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Teacher, Yiddish theater actor Al Grand dies at 88

Former teacher Al Grand loved the operas of

Former teacher Al Grand loved the operas of Gilbert and Sullivan, which he intertwined with his Jewish heritage. Credit: Grand Family

Back in the ‘70s when the Gilbert & Sullivan Workshop of Long Island needed money to continue to do shows, Al Grand had an idea.

Grand, who loved his Jewish heritage and culture, suggested the company do one of the team’s operettas in Yiddish as a fundraiser.

“The success of that initial presentation was so great that people from temples and Jewish centers around the tristate area began calling the workshop, asking if they could book it for their own audiences,” recalled Gayden Wren,  a longtime friend and member of the workshop — now the Gilbert & Sullivan Light Opera Company of Long Island.                                                                                            

Grand died Nov. 14 of heart disease at his home in North Bellmore. He was 88.

“He loved poking fun at serious things, which is what Gilbert & Sullivan did,” said his daughter, Lisa Grand, 55, of Montclair, New Jersey. “He was incredibly funny. My whole memory of growing up was choking on my dinner at the table.”

Al Grand’s fundraising idea led to the creation of the Light Opera Company in 1983, and the performance of several other operas from the team as comedic Yiddish adaptations. The first show, “Der Shirtz,” was based on a 1950s show by Miriam Walowit, but afterward Grand stepped in as author — writing “Der Yiddisher Mikado,” based on “The Mikado,” and “Di Yam Gazlonim ,” adapted from “The Pirates of Penzance.”

Wren said “a particular triumph” for Grand came in 2006 when the Folksbiene theater in Manhattan staged a professional production of ''Yam Gazlonim.'' The show drew rave reviews and was nominated for a Drama Desk Award as best musical revival.

“Hearing the words that had begun as scribbled notes in his kitchen in North Bellmore emanating from trained singers on a professional New York stage represented nothing less than a validation of a love that had driven him since childhood,” Wren said.

Grand was born in the East New York section of Brooklyn to Russian-Jewish immigrants who spoke Yiddish in their home, and he developed a love of books, a fascination with Yiddish and English, and what Wren called “a deft, low-keyed sense of humor.” Grand received a bachelor of arts degree in education from Brooklyn College and a master's in special education from Hunter College.

Lisa Grand, a director of global benefits for a video game company, said her father had dictionaries in several languages because he “loved the etymology of words.”

At 22, Al Grand became a teacher and taught in Brooklyn and in the Rosedale neighborhood of Queens during his 25-year career. He and his wife of 65 years, the former Arlene Ben-Zvi, lived in Cambria Heights in Queens before moving to North Bellmore in 1965.

After becoming a member of the workshop in 1970, Grand played mostly minor supporting roles and served at one point as its vice president.

The Yiddish Light Opera Company took its Yiddish shows on the road throughout the United States and to Canada and England, which made Grand very happy, Wren said.

“His greatest pleasure, he often said, was in the audience response — the smiles on the face of older Yiddish speakers as they heard their native tongue reborn in this remarkable context — and the fascination of younger audience members with a language that previously they’d never really heard in public,” Wren, 57, of Steinway, Queens, added.

In addition to his wife and daughter, Grand is survived by sons, David, 61, of Richmond, Virginia; and Joe, 58, of Newburyport, Massachusetts; two granddaughters; and two great-granddaughters.

Burial was in New Montefiore Cemetery in West Babylon.


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