zilbersmith, starring in “Wedding Singer Blues,” now playing at the Coronet Theater, says that while she has a variety of students at the College of Marin in the Bay Area, where she teaches solo performance, those who tend to focus on writing and storytelling are Jewish. But she also notes the strong oral traditions of African Americans and the Irish; she says that most of her friends who are solo performers are African American.

One of Chaiken’s students, Frankie Colmane, wrote and acted in “Body and Soul,” a one-person show about her experience as a French Algerian Jew living in America. With immigration a searing topic both in this country and in France, Colmane’s show, which moved on to the Edge of the World Theater Festival in downtown Los Angeles, transcends Jewishness and speaks to all audiences. Of course, it also speaks to her.

As Chaiken says, “We’re all very interested in ourselves.”

“The Bride Can’t Stop Coughing” plays Mondays, 8 p.m., through July 31 at the Actors Playpen, 1514 N. Gardner St., Hollywood, (310) 560-6063 or (310) 582-0025.

“Cheerios in My Underwear” plays July 30, 3 p.m. and on selected Sundays, once a month, at the Empty Stage Theater, 2372 Veteran Ave., West Los Angeles, (310) 308-0947.

“Wedding Singer Blues” plays Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun. 3 p.m., through July 16, at the Coronet Theater, 366 N. La Cienega Blvd., West Hollywood, (310) 657-7377.

“What’s the Story?” a series of new works-in-progress, plays July 10 and on selected Mondays, once a month, at the Powerhouse Theater, 3116 Second St., Santa Monica, (310) 450-1312.

“Who Is Floyd Stearn?” plays Thursdays, 8 p.m., at the Sidewalk Studio Theater, 4150 Riverside Dr., Toluca Lake, (323) 960-1052, (818) 558-5702.

“Zero Hour” opens July 7, plays Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun. 2 p.m. and 7 p.m., through Aug. 13, at the Egyptian Arena Theater, 1625 N. Las Palmas Ave., Hollywood, (323) 860-6620. Special gala dinner and performance on Sunday, July 9, honoring West Coast Jewish Theater founder Naomi Jacobs.

7 Days in The Arts


Saturday, November 5

Santa Monica Playhouse Youth Performers perform some tikkun olam and a musical show all at once. This weekend, the 10- to-14-year-olds present “Drempels, aka: The Short but Happy Life of the Drempel Hieronymus Aloisius Plonk.” The musical comedy imagines a make-believe mischievous species called Drempels that live underground. Proceeds from today’s and tomorrow’s shows will benefit The Jenesse Center Hurricane Relief Fund in South Los Angeles, which is currently housing more than 300 Katrina evacuees.

7:30 p.m. (Sat.), 5 p.m. (Sun.). $20 (donation). The Other Space at Santa Monica Playhouse, 1211 Fourth St., Santa Monica. R.S.V.P., (310) 394-9779, ext. 2.

Sunday, November 6

In the Israeli film, “Joy,” the title character and her family are anything but. However, with the help of her favorite reality TV show, Joy Levine hopes she might be able to change her family’s lot by reconciling her parents with the estranged friends who pulled away from them after a mysterious event some 22 years earlier. The film screens on Nov. 5 and 6, as part of AFI Fest.

6:15 p.m. (Nov. 5), 4 p.m. (Nov. 6). ArcLight Hollywood, 6360 Sunset Blvd. R.S.V.P., (866) 234-3378. ” width=”15″ height=”1″ alt=””>

Monday, November 7

Veteran newsman Mike Wallace talks with ABC News’ Judy Muller this evening at Temple Emanuel. Having worked on “60 Minutes” since its 1968 premiere, Wallace’s list of interviewees includes American presidents, world leaders and classic entertainers. He reveals some of the stories behind the interviews in his new memoir, “Between You and Me,” and with any luck, tonight at Emanuel.

