Dreaming of a Yiddish Christmas, with Sugarplums and a Klezmer Soundtrack

Based on the 1954 movie—starring Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen—White Christmas is so primly, blandly sincere that it’s like watching The Lawrence Welk Show. A dated backstage musical for the Greatest Generation, Walter Bobbie’s efficient production is a touring show (which began in San Francisco in 2004). Now it’s reached Broadway, presumably en route someplace else next miserable Christmas.

With a score that includes Berlin’s “Let Yourself Go,” “Let Me Sing and I’m Happy,” “I Love a Piano”—not to mention “White Christmas,” with its undertow of melancholy—this musical ought to be just like the ones we used to know. Everyone in the cast does everything charmingly according to the book. Unfortunately, the show lacks authentic vitality—call it the pizzazz and star quality and magic that, well, Irving Berlin had in spades.

 

JOSEPH PAPP, founder of the Public Theater, loved telling a possibly apocryphal story about Jacob Adler’s legendary turn-of-the-century performance in the Yiddish King Lear. His Der Yiddisher Kenig Lir was so admired that there was talk of transferring an English-language version of the production to Broadway.

Papp explained, however, how its proud Yiddish adapter, Jacob Gordin, unexpectedly resisted the idea. “King Lear,” Gordin declared, “will never work as well in English.”

Gimpel Tam, a new musical at the Jewish Community Center, based on the short story “Gimpel the Fool” by Isaac Bashevis Singer, is a happy contemporary compromise: It’s performed in Yiddish, with English and Russian supertitles.

Folksbiene, the National Yiddish Theatre, the last remnant of the once thriving Second Avenue Jewish theaters in Lower Manhattan, literally keeps alive the glories of Yiddish—a language that embodies, according to Harold Bloom (a fluent Yiddish speaker), the history of the Jewish people. (It troubles Mr. Bloom deeply that the survival of Yiddish is very much in question in 21st-century America.)

One of Folksbiene’s recent shows, a witty Yiddish version of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance, was a great success that attracted a younger-than-usual crowd. But at the midweek matinee I caught of the more traditional Gimpel Tam, the audience was elderly. “I speak Yiddish,” the lady nearby told me, “but my grandson doesn’t. He speaks Chinese! Can you imagine?”

Singer’s folk tale about the shtetl character who’s so gullible he believes absolutely anything has been newly adapted by the distinguished Romanian director Moshe Yassur (who also directs). Saul Bellow quite famously translated Gimpel Tam for the Partisan Review in 1953, and Mr. Yassur takes issue with Bellow’s decision to translate “Tam” as “Fool.” “‘Tam’ means innocent, simple, naïve and sometimes perfect, whole,” Mr. Yassur explained in an interview, and compared Gimpel’s innocence to the fourth son in the Passover Haggadah, who’s also known as Tam.

Maybe so. But would Gimpel be so naïve as to believe his wife, Elke, gets pregnant by half the town’s shtuppers by immaculate conception? Either that, or Gimpel must be a fool! Unless, that is, he’s a Yiddish saint. Or—among the plethora of questions the little moral fable keeps raising—are we all gullible Gimpels now?

It’s a lovely, modest production (if a shade long), and it takes us to the heart of a truly folkloric theater. Radu Captari composed the vibrant score performed by four excellent onstage musicians, and I particularly admired Daniella Rabbani’s sympathetic, utterly alive performance as the slutty wife, Elke.

The sound of the Yiddish language reminded me of loving ghosts from my childhood, who spoke Yiddish whenever they wanted to keep secrets from me, or were grieving, or felt blessed.

 

THE ENTERPRISING Vital Theatre Company’s production of The Klezmer Nutcracker is a labor of love performed by a youthful troupe for young children (and their parents) in the intimate studio theater at 2162 Broadway. Written by Ellen Kushner, with recorded music by the Shirim Klezmer Orchestra, The Klezmer Nutcracker is The Wizard of Oz meets The Golden Dreidel, along with The Riddles of Solomon.

There’s quite a lot going on, you see. But to my delight, the fresh, unembarrassed naïveté of director Linda Ames Key’s production contained a theatrical innocence I love. A dreidel spins miracles and dances in golden human form; a preening peacock spreads its feathers in a startling, magical image; two fleeing children jump up a step to convey jumping down; a cardboard cutout of a young girl travels on a cardboard camel and falls off—and a real girl rolls onto the tiny stage.