Yiddish Theater Lab

Theater J’s on-going initiative is dedicated to preserving and reviving the forgotten literature of the Yiddish Theater. Join us as directors and playwrights uncover and re-interpret nearly-forgotten Yiddish classics in new English language readings, workshops, commissions, and eventually productions.  

The Yiddish Theater Lab is supported by The Marinus and Minna B. Koster Foundation, Natalie Wexler and James Feldman, and The Leshowitz Family Foundation, Terry Singer.

MONEY, LOVE, AND SHAME!;
or,
Tsuris Galore
The melodramatic smash of 1910

by Isidore Zolotarevski
Translated by Allen Lewis Rickman
Directed by Adam Immerwahr

August 27 at 7:00 PM live on Zoom

August 28 – 30 available to stream on demand

Everyone knows marrying for money can be a shaky proposition. Throw in a tacky landlord, a philandering chauffeur, an unplanned pregnancy, and a shocking courtroom reunion, and you’ve got a marriage that never stood a chance!

Originally written in 1910, this hilarious theatrical romp serves up some of the most popular themes of serious 19th century Yiddish drama with a heaping spoonful of irreverence. The result is an appealingly appalling melodrama you won’t want to miss.

Playwright BioIsidore Zolotarevski (c. 1873 –  1946) was born in Ukraine where he grew up studying Russian and German. It wasn’t until he immigrated to America in 1880 and began performing with amateur Yiddish Theater troupes across New England that he began to study Yiddish. Zolotarevski wrote his first play, “Der farfaser (The Author”) in 1885 and spent the next several decades performing in and writing for Yiddish theaters not only in New York but across the county in cities including Baltimore, Philadelphia, Newark, Chicago, and Boston. Among Zolotarevski most popular plays are Der Yeshive Bokher (“The Yeshivah Student,” 1899), Di Yidishe Ana Karenina (“The Jewish Anna Karenina,” 1901–2), and Di Vayse Shklavin (“The White Slave,” 1909). Gelt Libe un Shande (“Money, Love and Shame”) was first staged in 1910 and quickly became a staple of the Yiddish stage. While Zolotarevski’s plays were dismissed as shund (trash) by proponents of the more serious drama coming from Jacob Gordin and his disciples, Zolotarevski’s work was beloved by theater managers and audiences across American and Europe.

Translator Bio: Allen Lewis Rickman is a writer, director, and actor. Plays he’s written have been produced in France, Denmark, Spain, Luxembourg, Sweden, and New Jersey. Directing credits include the Drama Desk-nominated Yiddish Pirates of Penzance, which he also co-adapted and acted in. Acting credits include the Coen brothers’ Oscar-nominated A Serious Man (for which he also did the Yiddish dialogue translation), Boardwalk Empire (recurring role), and stage appearances on Broadway, Off Broadway, in regional theater, in Yiddish theatre, and at Carnegie Hall. Most recently he directed, produced, and acted in Tevye Served Raw (Garnished With Jews) Off-Broadway, and he wrote complete new subtitles, and recorded commentary tracks, for the new set of restored classic Yiddish films, due out from Kino/Lorber in July.

Why this play? Who doesn’t need a little bit of humor in their life right now? Scholars have attributed the popularity of Zolotarevski’s plays to the “dramatic immaturity” of early 20th century audiences, a significant portion of whom were immigrants fleeing the atrocities of Eastern Europe. But was it their lack of exposure to serious drama that drove them to plays with clunky plots and ridiculous characters, or was it a deep need to process the trauma of what they had just escaped by laughing, together, in the safety of a theater? Today, 110 years after it was first produced, this play once again offers audiences the opportunity to laugh in the face of trauma – a welcome reminder that even though theater buildings have been rendered temporarily unsafe by this pandemic, theater itself will always be a safe space.

2019-2020 Readings:

One of Those
By Paula Prilutski, adapted and translated by Allen Lewis Rickman
Directed by Kevin Place
June 18-21 online

Cast: Lise Bruneau, Sarah Corey, Felicia Curry, Megan Graves, Jeremy Hunter, John Keabler, Jackie Renée Robinson, Susan Rome, Michael Russotto, Thom Sesma, Dina Thomas, Kathryn Tkel, and Chani Wereley.

When Judith, still reeling from the loss of her mother, clashes with her father’s new wife, she rebels against the patriarchy and is thrown out of her home.  With no options available, the strong-willed Judith makes choices she will forever regret; and despite her best efforts and the help of family and friends, Judith finds herself unable to escape the chains of her history.