7:30 p.m. 300 N. Clark Drive, Beverly Hills. R.S.V.P., (310) 335-0917. ” width=”15″ height=”1″ alt=””>

Tuesday, November 8

Simms Taback offers up the differences between a schlemiel and shlimazel, and other vital Yiddish lessons in his book, “Kibitzers and Fools: Tales My Zayda Told Me.” He’s at Children’s Book World this afternoon for storytelling and a booksigning.

Ages 6 and up. 1:30-3 p.m. 10580 1/2 Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 559-2665.

Wednesday, November 9

Bi now, gay later? That’s the question in Dan Rothenberg’s new one-man show, “Regretrosexual.” The neurotic Jewish guy is ready to propose to his girlfriend, if only he can get up the guts to be honest with her about his gay-curious sexual past.

8 p.m. (Tues.-Thurs.), through Nov. 17. $18. The Lounge Theatre, 6201 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles. R.S.V.P., (323) 969-4790. ” width=”15″ height=”1″ alt=””>

Thursday, November 10

Every holiday finds us overeating or fasting, but professor Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett takes the analysis a few steps further today. The USC Casden Institute presents her lecture on “Recipes for Community: A History of the Jewish Kitchen,” which explores the Jewish relationship with food from the 19th century until today.

5:30 p.m. Free. USC campus. R.S.V.P., (213) 740-3405. ” width=”15″ height=”1″ alt=””>

Friday, November 11

Being a celeb super couple can be tough. Consider how it feels to be Bennifer in Adam Goldberg’s new film, “I Love Your Work.” At turns somber and self-mocking, the film addresses the culture of celebrity through the story of a movie star who goes crazy trying to cope with his fame after marrying an equally famous starlet.

Regent Showcase Theater, 614 N. La Brea Ave., Los Angeles. (323) 934-2944.

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.

For more information, visit

Asch’s Apocalyptic Now


 

“If we don’t change something now, if people don’t open their eyes, we’re not gonna have a world,” said director Eva Minemar during a rehearsal with “God of Vengeance,” the classic Sholem Asch play. An enfant terrible of the Yiddish-Polish theater, Asch staged his story of Yankel — a brothelkeeper who tries to keep his ravishing daughter, Rivkele, from falling into sin — in 1905. When the melodrama opened on Broadway in 1923, police raided the theater and locked up Asch’s director and cast on obscenity charges.

Can Minemar’s version, which was adapted by Steve Fife for The Coleman and Smith Artistic Company in Hollywood, generate similar fireworks? By setting it in “the apocalyptic now,” the director hopes to. Minemar, whose father is Israeli and mother is Sicilian, comes from the Lower East Side of Manhattan theater scene. Her recent work includes producing and directing, “Angry Jellow Bubbles,” a 90-character play for female voices that has traveled the world.

Asch was steeped in Torah, and was once the most popular Yiddish writer alive. His depictions of the tawdry side of Jewish life were serialized in the Forvertz before I.B. Singer’s. “God of Vengeance” has been anthologized as one of the three greatest Jewish plays (along with “The Dybbuk” and “The Golem”). When he went on to write three books about Jesus, Asch was dismissed as a heretic, a meshumad (convert from Judaism).

“He also had six kids, lived in Hollywood and wrote movies,” said Fife, a playwright whose adaptation was originally commissioned by the Jewish Rep in NYC.

Asch, who died in Israel in 1957, has recently been reconsidered in a new collection of essays, “Back From Oblivion,” edited by Nanette Stahl (Yale University Press).

He was 21 when he wrote this note about Yankel the brothelkeeper: “The world he betrays is so sordid and decaying that belief in a higher being is humanity’s only alternative to despair.”

“I think it’s there in a nutshell,” Minemar said.

Plays now through April 10. 8 p.m. (Fridays and Saturdays), 3 p.m. (Sundays). $20. The Coleman and Smith Artistic Company, 6902 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. For tickets, call (323) 960-7829.

Hank Rosenfeld is a storyteller on public radio’s “All Things Considered” and “The Savvy Traveler.”

 

Windows to the Yiddish Soul


Russia’s Yiddish actors, playwrights and poets are some of the oft-forgotten victims of the 20th century’s murderous Stalinist purges.

