Sometimes, it’s good to get out of your theatrical comfort zone. Yiddish was never spoken in my house. None of my grandparents were from the “old country.”I am such a lapsed Jew that my idea of being observant is watching Seinfeld reruns. So it was a bit of a cultural stretch to check out Tevye Served Raw (Garnished With Jews) by Allan Lewis Rickman and Shane Baker, directed by Mr. Rickman, because I knew it would be half in Yiddish, albeit translated line by line by the cast.
I’m happy to report that even if you put mayonnaise on your corned beef sandwich, you’ll still find something to love in the stories of Sholem Alechem, and his most famous character, Tevye, in this tiny but touching production presented by the Congress for Jewish Culture, and producer Benjamin Feldman, at the Playroom Theater in midtown.
Sholem Aleichem, a nom de plume which translates to “peace be with you,” was born Sholem Ben Menakhem-Nokhem Rabinovitsh. He was a 19thcenture Jewish writer with a huge output of stories, plays, monologues, dialogues, etc., from which Tevye Served Raw (Garnished With Jews) was drawn by adapters Allen Lewis Rickman and Shane Baker. Most of the world knows Aleichim’s work through Joseph Stein’s adaptation of the Tevye stories, which formed basis of the book for the musical, Fiddler on the Roof.
You don’t have to speak any Yiddish to appreciate the fine performances in this show. Mr. Rickman directs and co-stars as Tevye himself and other characters. A large part of the meaning of language is communicated in the inflections which don’t require translation. Mr. Rickman’s Tevye in particular was richly expressive, and hearing the character in the original Yiddish made my understanding of him that much richer. He is well matched by Mr. Baker, and the wonderfully versatile Yelena Shmulenson, in various roles.
The Yiddish dialogue is sometimes projected in English translation on a screen behind the performers. Otherwise, it is translated simultaneously by one of the other performers onstage during the scene. For the really funny moments, that often leads to an odd delay effect, like the difference between when you see lightning vs. hearing the thunderclap. The members of the audience who know the language laugh at the joke when they hear it in Yiddish, then everybody else laughs when it gets translated a moment later.
Aleichem was a keen observer of the various characters in the world around him. His stories in this adaptation include one featuring two Jews from different towns gossiping nonp-stop all the while denying that they’re doing it, tales of the failed business ventures of Menachem Mendel (closely modeled after Alechim’s own business ups and downs), and a stepmother whose horrendous insults inspired young Sholem to organize them into a personal lexicon of Yiddish cusswords. In the comedic highlight of the evening, the cast enlists the help of an audience member to go through the Hebrew alphabet as Ms. Shmulenson rattled off an alphabetically arranged list of Klingon sounding Yiddish expressions, whose translations included “a person who shoots out street lamps,” “potato glutten,” and “bottomless entrails!” Try that one on the waiter the next time your soup arrives cold.
I was expecting to see the Tevye stories which were left out of Fiddler. However, almost all of what was chosen was very familiar as source material for the musical, including Tevye bemoaning the loss of his middle daughter, Chava, who breaks her father’s heart by marrying outside of the faith, and his family’s ouster from their home town along with the other Jews of the district.
The title reflects the ambitions of the adapters to show the range of Sholom Aleichim’s depiction of the Jewish world around him as well as Tevye. Unfortunately, melding a small portion of the longer arc of Tevye’s stories with several unrelated comedic short stories made the writing feel both disjointed and incomplete to me. But the gestalt of the piece was still genuine and moving.
English speaking audiences won’t have any problem appreciating this production. It’s a good warm up for audiences intending to see the all Yiddish Fiddlerwith Joel Grey and Jackie Hoffman (who was also in attendance at this opening night). As I listened to the eightysomething woman next to me sing along with a Yiddish children’s song she knew from her youth, I realized that this show would be a very special experience in particular for audiences who grew up, to any extent, on that old world culture. I’m glad I got over my mishigoss, and took in die gantze zakh. Because Tevye Served Raw (Garnished With Jews) put me a little bit more in touch with both my heritage and my soul.