Playwright Bio: Paula Prilutski (1876 – unknown) was one of the very few women playwrights in the Yiddish theater to have been identified. Born in Warsaw, Prilutski originally wrote in Polish and switched to Yiddish after being introduced to the Yiddish Theater scene in Poland. In addition to full-length plays, she wrote one-act plays and poetry. One of Those was originally presented by the legendary Esther-Rokhl Kaminska — “The Mother of Yiddish Theater” —in Warsaw in 1912. Prilutski’s fate during World War II remains unknown to this day.

Translator Bio: Allen Lewis Rickman is a writer, director, and actor. Plays he’s written have been produced in France, Denmark, Spain, Luxembourg, Sweden, and New Jersey.  Directing credits include the Drama Desk-nominated Yiddish Pirates of Penzance, which he also co-adapted and acted in.  Acting credits include the Coen brothers’ Oscar-nominated A Serious Man (for which he also did the Yiddish dialogue translation), Boardwalk Empire (recurring role), and stage appearances on Broadway, Off Broadway, in regional theater, in Yiddish theatre, and at Carnegie Hall.  Most recently he directed, produced, and acted in Tevye Served Raw (Garnished With Jews) Off-Broadway, and he wrote complete new subtitles, and recorded commentary tracks, for the new set of restored classic Yiddish films, due out from Kino/Lorber in July.

Why this play?
One of Those is a forgotten gem of the Yiddish Theater, recently given new life through Allen Lewis Rickman’s beautiful adaptation and translation which was presented as a staged reading by YIVO in May of 2018. Much like Sholem Asch’s well-known play, God of Vengeance, One of Those features prostitutes and brothels, frequent subjects of Yiddish Theater. However, Prilutski’s characters all possess a flawed dignity (arguably more so than the characters created by her male peers), which elevate them from mere symbols to complex characters. Without a doubt, Prilutski’s epic, proto-feminist drama was ahead of its time when she wrote it in 1912. We feel strongly that it still has something to say about independent women living in an un-free world today.

Miriam
By Alix Sobler

Freely adapted from the play Miryam (aka Downhill) by Peretz Hirschbein
Directed by Laley Lippard
June 7-10 online

Cast: Felicia Curry, Dane Figueroa Edidi, Kimberly Gilbert

A gripping and provocative retelling of a 19th century sexual morality tale, Miriam explores the way in which women police each other, even while they are still being haunted and hunted by external forces. Three sex workers with very different backgrounds, histories, and outlooks on life share stories of their pasts and hopes for their futures. In doing so, they begin to find a common ground from which they can support one other.

Playwright bio: Alix Sobler is a writer and performer from New York. Her play Sheltered won the 2018 Alliance/Kendeda National Graduate Playwriting Competition and received it’s second production at Theater J this January. Her work has been developed or produced in theaters across North America. She is a graduate of Brown University and received her MFA in playwriting from Columbia University in 2017. Alixsobler.com

Playwright bio: Peretz Hirschbein (1880-1948) was a Yiddish-language playwright, novelist, journalist, travel writer, and theater director. Born in Poland, he lived for a while in Odessa where he established a short-lived Yiddish theater company and travelled extensively, eventually settling in Los Angeles. Hirschbein wrote his first play, Miryam (1905), in Hebrew and translated it into Yiddish. He later revised the play in Yiddish under the title Barg Arop (Downhill) for a Yiddish theater in Buenos Aires. Hirschbein’s 38 Yiddish dramas were also performed in Russian, Hebrew, English, German, Spanish, and French by theater troupes all over the world. He died from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s Disease) on August 16, 1948 in Los Angeles.

Why this play? Theater J commissioned Alix Sobler to write this adaptation in the first year of the Yiddish Theater Lab, during the 2017-2018 season. Over the past two years, we have supported the development of this play through numerous conversations and by hosting a closed reading of an early draft of the play in the spring of 2018. Miriam is already garnering national attention, having been chosen as a finalist for the 2019 O’Neill Festival. Now, in the Lab’s third season, we are excited to introduce this exciting new play to you. Hirschbein’s original play traces a young Jewish immigrant’s transformation from an innocent country girl into a prostitute. Sobler’s play picks up where Hirschbien’s leaves off and shifts the story into a contemporary context, giving Hirschbein’s questions of identity, sexuality, and morality a decidedly modern twist.