“It was such a crazy-making situation; one minute they were praised to high heaven and the next minute they were torn down,” said Sabell Bender, a retired high school theater teacher who will lecture on the Soviet Union’s Yiddish theater during the Dec. 19-25 intensive language/culture immersion courses at the Skirball Cultural Center.

The California Institute for Yiddish Culture and Language (CIYCL) is sponsoring “The Art of Yiddish 2004 — A Bridge of Light Around the World” with klezmer music, four language course levels, plus lectures on Yiddish culture. The Skirball will host a finale concert starring actor and Yiddish “true believer” Theodore Bikel on the evening of Dec. 25.

Some of the Moscow State Yiddish Theater’s artwork was found in a Soviet museum in 1973. After opening amid the world-changing ethnic pluralism promised by communists leading Russia’s 1917 revolution, the theater (also called the Jewish Chamber Theater and the State Jewish Theater during its 1918-1948 existence) attracted a set designer named Marc Chagall. Rather than creating stage backdrops, the Russian-born French artist designed three-dimensional sets and even painted theater ceilings.

The surviving Chagall set pieces will be discussed by Bender, who said Chagall’s art shows how Russia’s Yiddish artists, “really fought to maintain their Jewish identity and their Yiddish theater. There is still Yiddish theater in Montreal, Toronto, New York certainly, Tel Aviv, Melbourne — wherever there are pockets of Yiddish-speaking Jews.”

Miriam Koral, CIYCL’s director, said about 300 people will attend at least part of the intensive Yiddish courses, with about 40 to 50 Yiddish lovers at all the language courses, up from 35 people who attended all of last year’s courses.

“We thought more people would be able to attend during their vacation time,” Koral said of the post-Chanukah Yiddish week, now in its fifth year.

“The Art of Yiddish 2004 — A Bridge of Light Around The World,” Dec. 19-25, Skirball Cultural Center. For more information, visit

This year’s Yiddishkayt L.A. hopes to spark some memories of a forgotten era.


Sabell Bender remembers when the New Beverly Cinema was the Globe Theater, a center of Yiddish drama in Los Angeles.

It was here in 1951 that the 24-year-old actress continued to make a splash as the Los Angeles Folks-Bine’s ingenue, in a translation of J.B. Priestley’s “They Came to a City.”

“L.A. had a vibrant, serious Yiddish theater scene,” Bender, 77, recalled. “We didn’t do the bawdy musicals, the melodramas, but truly literary plays by Sholem Aleichem and Sholem Asch and Sholem An-Ski.”

The houses were packed and critics from the West Coast bureaus of the Daily Forward and the Morning Freiheit reviewed the productions, which took place at venues such as the Globe, the Wilshire Ebell and the Assistance League Playhouse.

The mamaloshen, or mother tongue, hasn’t graced those stages for more than a generation; the local bureaus of those newspapers have long closed; and Bender is among a dwindling group of old-timers who even remember that they existed. Indeed, when one imagines the golden age of Yiddishkayt, the secular culture of the European Diaspora, one thinks of Eastern Europe or the Lower East Side, not the City of Angels.

Yiddishkayt Los Angeles’ fifth biennial festival, “L.A. Confidential: The Hidden Story of Yiddish in Los Angeles,” Oct. 8-15, hopes to correct the amnesia. Its 15 events will unearth the once-thriving literary and political scene that swirled here in the first half of the last century — a time when socialists, Spanish Civil War volunteers, intellectuals and writers recreated the shtetl in Boyle Heights and Beverly-Fairfax.

The “Yiddish Radio Hour” broadcast from a garage in the Miracle Mile; Mickey Katz performed his manic Yinglish parodies at Billy Gray’s Band Box on Fairfax Avenue (see sidebar); and Benjamin Zemach, the director and modern dance pioneer, brought Stanislavski’s influence to the Folks-Bine and the University of Judaism.

