Off-Broadway’s National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene began a century ago by bringing international theatre to the Yiddish-speaking population. Today it brings Yiddish theatre to an international audience. Nicole Serratore finds out about its latest production, Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish, which is about to start its second run
Headed into its 105th season, the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene is both the longest consecutively producing theatre in the US and the world’s oldest continuously operating Yiddish theatre company. Yet, this long-time Off-Broadway company is not resting on its laurels. In 2018, it staged one of its biggest hits to date – a Yiddish language production of Fiddler on the Roof. So successful, it is running again in 2019.
Yiddish Theatre exploded in popularity in the US between 1882 and 1927, tracking the Eastern European Jewish immigration waves of the time. Yiddish speakers brought with them a canon of plays while new works were created to entertain this growing population.
The Folksbiene was founded in 1915. Just over a decade later, there were 24 Yiddish theatres in the US with a number of them based around Second Avenue in New York. Today, Folksbiene is the only one that remains.
The first piece the Folksbiene produced in 1915 was a Yiddish translation of Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People. Motl Didner, associate artistic director, says: “Now why do that in Yiddish? Why do that in English? It was written in Norwegian. And at that point you had an audience who wouldn’t necessarily have understood English very well.”
Didner says: “In 1915, the Folksbiene was here to bring world theatre to the Yiddish-speaking population. And now we’re sort of the opposite. We’re bringing Yiddish to an international theatregoing audience.”
Zalmen Mlotek on the Folksbiene
What is your favourite of the shows you’ve done?
The Golden Bride was a lot of fun. It was taking a piece the world hadn’t seen in 60 or 70 years, and giving audiences a sense of the Yiddish theatre tradition. We were able to produce it – though not with the forces they had on Second Avenue in the 1920s – and give a sense of it.
What’s next at Folksbiene?
We read a translation of Paddy Chayefsky’s The Tenth Man. Because it was so successful, we’re going to do a production later next year.
A fun fact on Fiddler…
We used a doll for the baby. We named it Ruth Baby Ginsburg.
Yiddish theatre straddles many genres – from avant-garde works to folksy melodrama, operettas and classics that are translated and adapted into Yiddish or restructured to a Jewish narrative. For instance, the Yiddish King Lear by Jacob Gordin in 1892 involved a Jewish father trying to divide up his family business among his daughters before he moves
Artistic director Zalmen Mlotek says the Folksbiene embraces the historic “eclecticism” in its programming, adding there is both an aspect of preservation and new development in its mission. He sees the Folksbiene as addressing both past and future: “We always have an eye on what preceded us – the people who laid the foundation of this culture in terms of the artists and the creators. But at the same time, we are trying to encourage new work whether it’s in English or Yiddish, which is considerably different from the original mission of the Folksbiene, which was centered on [only] Yiddish work.”
There is no shortage of historic Yiddish works to consider but some of those texts are not published or readily available. They’ve had to reconstruct the materials not preserved as a complete work.
“In the case of the musicals and operettas, there’s no central library where all the parts and all the scores came together in one place,” Mlotek says. “There are hundreds or thousands of operettas and musicals in different archives all around the world.” For its award-winning 2016 production of the operetta The Golden Bride, it lucked out because a former Harvard librarian had time to put the full piece together from all the different archives.
The Yiddish production of Fiddler on the Roof (A Fidler Afn Dakh) has a different history of creation. The original Broadway musical by Joseph Stein, Sheldon Harnick  and Jerry Bock was based on the stories and characters created by Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem. While the musical was always set in a Jewish community in the shtetl, its themes of traditional parents and rebellious children wishing to make their own decisions could be understood more universally and was written as such.
But by connecting these stories back to their Yiddish roots, to this specific place and time for the violence that takes place, this translation becomes a wholly Jewish cultural and
Q&A Zalmen Mlotek
What was your first non-theatrical job?
A singing teacher. I was 16 or 17 and I would teach singing in Yiddish schools.
What was your first professional theatre job?
I did shows when I was a teenager and I always wanted to work as a musical director in the theatre. My first professional job was at The Gateway Playhouse in Long Island. I did three musicals that year: Hair, No, No, Nanette and The Boyfriend. Three weeks each – all summer. It was the summer of Watergate.
What is your next job?
I’m looking to create more artistic events related to Yiddish culture at our home at the Museum of Jewish Heritage.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
Choose paths that bring you happiness.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
What’s your best advice for auditions?
Come in prepared, and be positive.
If you hadn’t been an artistic director, what would you have been?