A Hidden Corner
By Peretz Hirschbein, translated by David S. Lifson, directed by Brendon Fox
February 3, 2020

Noah, the son of the miller, and Tzirl, the daughter of the gravedigger, are in love. But when a newly constructed mill drives a wedge between their families, their future together looks grim. In this Romeo and Juliet tale set in a shtetl, can young love overcome dueling families, an arranged marriage, physical violence and even ghostly spirits?

Playwright Bio: Peretz Hirschbein (1880-1948) was a Yiddish-language playwright, novelist, journalist, travel writer, and theater director. Born in Poland, he lived for a while in Odessa where he established a short-lived Yiddish theater company and traveled extensively, eventually settling in Los Angeles. Although Hirschbein wrote A Farvorfen Vinkel in 1912, Maurice Schwartz’s 1918 staging of the play at his Irving Place Theater in New York was the beginning of Yiddish art theater in America and helped to usher in the second golden age of Yiddish theater. Hirschbein’s 38 Yiddish dramas were also performed in Russian, Hebrew, English, German, Spanish, and French by theater troupes all over the world. He died from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s Disease) on August 16, 1948 in Los Angeles. 

Translator Bio: David S. Lifson (c. 1909 – 1996) was a businessman, teacher, author and playwright. His doctoral thesis was published as a book in 1965 with the title ”Yiddish Theater in America.” His other books included ”Wandering Star,” a compilation of stories and plays by Sholom Aleichem; “Epic and Folk Plays of the Yiddish Theatre,” which included his translation of Farvorfen Vinkel; and ”Headless Victory,” a mystery.

Why this play?
Literary critic Jacob Glatshteyn called Farvorfen Vinkel one of “the four greatest plays in the Yiddish repertoire.” Indeed, the play does highlight all of the most striking characteristics of Hirschbein’s mature work. By 1912, when this play was written, Hirschbein had abandoned symbolism and returned to his rural roots, dramatizing the lives and loves of rural Jews. The understated quality of this play elevated it to the plane of serious theater, helping to lay the groundwork for the Yiddish art theater movement in America.

Golem Stories

by Edward Einhorn
Directed by Jenna Duncan
Monday October 28, 2019, 7:00 PM

It’s the season for a spooky Jewish fable! It’s 1590 in the city of Prague, and the Jewish community is under attack. When Rabbi Lowe creates a Golem to help protect his people, the line between stories and reality is blurred. Part love story, part ghost story, this play is a new take on the legend of the golem, put in the context of other Jewish legends of the supernatural. The cast includes Temidayo Akibu, Sarah Cory, Maboud Ebrahimzadeh, McLean Fletcher, Timotheus German, Michael Russotto, Chris Stinson, Katie Tkel, and Nathan Whitmer.

Post-show discussion guests are Alyssa Quint, Senior Scholar, YIVO Institute for Jewish Research; Miriam Isaacs, independent scholar, linguist, and retired Yiddish faculty member at University of Maryland, College Park.

About the Playwright: Edward Einhorn is a playwright, children’s book author, director, and librettist, based in New York. He is the Artistic Director of Untitled Theater Company No. 61: A Theater of Ideas – a New York independent theater company. His work has been performed across the United States and in England, Germany, and the Czech Republic.

Why this play? Golem Stories is an example of what is possible when a contemporary playwright draws from the traditions of Yiddish Theater to create a new work. Although the play is set in the 16th century, the playwright employs ideas and language that give it a decidedly modern edge. Does this approach to Yiddish theater succeed in making ancient stories feel more relevant today? Come decide for yourself!

The Red Beads
By Rinne Groff, based on The Singer of His Sorrows by Osip Dymov, as adapted by Adrian Silver and Rinne Groff from a translation by Adrian Silver, directed by Johanna Gruenhut
December 2, 2019 at 7:00 PM
An encore reading of the next draft of a play read last season under the title The Rented Bridegroom.

When a father’s bedtime story magically comes to life, his young daughter is plunged into the world of Yoshke, a poor shtetl poet, desperately in love with a woman who doesn’t love him. Through the story, the daughter learns the pain – and the beauty – of letting love triumph over logic.

Playwright Bio: Rinne Groff is a playwright based in New York. Her plays and musicals have been produced and commissioned by Yale Rep, Playwrights Horizons, the Public Theater, Manhattan Theatre Club, Berkeley Rep among many others. Groff’s play Compulsion Or The House Behind will be produced at Theater J as the final play in the 2019-2020 mainstage season.