“Even I was surprised to learn about all this,” said festival director Aaron Paley, 47, who attended secular kindershule and mittleshule in Van Nuys in the 1970s. “After all, Los Angeles’ chief vice is what the brilliant social critic Norman Klein has called L.A.’s ‘history of forgetting.’ We’ve whitewashed our Mexican origins, we habitually knock down architectural landmarks, we cemented over our river — and we’ve forgotten our Yiddish.”

If the contemporary landscape conceals the city’s Yiddish geography, the festival will unearth it, said Stephen Sass of the Jewish Historical Society of Southern California. Guided tours will spotlight our very own Old Country, where eight Jewish merchants uttered the first words of the mamaloshen circa 1850. Yiddishkayt virtually exploded here, 50 years later, when Midwestern and East Coast Jews flocked to Boyle Heights and adjacent City Terrace, lured by cheap properties subdivided by the Pioneer Lot Association.

On the bus tours, former residents such as Sylvia Brown will reminisce about how this predominantly Latino area was home to more than 75,000 Jews between 1910 and 1950.

Back when East Cesar Chavez Boulevard was still Brooklyn Avenue, the intersection at Brooklyn and Soto Street teemed with kosher bakeries, haberdasheries and even a live chicken market, Brown, 80, said. She still recalls the site of former landmarks such as the Leader’s barber shop; the original Canter’s Delicatessen, where sausage on Russian rye sandwiches cost a “nickle a shtickel”; and Currie’s Mile-High Cones, where the scent of baking cones wafted onto a street lined with herring and pickle barrels.

“Every left-wing faction had its own schule,” Bender added; in fact, her father, a socialist tailor, removed her from the International Workers Order school after a week “because they were communists, and he had big disagreements with the communists.”

Instead, young Sylvia attended a branch of the Workmen’s Circle schule located in a house on Euclid Street twice a week. She studied her primer in a class taught by a Mr. Waldman, who spoke so passionately of the mamaloshen that spittle flew from his lips.

That kind of passion for culture and politics dominated the neighborhood: “On a warm summer evening, you could see crowds of people arguing in Yiddish from all different political factions, whether Labor Zionist, anarchist or Trotskyite,” Sabell Bender said. When she married renown New York Yiddish theater actor Hershel Bender in 1948, the guests shouted out donations they had made feting the couple — all to the Communist Party.

That same year, Joseph Esquith, director of the Soto-Michigan Jewish Center was summoned to testify before the California’s Un-American Activities Committee — ostensibly for allowing communist front groups to use the premises, according to USC associate professor George Sanchez. Although Esquith was ruthlessly cross-examined by state Sen. Jack Tenney, who was well known for his anti-Semitism, he eloquently defended the center as “a laboratory of democracy where free speech, free association and free assemblage flourish.”

Less savory elements also flourished near Brooklyn and Soto. Yiddish speakers frequented pool halls and gambling dens owned by mobster Mickey Cohen, who parked his limousine (and his thugs) outside the Cornwall Street Synagogue while chanting Kaddish for his father.

As Los Angeles’ shtetl moved west to Beverly-Fairfax after World War II, Cohen moved, too, investing in Billy Gray’s Band Box and the nightclub Slapsy Maxie’s, named for Jewish boxing champ Max Rosenbloom. Around 1946, Cohen put up the cash to bring the unknown comedians Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis to Slapsy Maxie’s, where they promptly became stars.

Yinglish jokester Katz didn’t do so well; after his second performance, manager Sy Devore raged, “I will not have this! There will be no Yiddish done in this club!”

Within several years, the mamaloshen prevailed when Slapsy Maxie’s went belly up and was replaced by the New Globe, where Bender performed in 1951.

While that building at 7165 Beverly Blvd. is now the New Beverly Cinema, Paley plans to bring Yiddish theater back to the site — at least as a performance art sight gag — on a festival tour. Acrobats on stilts will perform as the “Mile-High Cohens,” referencing the old Boyle Heights hangout, Mile-High Cones.

