This Yente Found The Perfect Match, Performing 'Fiddler' In Yiddish | WYPR

This Yente Found The Perfect Match, Performing 'Fiddler' In Yiddish

Dec 23, 2018
Originally published on December 26, 2018 7:06 pm

Actor Jackie Hoffman grew up hearing Yiddish, but not really speaking it.

"I spoke what my mother calls kitchen Yiddish," Hoffman says — words here and there that she picked up from conversations between her mother and grandmother.

The language had always been a part of her life, but when she landed the part of Yente the matchmaker in a Yiddish-language version of Fiddler on the Roof, she panicked. "It was intimidating," Hoffman admits.

Fiddler tells the story of Tevye, a Jewish dairyman, who is desperately trying to find good husbands for his five daughters. It takes place in 1905 in a fictional town in czarist Russia. There have been many productions of Fiddler since its Broadway premiere in 1964, but this is the first time the Yiddish-language adaptation has been performed in the U.S.

With the help of some "compassionate but strict coaching" from the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene in New York, Hoffman gradually learned her lines. Every bit of dialogue was written out phonetically in English and "we would do every. single. word. ..." Hoffman says. "It was just drilling, drilling, drilling, drilling, drilling."

Hoffman had an ear for the language since she grew up around it, "but it was still surprisingly difficult," she says. "I was like, I thought I had this — I've been hearing this my whole life."

Yiddish was the lingua franca for Eastern European Jews in the 19th century, explains Zalmen Mlotek, artistic director at the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene. But the original musical was written in English.

"In the '60s when they wrote it, the feeling towards Yiddish and ethnicity was very different than it is today," Mlotek says. "Today we have a very much stronger desire to know our ethnic background."

The Yiddish Theatre was well-positioned to produce this adaptation of the widely known musical.

"We needed to [produce] it in a different way because people have seen it so many times," Mlotek says. "They've seen big Broadway productions — we couldn't possibly do a big Broadway production. That's why we went to [director] Joel Grey, who envisioned this small, yet intimate, yet deeply moving portrayal of the story."

Audiences follow along with the help of supertitles — and even though it's a familiar story, it's hitting them in an emotional way. "People are so taken by the communication of the story and hearing it in this language," Mlotek says.

There's also something about hearing this story — about persecution, family separation, the death of tradition — in this language, in this country, at this time.

"Who would have thought that anti-Semitism would rear its ugly head in the way that it has?" says Mlotek. "I believe that there's a deep resonance as we tell this story that happened over 100 years ago."

Gemma Watters and Martha Wexler produced and edited this story for broadcast. Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And finally today, "Fiddler On The Roof." If you think you know it word for word, you're probably not wrong. It's been one of the best-known, most loved and most often staged productions since its Broadway premiere in 1964, but you might not know it quite like this.

(SOUNDBITE OF PERFORMANCE OF MUSICAL, "FIDDLER ON THE ROOF")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character, speaking foreign language).

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character, speaking foreign language).

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character, speaking foreign language).

MARTIN: This version of "Fiddler On The Roof," now on stage in New York, is performed entirely in Yiddish with supertitles in English and Russian. A quick refresher about the musical - it takes place in a fictional village in czarist Russia in 1905. It's the story of a Jewish dairy man named Tevye who is looking for good husbands for the oldest of his five daughters. The world is changing around him. Jews are going off to America to escape anti-Semitism and to seek a better life. Revolution is stirring in Russia.

A Yiddish production of "Fiddler" was performed in Israel decades ago. Now, that translation is being performed by the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene under the direction of Oscar and Tony winner Joel Grey. After I saw this production last week, I sat down with actor and comedian Jackie Hoffman, who plays the meddling matchmaker Yenta, and Zalmen Mlotek, he is the artistic director at the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene. And he is the music director for this production. Mlotek gave me a primer on Yiddish.

