BOSTON – Half a century after the demise of New York City’s Yiddish theater scene, a new klezmer musical uses the so-called “people’s stage” as the backdrop for a colorful tale of tribal Jewish bickering.
“The King of Second Avenue” is loosely based on Israel Zangwill’s satirical 1894 novel, “The King of Schnorrers,” revolving around a London-based Sephardi schnorrer (beggar) who is at constant odds with his better-off Ashkenazi co-religionists.
Staged by the New Repertory Theatre outside Boston, the ditty-packed adaptation brings the British-born Zangwill’s uptown-downtown motif to the crumbling Yiddish theater world of Manhattan’s Lower East Side, circa the 1960s.
Transplanted to the New World, the play’s top schnorrer is an unemployed Sephardi actor scheming to ransom his daughter’s hand in marriage, all via the bankroll of an Ashkenazi Hollywood mogul known for putting Yiddish actors out of work with his epic Bible films.
As with the Zangwill novel, “Second Avenue” makes hay of the rift between an aloof Ashkenazi establishment and a group of resentful Sephardi newcomers, most of whom earn their living on the street. Calling each other “half brothers in Israel,” the rival sects joke about renaming Shakespeare’s Montague and Capulet families to “the Montefiores and Kaplans,” in reference to their own internecine rancor.
“Jewish intermarriage is against my religion,” the wily schnorrer says of the notion his daughter — “an Iberian princess” — might marry an Ashkenazi Jew like the uptown mogul’s son. When the schnorrer detects an opportunity for his own advancement, however, he hatches an Ashkenazi-Sephardi love scheme fit for a purim-schpiel.
By framing his ransom scheme around the Purim holiday, the play’s schnorrer taps into that celebration’s history of deception and role reversals, not to mention staged hilarity. The production also recalls the Yiddish theater’s role in humorously airing out the Jewish community’s dirty laundry, whether its leaders liked it or not.
To raise funds for his scheme, the schnorrer establishes “a nonprofit endowment for intermarriage” — between Ashkenazim and Sephardim, that is. Despite his constant deception, the schnorrer turns out to be more of a mentsch than a ganef, bringing the bickering sects closer together and redistributing the gelt to those in need.
‘Beggers stretch out their hands; schnorrers stretch out their wits’
In an opening number called “The Schnorrer Song,” unemployed Yiddish actors probe similarities between actors and schnorrers, both of whom “want a handout from someone who cares.”
“Beggers stretch out their hands; schnorrers stretch out their wits,” sing the ragged hopefuls on the eve of the minor holiday, reminding well-off Jews of their obligation to help the poor during Purim.
Both the director and playwright of “The King of Second Avenue” have deep roots in Jewish-themed theater, particularly with regards to Yiddish culture.
“The clever ruses that the schnorrer employs fill volumes of collections of Jewish humor and can be seen throughout the creations of Jewish artists,” wrote director Matthew “Motl” Didner of the one-act production.
Didner, who is a mainstay at New York City’s National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene troupe, puts the seven-actor ensemble through its paces with seventeen bouncy production numbers.
For audience members unfamiliar with Yiddish, a 40-word glossary stuffed into programs helps differentiate a schlemiel from a schmendrik, not to mention a shlimazl from the fabled schnorrer, with his unmatched chutzpah and kishkes.
“The Marx Brothers were schnorrers; Bugs Bunny is a schnorrer; Kramer from Seinfeld is a schnorrer,” said Didner. “They are insanely funny, unless you are the one being schnorred.”
Pointing out the difference between a schnorrer and a con artist, Didner said the former “is not greedy and is only looking to survive with a shred of dignity. And when the schnorrer does make a big score, they distribute the ill-gotten spoils to others in need, sort of a like a Jewish Robin Hood,” he said.
‘The King of Second Avenue’ frames Americanization — or assimilation — within a set of values familiar to Jews everywhere
Like New York’s Yiddish productions of a century ago, “The King of Second Avenue” frames Americanization — or assimilation — within a set of values familiar to Jews everywhere. In other words, the moralistic and culture-shaping role of Yiddish theater was as pronounced as any potch to the tuchus ever delivered on stage.
Playwright Robert Brustein, who switched out Zangwill’s “Schnorrers“ in favor of “Second Avenue” for the production’s title, said Zangwill’s original novel is about “assimilation among warring Jewish tribes.”
“I thought it might be fun to transfer the action to New York’s Second Avenue in the mid-Sixties, and add a subplot having to do with the deterioration of the once great Yiddish Theatre and the effect of that historic loss upon its actors,” wrote Brustein, who also penned the klezmer musical “Schlemiel the First.”
Both “Schnorrers” and Zangwill’s seminal 1909 play, “The Melting Pot,” poke fun at internal Jewish tensions, as well as Jews’ interactions with society at large. Zangwill was nicknamed “the Dickens of the ghetto,” and his works often endorsed assimilation as the means to a utopian, post-ethnic future.
“No, the American has not yet arrived,” Zangwill once said. “He is only in the crucible, I tell you — he will be the fusion of all races, perhaps the coming superman.”
The vision of an ethnically melded America populated by homogeneous supermen held great appeal for President Theodore Roosevelt, who attended the premiere of “The Melting Pot” in Washington, DC.
“That’s a great play, Mr. Zangwill, that’s a great play,” Roosevelt shouted from the presidential box as the curtain went down.
Zangwill was an early Zionist and founder in 1905 of one of the movement’s most prominent splinter groups
Taking a different tack, The New York Times called Zangwill’s play “cheap and tawdry,” and “a sentimental story poorly built on the structure of a fine idea,” setting a low bar for future ghetto-to-melting-pot tales.
Despite or perhaps because of his “Imagine”-like vision for humanity, Zangwill was an early Zionist and founder in 1905 of one of the movement’s most prominent splinter groups, the Jewish Territorialist Organization. Having convinced himself that settling Palestine was unfeasible, the author called for Jews to create a homeland in any corner of the British Empire available, from Canada to Australia.
Along the way, Zangwill called for the past to be “our cradle, not our prison,” in line with his positive view of assimilation.
“There is danger as well as appeal in its glamour,” Zangwill wrote about history’s place in society. “The past is for inspiration, not imitation; for continuation, not repetition,” he said.
“The King of Second Avenue” runs through March 1, 2015 in Boston’s Charles Mosesian Theater.
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