Dress British, Sing Yiddish

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Sun Oct 22 19:59:46 UTC 2006

>>From the NYTimes, October 22, 2006
Dress British, Sing Yiddish


GILBERT AND SULLIVANS song I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major General
may be one of the most repeated and parodied melodies in musical history.
Only last month, the NBC series Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip updated the
lyrics to poke fun at the fictional sketch-comedy show where its
characters work: Well be the very model of a modern network TV show. But
in 127 years, no one has done a full-blown production of the entire
operetta from which it comes, The Pirates of Penzance, in Yiddish. Until
now. Next Sunday, the National Yiddish Theater Folksbiene is presenting
Pirates, or rather Di Yam Gazlonim, with both English and Russian
supertitles at the JCC in Manhattan.

Theatrical translations, of course, are common. Still, Gilberts dazzling
patterns of double and triple rhymes, his ingenious puns and his lyrics
perfect match with Sullivans music make the work terribly difficult to
translate. Why go to the trouble? I do this just for my own amusement,
said Al Grand, a retired New York City schoolteacher and lifelong Gilbert
and Sullivan fan who started working on the translation 20 years ago. I
get pleasure when Im able to do a line that scans and rhymes and all in
Yiddish. Allen Lewis Rickman, the shows director, said: Theres nothing
that difficult about the idea of going to see something in a language you
dont speak; people go see movies in foreign languages all the time. My aim
is this: the audience of non-Yiddish speakers has to get a show that is
every bit as good as the show that the Yiddish speakers are getting.

Mr. Grand has labored to make sure the work remains pleasingly familiar.
Im never satisfied until Im absolutely certain that Ive achieved a perfect
match of verbal to musical cadence, so that the lyric conforms to the
accentuation and rhythm of each musical phrase, he said. Wherever Gilbert
rhymes, I rhyme. Sometimes he has an internal rhyme; I do the same thing
in Yiddish. Otherwise, why do it at all? In his spare time, Mr. Grand has
Yiddishized popular songs, from Over the Rainbow (Iber Dem Regenboygn) to
Danny Boy and White Christmas. Still, Di Yam Gazlonim is unquestionably
his biggest project to date. Its roots go back to the 1950s, to the first
time Mr. Grand heard Miriam Walowits Yiddish homage to H.M.S. Pinafore on
a 78 r.p.m. record.

I was enthralled, Mr. Grand recalled. I love Gilbert and Sullivan, and I
love Yiddish, and hearing my two loves combined that way I had an
epiphany. While singing with an amateur Long Island Gilbert and Sullivan
group in the 1970s, Mr. Grand would regale the cast in the wings by
singing Ms. Walowits versions. As the group frequently performed in
synagogues, he suggested they perform in Yiddish, but was rebuffed.
Gilbert and Sullivan people are purists. They dont want to change any word
of Gilberts, he said. But ultimately, I prevailed. With a friends
encouragement, Mr. Grand began to enlarge upon Ms. Walowits selections and
to dip into the wider Gilbert and Sullivan canon. In the 1980s, he tackled

Mr. Grand emphasizes that his new show is not a translation. I wrote a
Yiddish version of the Pirates of Penzance, he specified. I would not call
it a translation, because if I tried to translate every word Gilbert wrote
into Yiddish it would be clumsy, it would not scan. The shows title, Di
Yam Gazlonim, means, more or less, The Rascally Robbers of the Sea a nod
both to the fact that piratn, though Yiddish, is not as funny a word as
gazlonim, and to the historical truth that the annals of buccaneering are
not rife with Jewish pirates. In the operettas opening chorus, Pour, Oh,
Pour the Pirate Sherry, Gilberts lyrics go, To make us more than merry,
let the pirate bumper pass. Mr. Grand found more audience-appropriate
fare: Un derlang undz beygl un seltzer; Veln mir ale freylekh zayn! (Give
us bagels and seltzer!  Its a regular party!) The Russian gloss, in
Cyrillic (transliterated here), calls for bubliki and seltzer and
explains, Segodnya u nas prazdnik! (Todays a holiday!)

And the familiar lyrics to I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major General
are recast as Ikh bin der groyser general un ikh bin oykh a guter yid. The
accompanying English supertitle reads, I am a major general; and Im a good
Jew too. Its Russian companion goes, Ya general-mayor, i k tomu zhe evrei
(Im a major general, and, to boot, a Jew). In the late 1990s, as Mr. Grand
was struggling with the task of adapting the English book of Pirates, he
went to the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research to discuss his undertaking
with Chana Mlotek, YIVOs musical archivist. She said, You must speak to my
son, Zalmen, and tell him what youre doing, he recalled.

Zalmen Mlotek is the executive director of Folksbiene literally, the
Peoples Stage and the music director of Di Yam Gazlonim. I found it so
delicious and clever, the way he was faithful to the rhythm and humor of
the original, he said. As soon as I saw it, I started to teach the songs
to my chorale, the New Yiddish Chorale, and to work up concert versions.
In Mr. Rickmans opinion, supertitles and a shows crossover value are
critical to the survival of Yiddish theater. If the show was directed only
at the traditional Yiddish-speaking audience, he said, then Yiddish
theater is dead in the water. He has written the English supertitles, with
a view to concision; his mother-in-law, Anna Plotkina, has done the
Russian ones.

Bustling and tall, with a neat mustache, porkpie hat and plummy, kidding
voice, Mr. Rickman evokes Bud Abbott and, coincidentally, looks a lot like
his hero, Abraham Goldfaden, whom he calls the father of the Yiddish
theater. A Romanian Jew, Mr. Goldfaden gave a turbo boost to the haskalah
the secularization of Jewish cultural expression by pretty much
single-handedly inventing Yiddish theater, Mr. Rickman said, adding that
he wrote the plays, he directed, produced, designed the costumes and the
sets. He did everything. In the 2004-5 season, Mr. Rickman directed the
Folksbienes acclaimed production of Goldfadens satire A Novel Romance,
based on the Molire play Les Prcieuses Ridicules, in which a picky Jewish
spinster, obsessed by German romance novels, vexes her wealthy father by
spurning her suitor Shloyme in favor of a Hochdeutsch-spouting mountebank
named Franz. Just as Goldfaden Judaized Molire, he said, Al Grand and I
have Judaized Gilbert and Sullivan.

In Mr. Grands adaptation of Pirates, the premise of Gilberts story
receives Jewish tailoring. In the original, the hero, Frederick, is
mistakenly apprenticed to pirates, instead of pilots, by his
hard-of-hearing-nurse, Ruth; in Mr. Grands treatment, Fayvls dimwitted
nurse, Rivke, apprentices him to a band of bearded men with knives between
their teeth, whom she mistakes for a minyan of kosher butchers. Es iz
geven durkh mayn toes vos du bist arayngefaln in di hent fun di shtinkers,
Rivke wails: It was my error that put you into the hands of these
stinkers, in the English supertitles. The original reads, A sad mistake it
was to make and doom him to a vile lot.

So far, audience reception of concert performances of Mr. Grands works has
been exuberant; back in 1988, when he copyrighted his lyrics to Di Yam
Gazlonim, the prolific writer Isaac Asimov (author of Asimovs Annotated
Gilbert and Sullivan for Americans) wrote a glowing endorsement,
commending the way Mr. Grands Yiddish lyrics preserved the rhymes, the
lilt and the wit of Gilberts writing. I dont know if Yiddish was even on
Gilbert and Sullivans radar screen, Mr.  Mlotek said. But the idea that
their work would be translated into languages, and especially into
Yiddish, which has this rich theatrical tradition I think they would be
smiling at the thought.



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