Playwright Bio: Osip Dymov (1878 – 1959) is the pen name used by Yosif Isidorovich Perelman, a prolific writer, journalist and Yiddish playwright. Born in modern-day Poland, Dymov immigrated to the United States in 1913 at the age of 35 where he sought to improve the artistic quality of Yiddish theater. His most popular plays included The Bronx Express (1919), featured in Theater J’s 2017-2018 Yiddish Theater Lab reading series; and The Singer of His Sorrows (1914). Over his career, Dymov published more than 25 plays, a short story collection, a book of selected works, two volumes of memoirs, and dozens of essays and newspaper articles.

Why this play? Rinne Groff is an incredibly talented playwright whose work we have long admired, so it is a true honor to produce one of her plays in our mainstage series and workshop another in the Lab during the same season. The innovative and heart-wrenching framing device she uses to tell Dymov’s story is a perfect example of one of many ways that Yiddish Theater can be performed today in a way that is both poignant and relevant.

2018-2019 Readings:

May 6, 2019 at 7:00 PM
The Rented Bridegroom

A Play by Rinne Groff
Based on The Singer of His Sorrows by Osip Dymov
As adapted by Adrian Silver and Rinne Groff
From a translation by Adrian Silver
Directed by Johanna Gruenhut
Tickets: Pay-what-you-choose (advance purchase encouraged)
Community Commons Room at the Foundry Church, 1500 16th Street NW

A feisty young woman, caught in a love triangle between the highbred son of her employer and a poor but adoring klezmer-player, must decide whether to stoop for love or money. And why is stooping the only choice anyway? Set in a shtetl of romanticized memory, this heart-breaking comedy is based on the classic Yiddish play The Singer of His Sorrows by Osip Dymov.

Presented in partnership with CrossCurrents Festival.

May 20, 2019 at 7:00 PM
Yankl the Blacksmith
By David Pinski, Translated by Nahma Sandrow
Directed by Adam Immerwahr
Tickets: Pay-what-you-choose (advance purchase encouraged).
Goethe Forum, Goethe-Institut Washington, 1990 K Street, NW (enter on 20th St. NW)

When Yankl, the town drunk and a notorious philanderer, gets married, everyone predicts that it won’t last. Everyone, that is, except Yankl’s young wife. Can her faith in him stop Yankl from falling back into his old way of life? Can people change? And if they can, is there any guarantee that they won’t change back? This sensual exploration of the power and limitations of relationships rings just as true today as it did when it was written over 100 years ago. The cast includes: Tonya Beckman, Helen HedmanDonna Migliaccio, Sasha Olinick, Maria Rizzo, Alexander Strain, Craig Wallace, and Elan Zafir.

Presented in partnership with JxJ

2017-2018 Readings:

The Jewish King Lear
By Jacob Gordin, translated by Ruth Gay
Directed by Craig Baldwin
Produced in partnership with The Shakespeare Theatre Company’s ReDiscovery Reading Series

January 8, 2018 at 7:30 PM
at The Lansburgh Theatre, 450 7 St., NW, Washington, DC

Jacob Gordin’s masterpiece is a free adaptation of Shakespeare’s familiar classic and ushered in the first golden age of Yiddish theater in New York. It’s Purim when Reb Dovidle decides to give extravagant gifts to his daughters—but when his youngest daughter refuses the gift, he sends her away. Will Reb Dovidle follow the downward spiral of Shakespeare’s tragic King, or will he find forgiveness and redemption? Filled with characters at once archetypal and hilariously, achingly human, this classic is a fresh twist on a familiar tale.

God, Man, and Devil
By Jacob Gordin
Translated into English by Nahma Sandrow

Directed by Rachel Grossman
Produced in partnership with Tifereth Israel Congregation

April 22, 2018 at 7:30 PM
at Tifereth Israel Congregation, 7701 16 St., NW, Washington, DC

A portrait of the eternal struggle between good and evil, God, Man, and Devil is Jacob Gordin’s most famous play. With a little bit Faust and a little Book of Job, this 1920’s play begins with a debate between God and the Devil about the nature of man’s goodness. Soon, the Devil must walk among men as he tries to corrupt one good man to prove his point. Tragic and timeless, God, Man, and Devil is a cautionary tale of epic proportions.

