There’s something unexpected about attending a Yiddish theater in Tel Aviv, the birthplace of the revived Hebrew language. But that’s just one of the ironies worked into “Monologues from the Kishke,” a Yiddishpiel Theater musical celebrating Eastern European food and culture.
“In everything I do in Yiddish, one of my main goals is to really bring it to different audiences,” explained Yoni Eilat, a veteran Yiddishpiel performer who directed this show. “My thought was, ‘Okay, there are people who speak Yiddish, and they come to the Yiddishpiel’s shows. They’re older, in their 70s and 80s — they should live until 120, but in a while, they won’t be around. And if we want to continue this, we need to expand the audience.’”
Revitalizing the Yiddish language and culture is a particular passion for Eilat. He learned Yiddish from his mother and grandmother, who used it as a shared language, and now it’s part of what he does for a living as an actor. Even his business cards are written in Yiddish.
“Monologues” aims to straddle the divide between the traditional, Yiddish-speaking Yiddishpiel theater-goer and the non-Yiddish-speaker, blending a mainstream musical theater style and “fringe” Yiddish-speaking niche. Like much of what the theater does, it’s a kind of a Yiddish hybrid.
The play is interspersed with Hebrew monologues, and only the songs are actually in Yiddish. (To help with accessibility for the non-Yiddish-speakers, a screen above the stage has surtitles in Hebrew and Russian.) That’s a first for the Yiddishpiel Theater, but it was an intentional shift in order to broaden their natural audience base.
“What we realized about this show is that it is for everyone,” said Yael Yekel, another performer. “We get people with different cultural backgrounds, even different religious backgrounds. Even audience members who have a connection to Yiddish through a grandparent or relative may not have the same connection to food.”
“Monologues from the Kishke” was adapted by Eilat from “Schmaltz”, a book written by Shmil Holland, a Jewish and Yiddish historian and chef who owned the eponymously named Jerusalem restaurant, Shmil’s. After Eilat was given the book as a gift, he decided to adapt it as a play, developing the script from recipes, Yiddish songs and existing monologues.
There isn’t a storyline that connects the entire show, beyond the idea of food and Eastern European culture. Rather, it’s a series of tableaux and montages with monologues from Holland, writer Jonathan Safran Foer, and other writers of Yiddish culture and heritage. The actors each present a monologue, generally adding personal details — often food-related — that connect the soliloquy to facts about their own lives.
The show begins with an overture, reminiscent of a musical in an Off Broadway theater, except for the Yiddish. The songs, with complex harmonies and impressive choral singing of recognizable Yiddish melodies, are accompanied by a band tucked away behind a scenery cutout onstage.
Holland helped supply inspiration for the play, said Eilat, assisting with food styling and a massive Jerusalem-style kugel for the cast, so large that each actor took a chunk home.
His own story inspired the actors to investigate their own roots and they all “cooked like crazy” after work started on the show, said Eilat.
“The first rehearsal was at my house, over a pot of cholent I made for everyone,” he recalled.
For an older generation of Yiddish speakers, it’s moving to see a group of young, secular Israelis preserving their elders’ language and culture. For the actors themselves, the show – down to the retro-styled kitchen with a lace tablecloth — serves as a way to connect to their roots and heritage.
“The show isn’t in first person, it’s about Grandma and Mom, and the actors really connected to that,” Yekel said.
To the untrained ear, the Yiddish is believable, though some native Yiddish speakers have criticized the production for inauthentic accents, added Yekel.
During a recent performance, the theater was full, with most of the audience of an older generation.
“Do you know Yiddish?” an older woman asked one younger theatergoer, a man in his 20s.
He said no.
She was impressed, nonetheless, that he’d chosen to attend a Yiddish play.
“Monologues from the Kishke” has been running since April 2013, funded by the government and Tel Aviv Municipality in addition to money contributed via Germany. Eilat wants to take it to the United States, either translating the monologues into English or using subtitles. The Yiddishshpiel Theater has traveled abroad before with some of its previous shows.
“It’s not something that’s happening only in Israel, connecting to our roots,” Eilat declared. “There are other Jews in the world that discovered this longing.”
“Monologues from the Kishke” will be performed May 30, 12 pm, at the Janco-Dada Museum in Ein Hod.
The next scheduled performance will be on December 12, 10 am, at Tel Aviv’s Beit Hatfusot.
Tickets and more information are available online at Yiddishspiel.