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Yiddish Theater Festival offers humor, pathos, meaning

waiting for godot
Ronald L. Glassman
David Mandelbaum, left, artistic director for New Yiddish Rep, and Shane Baker, who wrote the Yiddish translation for “Waiting for Godot.”

Yiddish theater grabs you by the kishkes (guts) and doesn’t let go. Now the tradition that inspired Broadway is coming to Ithaca with the humor, pathos and meaning of its long history. The first-ever Yiddish Theater Festival in the Finger Lakes stars New York City’s renowned New Yiddish Rep (NYR) and includes four events over three nights, Sept. 8-10, highlighted by a performance of NYR’s internationally acclaimed “Waiting for Godot.” (All Yiddish performances are accompanied by English supertitles.)

“Yiddish theater has a unique ability to both move an audience and make them laugh, even in the midst of sadness,” says Jonathan Boyarin, director of Cornell’s Jewish Studies Program and festival organizer. “Yiddish continues to have a profound impact on American popular culture and the extraordinary New Yiddish Rep company performances show why.”

The festival kicks off Tuesday, Sept. 8, at 6 p.m. with a free screening at Cornell Cinema of “Jewish Luck,” a classic silent Yiddish film, starring Soviet Yiddish actor Solomon Mikhoels, with original piano accompaniment by Steve Sterner. The 1920s film is based on Sholem Aleichem’s stories featuring a daydreaming entrepreneur who specializes in doomed strike-it-rich schemes.

The film will be followed by a live performance of David Mandelbaum’s one-man adaptation of “Yosl Rakover Speaks to G-d,” the story of a pious Jew challenging God during the final days of the Warsaw ghetto. Mandelbaum is artistic director and co-founder of New Yiddish Rep; he has been producing and acting in experimental theater in New York for more than 35 years. No tickets are required for the film or Mandelbaum’s performance.

On Wednesday, Sept. 9, at 7:30 p.m. the venue shifts to Ithaca College’s Hoerner Theater in the Dillingham Center for “The Essence: A Yiddish Theatre Dim Sum,” New Yiddish Rep’s mostly-English revue of scenes, sketches, songs and oddball diversions from classic Yiddish theater, performed with breakneck stamina and comic zeal. (Two of the performers, Allen Rickman and Yelena Shmulenson, starred in the opening scene of the Coen brothers’ “A Serious Man.”) Tickets are $5 general admission; free for students with a valid college ID. For tickets, call 607-274-3252 or email yiddishdimsum@gmail.com.

On Thursday, Sept. 10, at 7:30 p.m. in Cornell’s Kiplinger Theater in the Schwartz Center for the Performing Arts, the troupe will present its critically acclaimed “Waiting for Godot” by Samuel Beckett. As translator Shane Baker (who plays Vladimir) notes, performing the play in Yiddish unlocks hidden meanings in the work and illuminates some of the ideas preoccupying Beckett in 1948 when he was writing the play.

“To see the play performed in Yiddish shifts our understanding of the play’s minimalism and existentialism,” adds Boyarin, Cornell’s Mann Professor of Modern Jewish Studies and professor of anthropology. “In a sense, Yiddish is the play’s native language.”

Tickets for “Waiting for Godot” are $11 student/child, $13 adult and are available at www.schwartztickets.com.

The Yiddish Theater Festival is sponsored by Cornell’s Jewish Studies Program, with support from Ithaca College Jewish Studies, the Cornell Council for the Arts and other organizations.

More information is available at jewishstudies.cornell.edu or email akc52@cornell.edu.

Linda B. Glaser is a staff writer for the College of Arts and Sciences.

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John Carberry