Jacob Gordin (1853 – 1909) is among the most notable Yiddish theater playwrights of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Born in the Russian Empire, in modern-day Ukraine, Gordin immigrated to the United States in 1891 where he moved from the field of journalism to theater at the prompting of several influential friends including Yiddish theater star, Jacob Adler. Gordin was considered a reformer of the Yiddish stage because he brought he realism of writers like Anton Chekhov, Henrik Ibsen and Leo Tolstoy to Yiddish theater, intending to shift the tone of Yiddish theater from frivolous spectacle to serious drama. While many of his plays were commercially successful in his time – most notably The Jewish King Lear (1892), Mirele Efros (1897) and God, Man, and Devil (1900) – he was known for berating audiences who didn’t respond as enthusiastically to his work as he expected. “Truth is the teacher,” he once lectured an audience, “and therefore, I will continue to provide serious plays until you acquire a taste for them.” Although Gordin wrote nearly 80 plays, only a handful of them have ever been published.

Yiddish Shorts: An Evening of One-Act Plays from the Yiddish Theater
Translated into English by Yermiyahu Ahron Taub
Directed by Adam Immerwahr

May 29, 2018 at 7:30 PM
at Theater J, 1529 16th St., N.W., Washington, DC

Explore the full range of the Yiddish theater in this collection of short plays, drawn from the rich tapestry of Yiddish theater.  Performed in English translations by Yermiyahu Ahron Taub, these strange and beautiful plays take us from 19th century European town life to the tenements of the Lower East Side.  S. An-ski’s Father and Son tells the story of revolutionaries and police in a Jewish town in 1905 Lithuania.  Khaver-Paver’s Romeo and Juliet: A One Act Play takes us to the tenements of lower east side New York, where Dave woos Suzy from his window across the tenement alley.   In Solem Ash’s With The Current, the family of a rabbinical court rabbi grapples with the younger generation seeking new forms of religious observance.  And in Peretz Hirschbein’s famous Raisins and Almonds, a  mysterious older woman appears at the house of Freydele Gdayle, offering unexpected gifts. Join Theater J for an evening of delightful exploration as we hear some of DC’s finest actors bring these forgotten classics to life.  Starring Nancy Robinette.

Yermiyaho Ahoron Taub is the author of six books of poetry, including most recently A moyz tsvishn vakldike volkn-kratsers: geklibeneYidishe lider/A Mouse Among Tottering Skyscrapers: Selected Yiddish Poems (2017).  Tsugreytndik zikh tsu tantsn: naye Yisidh lider/Preparing to Dance:  New Yiddish songs, a CD of nine of his Yiddish poems set to music, was released on the Multikulti Project label (www.multikulti.com) in 2014.  Taub was honored by the Museum of Jewish Heritage as one of New York’s best emerging Jewish artists and has been nominated four times for a Pushcart Prize and twice for a  Best of the Net award.  With Ellen Cassedy, he is the recipient of the 2012 Yiddish Book Center Translation Prize for Oedipul in Brooklyn and other Stories by Blume Lempel (Mandel Vilar Press and Dryad Press, 2016).  His short stories have appeared in Hamilton Stone Review, Jewish Fiction.net, The Jewish Literary Journal, Jewrotica, Penshaft: New Yiddish Writing, and Second Hand Stories Podcast, among other publications.  www.yataub.net.

Bronx Express 
By Osip Dymov
Translated into English by Nahma Sandrow

Directed by Natsu Onoda Power

June 18, 2018 at 7:30 PM
at Theater J, 1529 16 St., NW, Washington, DC 

One of the more inventive and surprising plays of the Yiddish theater, Osip Dymov’s Bronx Express tells the story of one working class Yid who dreams of something more. When he falls asleep on a New York subway, he’s shocked to meet the characters from the train car’s advertisements coming to life. With cameos from Aunt Jemima, the Nestle’s Baby and the Arrow Collar Man, this story explores the true costs of the American dream.  Visiting Yiddish scholars: Nahma Sandrow and Miriam Isaacs.

Osip Dymov (1878 – 1959) is the pen name used by Yosif Isidorovich Perelman, a prolific writer, journalist and Yiddish playwright. Born in the Russian Empire, in modern-day Poland, Dymov began publishing stories, plays and articles in St. Petersburg at the age of 16. Dymov adopted his pen name, taken from a character in Anton Chekhov’s short story “the Grasshopper” (1892), as a teenager and continued to use it throughout his career. In 1913, at the age of 35, Dymov immigrated to the United States at the invitation of Yiddish actor and theater director Boris Thomashefsky where he sought to improve the artistic quality of Yiddish theater. His play, The Bronx Express (1919), was so successful that it was translated into English and produced at the Astor Theatre on Broadway in 1922. Over his career, Dymov published more than 25 plays, a short story collection, a book of selected works, two volumes of memoirs, and dozens of essays and newspaper articles.