Sunday, May 20, 2012

Is Willy Loman Jewish? And did Arthur Miller speak Yiddish?

(3/15) UPDATE: Willie Loman shall indeed speak Yiddish when the New Yiddish Rep brings their new Yiddish language production of Death of a Salesman to the Castillo Theater! 

Please go read this fascinating article by the wonderful Sam Freedman (also my former teacher), Since the Opening Curtain, a Question: Is Willy Loman Jewish? As the name hints, the article explores the ambiguous Jewishness of Willy Loman, the everyshmo at the center of one of the most famous plays in the American theater, Death of a Salesman.

The question of Willy's Jewishness has been alive pretty much every since the play was first produced in 1950. Freedman notes that even Arthur Miller's view on Willy's Jewishness changed over the decades. This in itself seems to be material for some graduate student's paper. Does Miller's perception of Willy change because his perception of his own Jewishness changed over the years? And why did Miller only write about Jewish topics when it related to anti-Semitism or the Holocaust? How much does Miller's Jewish identity reflect the ambiguous Jewishness of millions of non-Marilyn Monroe marrying, average American Jews?

One unasked question popped out at me. Freedman notes
Some critics have singled out Linda Loman’s famous speech about Willy — “Attention, attention must finally be paid to such a person” — as having a distinctively Yiddish cadence.
I dunno. Maybe yes, maybe no. The obvious question is, did Arthur Miller speak Yiddish? We're told he grew up in a traditional Jewish atmosphere, but what does that mean? If we're really going to get into that kind of textual analysis, I think it's an important question.

And I thought this quote from director Mike Nichols was also really interesting:
“Willy has no forebears,” Mr. Nichols said in an interview this month. “He’s not from any country. He has no holidays of any religion. So you have to assume Miller’s making a point. We who are struggling to sell enough have to drop everything — religion, nationality, family. There is nothing except, as Willy puts it, being known and being well-liked.”
"We who are struggling to sell enough have to drop everything — religion, nationality, family." To that I would add language, too. As many, including the great Max Weinreich, have noted, the Yiddish language isn't just a language but the transmitter of the whole of Ashkenazi way of life, religion included. The muscular monlingualism of America leaves us all much poorer, and at a loss, much like Willy Loman.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Is Hipster Trolling the New Hipster Racism?

I can't decide if this asinine post over at Hipster Jew is worth an entry in my 'Memes of the Yiddish Atlantis' file. Is this supposed to be .... funny? Ironic? A parody of the kneejerk Yiddish haters? Yeesh.

From Yiddish is a dead language, let's move on:

I like Yiddish. I like saying putz and schmuck and shiksa. Sparkling your vocabulary with a few prime, semi-ironic Yiddish phrases is very important to keep up the appearance of being a culturally relevant Jewish person. But we have NYC, where a bagel with ‘lox and shmear’ isn’t an uncommon phrase. You know who still speaks Yiddish? Crazy Hassidim who live in bumblefuck parts of NYC, who fear technology, women, and anyone not closely related to them. Sorry Yiddish, but you’ve lost. It’s 2012. Let’s give you a round of applause and call it a day.

What a charming fellow. I wonder if he calls his grandparents every week just to say 'Ya dead yet?'

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Welcome to America - H. Leivick is Back on the New York Stage

As I mentioned before, there's a new production of H. Leivick's classic play Shmates. This new English language version is called Welcome to America and I've reviewed it for The Forward. Check out my review here!

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Why Yiddish Matters?

Peeps! As part of my participation in the Speakers' Lab 'Now What: The Future of New Jewish Culture' event, I've just published a Panelist Statement.

In the language and culture of Ashkenaz I found everything I had once assumed Judaism simply didn’t have: songs for every occasion, dances other than a zombified hora, and a radical history very much of use for the present. Yiddish presented to me what [early 20th century Jewish educator] Jacob Golub called “cultural autonomy,” something I see little of in American Jewish life. 
For Golub and his peers in the pre-war era, however, the cultural autonomy of American Jews would be lived in modern Hebrew, not the despised tongue of exile. “The Jew must, to a large degree, live vicariously through Palestine,” he wrote in 1937. In 2012, Golub’s statement has the sour tang of half-fulfilled prophecy.

Read more of Why Yiddish Matters, at the Forward's Arty Semite Blog.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

See you at the Yiddish theater, dahling

Once again we're in the Yiddish theater season. No excuses, you've got to check out these shows.

First up: A new production of H. Leivick's Shmates called Welcome to America. 

Welcome to America is produced by New Worlds Theatre Project, translation by Project Artistic Director Ellen Perecman.

Running through May 20th at the 45th Street theater. Tickets.

And then: Two shows running in repertory at the New Yiddish Rep, Agentn and Meshiekh in Amerike.

Agentn, a three act play based on the works of Sholem Aleykhem, directed by Yiddish theater legend Moshe Yassur.    Tuesday, May 8th at 7:30 PM

Meshiekh in Amerike, Moyshe Nadir's scathing satire on the intersection of American capitalism and Jewish assimilation.       Sunday. May 6 at 7:30 PM and Wednesday, May 9 at 7:30 PM

Performances at the historic Hebrew Actors Union building in the East Village. Reserve your tickets right away!

And later this month, at the Folksbiene: the hardest working man in Israeli Yiddish show business, Mendy Cahan makes a rare appearance on the New York stage. 

Cahan brings his show A Yiddish Bouquet to the Engelman Recital Hall at Baruch College, May 20th.