Yiddish Theater Is Alive and Well (at Least in Chicago), But What Does It Have to Say About Religion?
Latest update: November 14th, 2011
Jacob and Jack
World Premiere, May 14 – June 20, 2010
By Ensemble Playwright James Sherman, directed by Dennis Zacek
Zacek McVay Theater, Victory Gardens Biograph Theater
2433 North Lincoln Avenue, Chicago
Trying to summarize the plot of “Jacob and Jack,” currently in its world premier at Victory Gardens in Chicago, is a bit like, well, trying to understand a Yiddish play if you don’t speak Yiddish. The viewer quickly gets the sense that something really interesting is happening in the play’s myriad flashbacks – which are simultaneously redundant and singular – but even after skimming the Jacob and Jack script, I’m still having trouble keeping the narrative and chronology straight.
Here’s the gist of it. Pitchman Jack Shore (think Billy Mays if he was the “Flying Carpet Guy”) does his mother Esther a favor by agreeing to play his grandfather, the Yiddish theater star Jacob Shermerinsky, in a performance for Esther’s women’s Yiddish theater group. Jack’s co-stars are his wife Lisa and the ing?nue, Robin. “Jacob and Jack” oscillates between scenes in real time, which play out Jack’s, Lisa’s and Robin’s stage fright, jealousy, longings and insecurities, and flashbacks in the same dressing rooms 75 years earlier, where Shermerinsky, his wife Leah, the actress Rachel and actor Moishe prepare for a Yiddish performance.
Janet Ulrich Brooks as Leah Shemerinski, Craig Spidle as Jacob Shemerinski,
Laura Scheinbaum as Rachel. Photo by Liz Lauren.
To make matters more confusing, Jack and Jacob are played by the same actor (Craig Spidle), as are Lisa and Leah (Janet Ulrich Brooks), Robin and Rachel (Laura Scheinbaum), and three other pairs of characters: Esther and Hannah (Roslyn Alexander), Ted and Abe (Daniel Cantor) and Don and Moishe (Andrew Keltz). When Jack is in costume as Jacob, it gets particularly difficult to tell if one is watching Spindle play Jack, Spindle playing Jacob or Spindle playing Jack playing Jacob.
The Victory Gardens website actually puts it really well in its promotional materials: “As Jacob and Jack frantically rush from room to room, the audience is transported through time with each slam of a dressing room door. In the Yiddish and contemporary theater, one thing remains certain: the show must go on.” The notion of a slamming door representing a time portal is quite compelling when one considers how a slammed door generally refers to a lost (or ruined) opportunity. Although the show must go on the Yiddish show, tried as it did to go on, came to an end.
Slamming doors also turn out to be great metaphors for the Yiddish theater which was always about nostalgia for the past and trying to assimilate into the present. There are the prerequisite clich?s about Yiddish theater – like Jack and his manager Ted wondering if English words like “svelte,” “famished” and “tissue” are Yiddish – but the play also addresses sobering truths about Yiddish theater and Hollywood.
Craig Spidle as Jack Shore, Janet Ulrich Brooks as Lisa Shore and Roslyn Alexander as Esther. Photo by Liz Lauren.
Asked if she will change her name from Robin Weinberg, the actress responds by refusing to buy into the assimilationist demands of Hollywood. “Yea,” she says, “to Sophie Rosenschwartzenstein.” Jack’s mother tells him that in his tribute to her father, he gave Jacob Shermerinsky, whose fame corresponded with the decline of Yiddish theater, the respect his work deserved, but never received. “Jacob and Jack” has the insight to bring together two performances, one as Yiddish theater was declining and the other as it is being revived. There is something of a Dybbuk reference, to be sure, in a play that memorializes something even before it is dead.
In a talk at Victory Gardens before one of the performances of “Jacob and Jack,” David Chack, president of the Association for Jewish Theatre, put Yiddish theater into proper context. “When Abraham Goldfaden died, it was like when Michael Jackson died,” Chack said. Evidently, Marlon Brando even acted in a play in 1946 to raise money for Jews in Palestine, he added.
Craig Spidle as Jack Shore gives Ted (played by Daniel Cantor) and Don (played by Andrew Keltz) a thrill. Courtesy: Victory Gardens. Photo by Liz Lauren.
According to Chack, Yiddish theater brought not only the best of Eastern European Jewish culture to America but also important Russian theater, like Chekhov’s repertoire. Yiddish theater is still impacting American popular culture today, Chack said, as in Yiddish references in the Coen brothers’ film “A Serious Man” (2009).
But however entertaining (or troubling) “A Serious Man” is, the classical Yiddish theater Chack spoke of was the sort of experience where the theater resembled a temple. Yiddish plays wrestled with “hefty subjects,” and theatergoers underwent a “religious experience.”
(L-R) Andrew Keltz as Don innocently watches as Ted (played by Daniel Cantor ushers Jack (played by Craig Spidle) out of Robin’s (played by Laura Scheinbaum) dressing room.
Photo by Liz Lauren.
I asked Chack if he thought a Yiddish revival was underway. Despite a revival of Klezmer music in the 1980s, he said, “we are not seeing that as much these days. We are starting to see a bit of the wane.” Of course, if a revival were underway, Chack confirmed, he would be thrilled to see it.
Although “Jacob and Jack” is packed with references to the waning and waxing of Yiddish theater, is does not devote a lot of attention to the Yiddish theater as temple that Chack described or the religious experience of watching a play. To Jacob, Jack, Lisa, Leah, Robin and Rachel, the Yiddish theater is a livelihood and subject material, but not synagogue. If anything, the references to religious values in the play surface in the form of attempts to censor Yiddish theater.
Craig Spidle as Jack Shore, Janet Ulrich Brooks as Lisa Shore, Laura Scheinbaum as Robin share a tender moment. Photo by Liz Lauren.
Though Moishe notes when the group hits bad luck, “Man plans and God laughs,” the characters in both the play and the play within a play give the impression that although God laughs at man’s first plan, it is up to man to make the best of it and come up with a better plan. That second man-made plan, at least within “Jacob and Jack,” seems to be a promising guide to success, which, in the theater world, looks a lot like California.
That might be the most interesting question, if a revival is indeed underway or if one looms on the horizon. To what extent, if at all, will the new Yiddish theater retain the religious aspects of the theatrical tradition it is resurrecting? There is surely enough of a trove of references to Jewish and American history and culture to mine for many Yiddish plays without once referring to anything religious, but wouldn’t that be missing a tremendous opportunity?
About the Author: Menachem Wecker, who blogs on faith and art for the Houston Chronicle at http://blogs.chron.com/iconia, welcomes comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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