ZALMEN MLOTEK: Yiddish is the language that was spoken by Eastern European Jews in the 19th century. It actually dates back to the 15th century. But it was the lingua franca that Jews all over Eastern Europe and Russia spoke. This was not the language that they prayed in, but this was the language that they spoke.

MARTIN: So this production is based on the short stories of the famous author Sholem Aleichem. And so that's the language that he would have spoken.

MLOTEK: Exactly.

MARTIN: And that is the language that Tevye and his family would have spoken.

MLOTEK: And that is the actual, I believe, a lot of the reason why the show resonates on such a level. Because whether you understand it or not, you're hearing these expert actors perform and communicate in this language that Sholem Aleichem actually wrote in. So everything comes alive in a different way.

(SOUNDBITE OF PERFORMANCE OF MUSICAL, "FIDDLER ON THE ROOF")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character, singing in Yiddish).

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As character, singing in Yiddish).

MARTIN: The musical was actually written originally in English. Am I correct?

MLOTEK: Correct. Of course.

MARTIN: OK. So why now? What caused this to come to be?

MLOTEK: I think, you know, in the '60s, when they wrote it, the feeling towards Yiddish and ethnicity was very different than it is today. Today, we have a much stronger desire to know our ethnic background and to really go into it. And the National Yiddish Theatre was in a position to produce this. We realized, if we were going to produce this, we needed to do it in a different way because people have seen it so many times. And they've seen big Broadway productions. We couldn't possibly do a big Broadway production. And that's why we went to Joel Grey, who envisioned this intimate, yet deeply moving portrayal of the story.

(SOUNDBITE OF PERFORMANCE OF MUSICAL, "FIDDLER ON THE ROOF")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing in Yiddish).

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #6: (As character, singing in Yiddish).

MARTIN: I want to go to Jackie for a minute now. Jackie, you're very well known in New York theater. People will recognize you from your many television appearances. You've done a lot of Jewish-themed humor. I'm thinking about - "Jackie's Kosher Khristmas" was one show. But you didn't speak Yiddish before, am I right?

JACKIE HOFFMAN: I did not. I spoke what my mother calls kitchen Yiddish, which were like little words here and there. And I would hear my mother speak to my grandmother. I would hear it. It was just part of the vernacular in my Jewish social circle. And when I would go to other places and, you know, when I went to Chicago to do Second City, and I started teaching, I would, like, to have my Yiddish expressions. And it became almost a tradition that every cast I work with, I teach them little Yiddish phrases. I've got gentiles speaking Yiddish all over this town now.

MARTIN: Well, yeah because you're Jackie and because it's your thing. OK. I have to ask you to be honest. Was there an element of, this was a little intimidating doing the entire production in Yiddish?

HOFFMAN: I'm always honest. And, yes, it was intimidating - quite. No. I mean, I'm a panicker. You know, I panicked because I couldn't get a one train to come up here. So I'm still shaking from that experience. So any new script I deal with the way I deal with any new project, which is trama. I figure out why I'm going to fail, why this can't happen. But this was like particularly daunting. This freaked me out. And I said, OK, we have to hunker down. No weed, no booze. Keep the pills.

MARTIN: We'll set aside the pharmaceuticals. But how did you...

HOFFMAN: Don't ever set aside the pharmaceuticals.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: What was the process?

HOFFMAN: Well, they - we had brilliant and patient, compassionate but strict coaching from - if you think Zalmen Mlotek is a name, try Motl Didner, who's the Yiddish coach at the Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene. And so everything was phonetically written out in English. So I got the sound of it. And I had a good ear for it from hearing the language growing up. But it was still surprisingly difficult.

MARTIN: Especially because you're not just dropping words in, it's sentences, it's nuance, it's conveying the feelings behind the words.

HOFFMAN: Right. Right. And some people would take different approaches. I have friends who say, just learn the sound of it, just learn it like it's jibberish sounds. And don't drive yourself crazy with what each word means. But I had Motl sit down with me. And bless his heart, we went through every single word.