The nighttime Beverly-Fairfax excursion — which Paley calls “a nocturnal treasure hunt” — will also stop by the Yiddish Culture Club on West Third Street, established in 1926. Inside its vast, book-lined library, self-proclaimed “ukulele chanteuse” Janet Klein will warble vaudeville tunes such as “Rebecca From Mecca” and “Sheik of Avenue B,” wearing her trademark Clara Bow bob. Paley persuaded the 30-something Klein to learn her first Yiddish tune, Aaron Lebedeff’s “I Like She,” for the occasion.

“My great-grandmother was from Poland, so I was curious to reconnect with my heritage,” Klein said.

Encouraging hip young artists like Klein to work in the mamaloshen is part of the festival’s mission: “We not only want to recreate Yiddish life in a vibrant atmosphere, we want to show that it can provide a foundation of ideas and creativity for new artists to draw on,” Paley said.

Although his festival is the largest of its kind in the United States — part of an international Yiddish revival since the 1970s — not everyone believes such fare furthers Yiddishkayt.

“If you have a festival, it’s very nice,” said retired UCLA Yiddish professor Janet Hadda. “The problem is that people are wanting to connect to a culture that doesn’t really exist anymore authentically, which was the culture of Ashkenaz in Eastern Europe. It was the culture of everything swirling around and clashing together: Chasidim, anarchism, socialism and secularism. All of that existed in tremendous vibrancy before World War II and existed in remnants afterward through immigration, but is now gone.”

Paley, for his part, hopes the 2004 festival will encourage Jews to learn more about this rich past, which also existed in Los Angeles.

“I want this year’s events, along with other initiatives, to encourage the Jewish community to rediscover our own old country — the lands to the east of the L.A. River,” he said.

Yiddishkayt L.A. starts Friday, Oct. 8 at 7:30 p.m. at Sinai Temple in Westwood with the Alef Project, presented by AVADA. For more information on “L.A Confidential,” including a complete list of events and locations, call (323) 692-8151 or visit www.yiddishkaytla.org.

A Katz-Inspired Identity Check

by Naomi Pfefferman,Arts & Entertainment Editor

While watching the “Tonight Show” in 1993, music writer and scholar Josh Kun was shocked to see African-American jazz clarinetist Don Byron extolling the late klezmer artist Mickey Katz. At the time Kun, who was earning his doctorate in ethnic studies, preferred the racialized music of Latinos and African Americans to Jewish culture.

“My impression had been that Jewishness — Jewish writing, scholarship and music — reeked of conservatism,” said Kun, a cultural critic for publications such as Rolling Stone and the New York Times.

But there was Byron, “a cultural practitioner of racial justice,” defending Katz when host Jay Leno tried to dismiss him as a “bar mitzvah musician.”

Byron replied that Katz was actually a clarinet virtuoso and a wildly subversive “Yinglish” artist whose wickedly satirical songs brilliantly parodied “Hit Parade” tunes and the whitewashed popular culture (“That’s Amore” became “That’s Morris”).

“To hear Byron say, ‘Hey, step back, this is incredibly radical, progressive, music, was eye opening,” Kun said. “I thought, ‘What’s the dissonance here? Why do I own every one of Byron’s recordings, and I don’t choose to listen to the other?'”

So began a personal odyssey that led the scholar to create a multimedia essay, “The Yiddish Are Coming: Remembering Mickey Katz,” which he’ll deliver as part of the Yiddishkayt L.A. Festival Oct. 14. The lecture tells Katz’s story through Kun’s experience of grappling with his own Jewish identity: “I think of it as a ‘positional biography,'” he said. “I’m using Katz’s life as a way to examine cultural questions that also matter to me: What does it mean to be Jewish? What is the right way to ‘perform’ Jewishness? And what is the role of the Jew in American culture?”

Kun, 33, wasn’t much interested in the subject while growing up in a privileged Reform home in Cheviot Hills. Although he is the grandson of Holocaust survivors, he was more intrigued by the funky ethnic records he bought with every cent of his allowance than klezmer or Yiddishkayt. Because his frequent album purchases chagrined his parents, he often sneaked them into his bedroom after bicycling them home from a used record store.