Perhaps a therapist.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
The Folksbiene is using a 1965 translation by Israeli artist Shraga Friedman, a leading Israeli actor, writer, director and translator. Like any translation it’s not a literal word-for-word transcription. Friedman returns these characters to their language of origin relying on and referencing some of the original Aleichem stories to do so. With it, he builds up a richer cultural context of the setting.
For instance, since this translation was aiming at an Israeli audience, Didner notes, the translator “could put in actual Torah quotes rather than the King James version of Bible quotes that are then interpreted. Friedman actually puts in the Hebrew and then Tevye translates the Hebrew into Yiddish for his presumably non-Hebrew-educated family members”.
Keeping the metre of the music but shifting into Yiddish, the famous song If I Were a Rich Man translates to “Ven Ikh Bin a Rotshild” (If I Were a Rothschild), which is a Yiddish expression and references the title of another Aleichem story.
The Yiddish translation allows for a cultural precision that might have worked against the show when it first ran on Broadway. Didner says: “In 1964, they had to work really hard to make it as general as they could because nobody really knew how a Jewish musical was going to be received by a general theatregoing audience. And they wrestled with things. Do you call it Shabbat, or do you call it Sabbath? You find examples of that throughout the whole musical. Now, by putting it into Yiddish, it totally eliminates that. Just by virtue of it being in that language it moves it towards a specificity.”
Directed by Oscar and Tony-winner Joel Grey, this minimalist production of Fiddler ran for six months after multiple extensions in 2018. After a brief hiatus, the production transfers with much of the same cast uptown to continue in a commercial Off-Broadway run.
The Folksbiene had 2,500 enquiries from actors for Fiddler and ended up auditioning 700 people for a cast of 29. The performers needed to be able to sing, dance, act and perform in Yiddish. “Many extremely talented people could not get the language,” says Didner. Because the actors in the Folksbiene shows often do not speak the language, the theatre has developed a system to teach Yiddish texts to their casts. Didner provides each performer a tape of the text in Yiddish and he does one-on-one coaching so that even beyond the words and accents, the cultural references are understood.
Folksbiene fact box
Key staff: Zalmen Mlotek (artistic director, music director, conductor) and Matthew Motl Didner (associate artistic director)
Number of performances: More than 100 events annually
Audience figures (annually):
• 150,000 locally
• 50,000 nationally
• 2,000,000 through digital advancements, such as streaming and broadcasting
Number of employees: 20
Budget: $4 million
• 25% foundations
• 15% government
• 6% corporations
• 28% individuals
• 6% trustees
• 20% productions
Recent landmark productions:
• Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish (2018)
• Amerike – The Golden Land (2017)
• Immigrant Arts America (2016)
• The Golden Bride (2015/2016)
• KulturfestNYC – the first international Jewish Performing Arts Festival (2015)
Since Grey does not speak Yiddish, in rehearsal the actors would paraphrase their lines into English first and work on their acting, then shift into performing in Yiddish.
The stripped-down style of Grey’s Fiddler is also a departure from more recent elaborate Broadway productions. The set by Beowulf Boritt consists largely of a massive piece of parchment with the word ‘Torah’ written in Hebrew and used to dramatic effect later in the musical. People enter and exit imaginary rooms, but they engage in the customary Jewish ritual of touching the invisible mezuzah (an encased scroll of Biblical verses on the door frame) when crossing the threshold. While the space may be sparse, the cultural and religious practices within it are not lost. All these actions are a reminder of the traditions the musical addresses.
But through the production’s simplicity, the story finds new power. Mlotek says that audiences have repeatedly said it is “like seeing Fiddler for the first time because it tells the story with great authenticity. It allows you to connect in a different way because you strip it of the spectacle and you just get down to the bare bones of what’s important”. But even without a massive production, “it works”.
Over the past six years, the Folksbiene has grown as an institution – increasing its budget as well as expanding its reach. The company moved from a smaller theatre of 175 seats to a residency at the Museum of Jewish Heritage with an auditorium of 375. Scaling up financially and physically has allowed it to perform larger works such as Fiddler.
Hosting more than 100 events a year (from single concerts to multi-week shows) it engages with around 150,000 people in New York a year. In addition, it has toured shows locally and nationally and partnered with international organisations.
Not knowing Yiddish does not hold back the theatre’s appeal. While many productions are performed in Yiddish – and some in English – it provides English and Russian surtitles. But more importantly, the shows are what people connect with.
While a more familiar title than perhaps some of the previous shows, Fiddler has helped introduce the work of the Folksbiene to new audiences. Mlotek says: “The trick has always been getting people in the door, because once they’re in the door and they see what we do, they come back.”
Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish runs until August 31. Go to nytf.org  for more information