For an actress who grew up singing Christmas carols, learning Yiddish didn’t exactly come naturally.
But a part’s a part. So last year when Jennifer Babiak heard about auditions for a new Off-, Off-, way-Off-Broadway version of “Fiddler on the Roof,” to be directed by famed actor Joel Grey — and performed entirely in Yiddish — she jumped at the chance.
How much Yiddish did she know?
“Oh my goodness, I knew, like, meshuggeneh,” says Babiak, who lives with her husband in Queens.
She learned her scenes and songs phonetically in less than a week. “It was kind of a crash course,” she says. And her chutzpah, as a Yiddish speaker might say, paid off. She was cast as Golde, the long-suffering wife of Tevye the milkman (Steven Skybell) in what has quickly become one of the most unusual and buzzed-about revivals in recent history.
“Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish,” now approaching the anniversary of its initial opening, continues to be the little engine that could. Produced by the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene, it was originally going to run last summer at the cozy Museum of Jewish Heritage in Battery Park for eight weeks. It ran for more than five months, thanks to rave reviews and sold-out houses. After its fourth extension, it was still so popular producers decided to move it to the larger Stage 42 Theatre in midtown, on Off-Broadway’s Theatre Row. It reopened in February and has been extended twice more, now running through Jan. 5.
Chutzpah? For a show in a nearly forgotten language that most audience members don’t understand, the trajectory and resilience of this Yiddish “Fiddler” is more like the song from act one, “Miracle of Miracles.” Or, well, “Nisimlekh-Veniflo’oys,” as this show sings it.
Skeptical? You’re not alone.
Despite its popularity, there have still been skeptics.
“A lot of people have that reaction,” Babiak admits. “’Really? Yiddish? I don’t know Yiddish.’ And people tell them, ‘You don’t have to know, just go.’”
As in foreign-language operas, supertitles are projected on a wall (in English and Russian). That helps, but it’s impossible to read them constantly. Still, audiences are moved, Babiak explains.
Based on a collection of stories by Sholem Aleichem, “Fiddler,” with a dazzling score by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, book by Joseph Stein and choreography (including the famed bottle dance) by Jerome Robbins, has been a worldwide hit since its 1964 Broadway debut. The Yiddish translation by Shraga Friedman debuted in Israel in 1965, but until now had never been performed in the U.S.
The story is the same — of Jewish families struggling to eke out a modest living in the poor Russian town of Anatevka. There has always been something universal about these confused parents, yearning children, and the outside forces threatening to tear them apart. (A documentary examining the enduring appeal of this musical hits theaters in August.) But hearing these characters speak and sing in the East European language they would’ve spoken in real life makes even jaded theatergoers lean in a little and listen up.
Granted, you don’t have to be Jewish to understand the themes of love and family that drive this show. They certainly resonate with Babiak, though she was raised Catholic and “discovered,” so to speak, around age 14 while singing Christmas carols with her family. Her grandmother, a piano teacher, heard something special in the teen.
“Wow, you have a voice,” Grandma said.
Babiak began taking voice lessons and was soon cast in musicals at Patchogue-Medford High School and Airport Playhouse, a now defunct community theater in Bohemia. She studied performance at New York University and has been building a career ever since.
Practice makes perfect
When rehearsals began last year, Babiak was relieved to discover that most of the cast also had little to no familiarity with Yiddish, including “”Feud’s” Jackie Hoffman (who plays Yente the matchmaker), and even the director Grey,
A few were more accomplished, such as Skybell, and ensemble member Joanne Borts, who grew up in Syosset and at age eight began attending a Workmen’s Circle school in East Meadow, where she learned to speak Yiddish.
The actors shuttled between different rooms, one for choreography, another for scene work with Grey (rehearsing scenes first in English, then Yiddish), another for one-on-one Yiddish coaching.
“Our Yiddish coaches were insistent about the chhh, the chhh, like in l’chaim, that you can’t soft-sell it,” Skybell told NBC’s News 4 New York.
Learning Yiddish for the songs came easily for Babiak, perhaps because she’d studied opera in college, and was used to memorizing music in foreign languages. She found a musicality, too, in the dialogue.
“It was good, proper Yiddish,” says Jonathan Geffner, a Yiddish teacher at the Great Neck Music Conservatory, who saw the production last summer.
“Everyone was dedicated,” Babiak recalls. “We didn’t have much of a life. I’d come home from rehearsal and work on my Yiddish. My husband can attest to that. He basically knows Yiddish now,” she says, laughing.
That was almost a year ago. Today, the language feels completely natural to her, she says. “None of us could’ve foreseen that we’d still be doing the show. It was supposed to be just a summer gig.”
Yiddish has long been hard to find—or hear spoken—on Long Island.
Yiddish Theater may’ve thrived (about a century ago) on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, but it never really made it East. In 1939 a Yiddish-language talkie, “Tevye,” was shot on a potato farm east of Jericho. And more recent decades have seen performances by the Grammy-winning Klezmatics (a klezmer music group co-founded by Plainview native Frank London) or Long Island’s Gilbert & Sullivan Yiddish Light Opera Company.
As a language, Yiddish has been somewhat lost to time, a relic of the Old Country that immigrants spoke amongst themselves, but not with children.
That was true for Jonathan Geffner, a teacher and ventriloquist from Little Neck who performs in English and Yiddish (catch his act on YouTube). His parents spoke Yiddish, but he only learned a little as a child. He picked up more in Sunday school and eventually majored in Yiddish language and literature at Queens College.
“I’m more well read in Yiddish than in English,” he says, joking. He now teaches Yiddish at the Great Neck Music Conservatory.
Children’s classes are also available in Nassau County.
“There’s nothing like listening to little kids sing songs in Yiddish and having their grandparents, as we say, ‘kvell,’” says Staci Davis, director of a Workmen’s Circle school in East Meadow, which has offered children’s Yiddish classes for decades.
Want to learn more? Here’s where you can hear Yiddish:
The Workmen’s Circle—This Jewish cultural and social justice nonprofit offers Yiddish classes for kids (at its I.L. Peretz Jewish School in East Meadow, a supplementary school for students pre-K through high school) and adults (at its Manhattan outpost, and online); circle.org
Great Neck Music Conservatory—At this venerated music school, Geffner leads a 90-minute advanced Yiddish conversation class Thursdays (students can join anytime); geffner.com
Listen & Learn—In-office or –home language classes (including Yiddish for individuals or small groups) tailored to your needs and motivation levels; listenandlearnusa.com
Museum of Family History—An interactive “online museum” created by Steven Lasky, an optometrist and passionate genealogist in North Massapequa. This tribute to Yiddish culture is packed with photos, documents, video and sound clips of songs and segments from the Yiddish Radio Hour, newsreel footage and more, all to encourage Jewish families to research and document their family history; museumoffamilyhistory.com