The self-proclaimed “music nerd” listened to rap, Mariachi and ballads of the United States-Mexico border; he believes he went on to study border theory at Duke University, in part, because its “bifurcated, binational perspective” unconsciously reminded him of his Jewish roots.

“Some scholars speak of Jews as the original border dwellers,” he said.

Katz (1909-1985) also seemed to be a border dweller of sorts, marginalized by both mainstream and Jewish Americans, although his beginnings were auspicious. The son of Latvian immigrants played with the Spike Jones orchestra before starting his own band, the Kosher Jammers, in the 1940s. In 1947, he composed his first musical send-up, “Haim Afen Range,” and promptly sold 10,000 records. Next came parodies such as “Downtown Strutter’s Ball,” a spoof of “Darktown Strutter’s Ball,” which transformed the song’s African-American party into “a real freilach affair at a Second Avenue palladium.” “Max the Messer,” recast “Mack the Knife” as a “big shlub” who works as a kosher butcher on Fairfax.

Kun came to see Katz as an important transitional figure in American Jewish pop culture, linking 1920s vaudevillians such as the Barton Brothers with the folk parodist Allan Sherman and TV comics such as Sid Caesar.

Nevertheless, by the 1950s he had become something of a pariah in polite Jewish circles: “[He] rode the line between Jewishness and Americaness bareback — no ‘White Christmases’ or ‘Easter Parades,’ no Al Jolson plantation fantasies or de-Semitizing name changes,” Kun wrote in L.A. Weekly. “With Hitler still fresh in everyone’s mind, Katz relished his role as the carnivalesque, too-Jewish outsider, the Borsht Belt jester pariah who kept speaking Yiddish even after self-hating club owners and radio DJs urged him to stop.”

Kun, who had previously spurned Jewish music as “everything I wanted to escape” discovered a hero in the musician.

“I found him bold,” he said. “At a time when Jews in pop culture weren’t supposed to look Jewish, here was this artist who exacted a kind of subcultural revenge by turning beloved songs into tunes that were loudly, obnoxiously, hilariously Jewish.”

Katz was not rewarded for his efforts. Toward the end of his life, he played the Florida condo circuit and assorted simchas — including Kun’s great-grandparents’ 50th wedding anniversary, the writer was stunned to learn. Kun’s upcoming lecture will feature taped clips from the event, where Katz played his “kilt and yarmulke ode,” ‘McNaKatz’s Band,” and invited Kun’s Uncle Norm onstage for “Yiddish Mule Train.”

The scholar might still feel ambivalent about Jewish conservatism, but Katz has helped him develop a cultural identity of sorts. He is now writing a treatise on Jewish Latin songs of the 1940s and 1950s, as well as a book on Tijuana.

“Katz worked out his relationship with America in public so [other Jews] … could worry about it in private,” he wrote in L.A. Weekly.

Kun could well be speaking of himself.

Staging a Body of Work


What’s a nice Jewish feminist performance artist to do when she’s heavily covered in tattoos? She creates a solo piece, “Jewess Tattoess,” exploring the conflict between her heritage and her body.

In her multimedia show, Marisa Carnesky examines the Jewish tattoo taboo by fusing elements of Yiddish melodrama, Victorian sideshows and Grand Guignol theater. She becomes the night demon Lilith, a possessed preteen and the Whore of Babylon, who in the piece is indisposed and on vacation.

“She’s sick and tired of women’s sexuality being demonized in traditional cultures, so she’s off sunbathing with her friends, Salome and the Queen of Sheba,” the sunny Carnesky, 32, said from her London home.

The character allows her to comment on “the clash between religions like Judaism and the choices we make as modern, feminist women.”

Carnesky noticed the conflict as a girl while sitting in the “ladies’ gallery” of her modern Orthodox synagogue: “It was hot and uncomfortable, and all about the hats and the outfits, and you couldn’t really see what the men were doing,” said the artist, whose pieces include “Carnesky’s Ghost Train.”

By age 15, she’d abandoned her Habonim youth-group friends for “arty-punky” circles at her multicultural public school. While she dyed her hair purple to immerse herself in the horror-rock Gothic scene, she refused to wear the de rigeur crucifix, favoring instead a Star of David.

“I wanted to be a Jewish Goth,” she said.

Jewish concerns were also on her mind when she was 19, as she began acquiring body art based on photographs of Victorian tattooed ladies.

“I was obsessed by Holocaust imagery of bodies piled up, their humanity taken away,” she said. “My macabre thought was that if that ever happened to me, they wouldn’t be able to steal my personality because my body is so tattooed.”

Carnesky was prompted to turn such issues into “Jewess Tattoess” around 1999: “I had met a number of Jews in the theater and felt I had a lot in common with them,” she said. She studied Jewish folk tales, books on the Torah prohibition against tattooing and photographs of shtetls and showgirls; one picture depicted Jewish silent actress Theda Bara covered in jewelry as the biblical temptress Salome.

“The very sexual, decorated woman is reviled in most cultures, and I was looking for characters that societies have created to guide people away from them,” she said.

“Jewess Tattoess” has guided Carnesky back to Judaism by introducing her to alternative subcultures such as Heeb magazine.

So what’s next for this Jewish performance artist?

“Maybe a Star of David tattoo,” she said.

The show runs Oct. 1 and Oct. 3-5 as part of UCLA Live’ssecond annual International Theatre Festival; www.uclalive.org  or (310) 825-2101.

Remembering the Comedians


Walking into Lillian Lux’s Lower East Side home in New York is like entering a museum of Yiddish theater.

The apartment holds a photo of Lux and her husband — the late Yiddish actor Pesach’ke Burstein — from an appearance in Argentina in the late 1930s. There also is a picture of Lux, Burstein and their actor-son, Mike, who now lives in Los Angeles, at a benefit for wounded Israeli soldiers.

Awards are strewn all over.

"Everything is a something," Lux says.

Something similar could be said about Lux’s family: Everyone is a someone, as far as Yiddish theater goes.

The patriarch of the family, Pesach’ke — he was both born and died during Passover — was a Polish-born actor who became a matinee idol during the Golden Era of Yiddish theater.

Along with Lux, whom Pesach’ke married after moving to America, he traveled the world — Europe, Argentina, Israel — as one of the ambassadors of Yiddish theater.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the two often performed together with their two children, Mike and Susan — or Motele and Zisele, as they were billed.

The story of the family, and of the history of 20th century Yiddish theater, is told in a new documentary, "The Komediant," that is being released in theaters in the United States.

For Israeli director Arnon Goldfinger and screenwriter Oshra Schwartz, the film served as a sort of therapy. In 1995, both were recently separated from their spouses and needed a new project. Schwartz showed Goldfinger an article about the son, who uses the name Mike Burstyn.

Goldfinger was skeptical, but agreed to meet Burstyn. The director was won over, but it took Burstyn some time to be convinced that the two Israelis were sincere in making a serious movie about his family and the Yiddish theater.

In Israel, Yiddish, which lost out to Hebrew as the country’s primary language, was denigrated as the language of Diaspora Jewry, the language of the vanquished past. Goldfinger admits that he shared this attitude until he made the film.

"It took time until we succeeded in gaining his trust," Goldfinger says of Burstyn. "We made it clear to him that we were not investing so much time in order to ridicule Yiddish."

But "The Komediant" — the name comes from one of Pesach’ke’s best-known plays — goes to great lengths to show the often-tough reality of life in the Yiddish theater. The backbiting among the actors as they competed to join the Yiddish actors association is made clear.

"I went in with only one no. And I know who gave me the no," Lux says.

The fear of plays being stolen was so great that performers were sometimes only given their own lines, not the lines of their fellow actors.

"Back then, you never knew what your partner was going to say," Burstyn says.

Burstyn, in fact, eventually became an international actor, known in Israel for his role in "The Two Kuni Lemls" and in America for his role in "Barnum."

Burstyn’s sister, Susan, despite her early success as a ventriloquist, said she resents having had an unusual childhood. She left the stage at an early age, married and retired from performing.

Director Goldfinger was nervous that the sister would not agree to appear in the film. But she did, and offers a more critical view of the family’s life on the road.

Similar to old-time actors on the Yiddish stage, the family members did not know what the others were going to say.

"We ended up with a mosaic of stories — a number of perspectives on the same events that at times unite and at times contradict one another," he says."I think the film is loaded with layers."

"The Komediant" will be screening Sunday, May 19 at 7:30 p.m at the University of Judaism. For tickets call (310) 440-1246.

Here Comesthe Bride


It was the first time in U.S. history that the cast and producers of a play were hauled down to police headquarters and convicted on obscenity charges.

Sholem Asch’s radical 1907 melodrama, “God of Vengeance,” tells of a brothel owner who commissions a Torah to keep his daughter pure, only to lose her to a lesbian lover and a rival pimp. The Broadway production was forced to close down in 1923, but Asch’s shocker, with strikingly contemporary themes of gay love and religious hypocrisy, has enjoyed revivals of late.

Pulitzer Prize-winner Donald Margulies adapted a version for the Long Wharf Theater of New Haven, set in his grandparents’ Lower East Side neighborhood circa 1923. Manhattan’s Jewish Repertory Theater staged a version, and so did the downtown New York company Todo con Nada — set amid the mirrors and scarlet go-go platform of an Eighth Avenue peepshow.

Now a “Vengeance” musical, “The Bride and the Brothel,” is coming to Los Angeles, adapted by theater director Madelaine Leavitt and her screenwriter husband, Charles (“The Mighty”), with music and lyrics by Israeli composer Hanna Levy.

Santa Monica resident Leavitt was smitten by “Vengeance” when she chanced upon a translation of the Yiddish-language play in Pakn Treger magazine on her mother-in-law’s coffee table four years ago. “I was shocked that the lesbian scenes were so contemporary,” she recalled. “I immediately thought, ‘One day I am going to direct this play.'”In “Vengeance,” she saw a morality tale about how Jews treat their own who live outside the mainstream. She envisioned a musical adaptation to help contemporize Asch’s old-fashioned language. She imagined an upstairs-downstairs-style set with earthy tones in the pimp’s home and fleshy beige-and-crimson hues in the brothel below.As she began her research, she concurred with Long Wharf director Gordon Edelstein, who told Pakn Treger that Asch “was a bad boy … writing a play about lesbian prostitutes at the turn of the century. You know he was trying to piss people off.”

While “God of Vengeance” was produced in myriad countries and on the New York Yiddish stage in the early 20th century, it provoked scandal only after moving to Broadway, mostly because of Jewish viewers who complained it was anti-Semitic. The loudest critic was Rabbi Joseph Silverman of Manhattan’s Temple Emanu-El, who insisted Asch had libeled the Jewish religion. While the non-Jewish dramatist Eugene O’Neill defended “Vengeance,” Asch’s old mentor, the Yiddish author I.L. Peretz, declaimed, “Burn it, Asch, burn it.”

Many decades later, composer-lyricist Levy had similar concerns. “It took me a year to make up my mind about whether to do the play,” confided Levy, who directed the music at the Yitzhak Rabin memorial at New York’s Madison Square Garden. “I wasn’t sure it showed the Jewish people in the greatest light. And there was the issue of the two women and the way the Torah is treated as a magical icon.”

The composer, like many Israelis, also had residual feelings about Yiddish as the culture of the Diaspora. But eventually, she was won over by the play’s themes, which, she believes, echo the current secular-religious conflicts in Israel.

By 1999, she was scribbling klezmer-inspired songs on envelopes and telephone bills, researching biblical references to the “God of Vengeance” and singing bits of verse to Leavitt over the telephone from her Manhattan apartment or Israeli country house.

The goal, she said, was to create songs that seamlessly merged with Asch’s edited, original text. “I wanted to show the humanity of people whose actions we do not approve of morally,” she added.

“The Bride and The Brothel” runs Jan. 26-March 4 at the Gascon Center Theater, 8737 Washington Blvd., Culver City. For tickets: (310) 289-2999.