MARTIN: Had you ever played in "Fiddler" before in the English version?

HOFFMAN: This is, astonishingly, my first "Fiddler" ever. It became a running gag - you know, too Jewish for "Fiddler," too - because all the productions, they really wanted to go against type. They wanted to go against the oi (ph) Jew. But here, I fit in fabulous. I'm thrilled that this was my first one. This is the best one.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: One of the famous songs is - that I think a lot of people know is "If I Were A Rich Man."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IF I WERE A RICH MAN")

CHAIM TOPOL: (Singing) if I were a rich man, yabadibba (ph) dibba (ph) dibba dibba dibba dum (ph). All day long, I'd biddy (ph) biddy bum. If I were a wealthy man...

MARTIN: And in this version, it's - if I were a Rothschild.

(SOUNDBITE OF PERFORMANCE OF MUSICAL, "FIDDLER ON THE ROOF")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #7: (As character, singing in Yiddish).

MLOTEK: Rothschild was the archetype of the richest person that Eastern European Jewry thought of in those years. And Sholem Aleichem wrote a story called "If I Were Rothschild." So...

HOFFMAN: He did?

MLOTEK: Yes, absolutely.

HOFFMAN: I didn't know that.

MLOTEK: So Joe Stein and Sheldon Harnick decided to base it - base their "If I Were A Rich Man" on that. And the translator in Israel decided to go to the original translation and use Rotchild (ph) Rothschild.

(SOUNDBITE OF PERFORMANCE OF MUSICAL, "FIDDLER ON THE ROOF")

STEVEN SKYBELL: (As Tevye, speaking in Yiddish).

MARTIN: The Tevye, who is brilliant...

MLOTEK: Steven.

MARTIN: Steven Skybell had performed Tevye in English. Forgive me. I'm going to ask you to speak for him.

MLOTEK: Yes.

MARTIN: Was it hard for him? Or was it harder or easier to transition from having performed it in the English to the Yiddish?

MLOTEK: He - Steven is a genius. Steven wowed us. We saw over 700 people for the cast of 26. He came in, and he wowed us with his Yiddish. And I asked him about where his Yiddish came from. He said he studied Yiddish in college with his brother at some point. And he had always wanted to be in the Yiddish Theatre. And I thought that that was a joke.

Later, I realized he's a professor of drama at Yale. And so he knows theater. He works, to this day, every day, working the lines and constantly getting - finding new nuance. And the range that he brings - I don't have to tell you, you saw - but it is exquisite and so moving for all of us every performance.

MARTIN: And speaking of moving, there were many tears in the audience. And I wondered, has that surprised you that, I mean, for something that - I mean, kids have been performing these songs in their, like, elementary school recitals since forever. Right? And so you think you know it, but then to have adults weeping at this, I'm wonder if it's something to do with the current moment that we're in when people are experiencing anti-Semitism in a way that I think many people are shocked by. What do you think? Is it the power of the story?

MLOTEK: I think it's a combination of everything you said. I think, you know, the story is an incredibly universal story that every people on earth has to deal with in terms of being evicted from a home, separate - families separating, traditions being broken. But, you know, we find ourselves in America, where, who would have thought that anti-Semitism would rear its ugly head in the way that it has? And I believe that there's a deep resonance as we tell this story that happened, you know, over a hundred years ago that people are feeling today that has this incredible resonance.

(SOUNDBITE OF PERFORMANCE OF MUSICAL, "FIDDLER ON THE ROOF")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character, speaking Yiddish).

MARTIN: That was Zalmen Mlotek, artistic director of the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene, and actor Jackie Hoffman, who plays Yente the matchmaker in the National Yiddish Theatre's production of "Fiddler On The Roof," or, as it should be said properly...

MLOTEK: (Speaking Yiddish).

HOFFMAN: (Speaking Yiddish).

(SOUNDBITE OF PERFORMANCE OF MUSICAL, "FIDDLER ON THE ROOF")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character, speaking Yiddish). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.