Love, Deception, and Revenge: It's All Yiddish to Me

by Nayeli Rodriguez

It's been nearly 70 years since World War II brought an abrupt end to Yiddish theater but this week, Harvard brings Yiddish playwright Avrom Golfaden’s Yiddish work back to the stage with an operetta in the historic Agassiz Theater. The play traces the story of Shulamis who is rescued in the desert by Avsholem, who swears to marry her upon his return from Jerusalem. When Avsholem fails to come for her, Shulamis pretends to go mad in order to keep her vow to him, yearning both for his return and for revenge. Organizer Debra Caplan answers some questions about what it has taken to bring the production to life.

For those unfamiliar with Yiddish theater (this blogger among them) can you give me some background on the project?

Sure, 'Shulamis' is a Yiddish operetta, and it was once one of the most popular Yiddish plays that was performed for generations and generations. There was a large production of the play in Warsaw in 1939, and then there was nothing for the past couple of decades. So this project is about taking an operetta a that's been buried in obscurity and making it accessible to a modern audience.

What's it about?

Love, deception and the question of revenge and forgiveness. Basically: How to deal with a broken promise and the problems that come from it.

How will your production be updating the show?

We're using the first ever English translation of this operetta, so the production is bilingual. The dialogue is in English and the music in Yiddish with subtitles. We decided to do (with the help of translator Nahma Sandrow) that to retain some of the original flavor but make it accessible to an audience that by and large doesn't understand Yiddish.

What's been the most challenging step in reviving the play?

In many ways the most challenging thing has been that there is no existing full score that survived. There are pieces and incomplete parts all over in archives, some of them handwritten. So we've worked with composer Zalmen Mlotek from New York to find all the archival pieces of the score in the various places that they've been and he worked them into a complete vocal and orchestral score.

How have the undergrads been rising to the occasion?

They've really brought new light and discovered new things in this piece that, even if they've heard stories from their grandparents about, they've not been familiar with and for all of the actors this is their first encounter with Yiddish theater. The actors have discovered the characters and the story on their own terms, without any preconceived notions or sense of the tradition. They've tried to interpret and present the story in a way that makes sense to them and that's part of what makes it ring true to a contemporary audience.

Is there any detail you suggest audiences pay special attention to?

Our choreography is one of the most innovative things we've done with the production. There's a lot of beautiful imagery in the words and the original is written in rhyme and we've preserved that. We have a dance corps of four dancers who add a lot of vigor and flavor to the scenes, so I'd definitely suggest that audiences appreciate that as a new addition.

You can still catch the show! 'Shulamis' runs through December 6, with performances at the Agassiz Theater Saturday Dec. 5 at 8 PM and Sunday Dec. 6 at 2 and 8 PM.