Reviving, Revisiting Yiddish Culture


As this inexplicable century wanes, we are fast losing our sense of history. But that may not be quite the tragedy it first appears. We forget, but we are also very good archeologists, and we rediscover. Languages and traditions die out, but then they come back, fresh, different, with less baggage, ready to be applied to a modern world that, for a time, lost them. Teens these days have stumbled upon their grandparents’ swing music and made it their own. And Yiddish, that language so many assimilated children of emigre American Jews found provincially old country, now has a newfound vitality.

Los Angeles is in the midst of “Yiddishkayt!” This eight-day festival, billed as the largest celebration of Yiddish culture in the country, began Sunday afternoon with an inspired collaboration between Jewish klezmer music and Mexican mariachi music. In the evening, there was a one-man version of a Sholem Aleichem play followed by Yiddish cabaret.

Yiddish opens windows, the engaging cabaret singer Eleanor Reissa told us. And these three are but the first of many windows opening around town. Through Sunday, there will be avant-garde Yiddish theater with puppets, ghetto tango, a performance of Shostakovich’s controversial “From Jewish Poetry,” visual arts, readings, storytelling, children’s programs, film.

The encounter between Mariachi Sol de America de Juan Jose Almaguer and the Los Angeles All-Star Klezmer Band on Sunday afternoon at the Luckman Theatre at Cal State L.A. proved the splendid fun it promised to be, but it also proved something important. There are connections here, deep ones, and making them helps renew both of these traditional musics.


Klezmer and mariachi musicians have similar backgrounds. Both traditions appear to have originated in the 19th century with wandering bands of folk musicians in Eastern Europe and Jalisco, Mexico, performing at weddings. While the instrumentation is not precisely the same, violin and brass participate in both bands. And they may even be more directly connected. Mexico was later populated by many thousands of Spanish Jews who fled the Inquisition at the end of the 15th century. Their traditions, too, may well have helped mold the mariachi sound.

That could partially explain how these two musical styles merged effortlessly, or so it sounded. Most of the concert was taken up by individual sets, but in the numbers played and sung together, it was possible but not necessarily meaningful to distinguish the klezmer tunes from the mariachi ones. The melodic lines and rhythms all fit handily, and the spirit couldn’t have been livelier.

It was an amusing stage picture. Lined in a row on a riser were the 13 mariachis, proud and erect in their finely made starched white costumes with black embroidery and wide-brimmed hats. Below them were the nine klezmorim, frumpy in white shirts and dark vests, with worker’s hats.

The differences in appearance were telling. The mariachi band is a more formal institution; the musicians play in lock-step, and this band’s set was polished show business. The klezmer players were less formal, freer, closer to jazz in their playing. But in fact these differences were perfectly complementary. There was no need for competition, except in one instance--in both traditions shtick is time honored, and the attempts at scene stealing were great entertainment.


But then klezmer thrives through adaptation. Visit your record store and you will find everything from the David Krakauer Trio’s hard-edged avant-garde “Klezmer Madness,” to a new klezmer “Nutcracker” by the Boston group Sherim.

That compatibility is essentially Yiddish, and seems to be the secret of its survival and now renewal. The language is a unique congregation of many languages, and it was feared it would finally die along with its last great writer and one Nobel laureate, I.B. Singer, in 1991. But colorful Yiddish words and expressions continue to fill in for lacks in English.

And Yiddish, a language particularly well suited to song, also lives still through Broadway. Yiddish song helped make the American musical with the likes of Gershwin (Jacob Gershvin), