September 18, 2019

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.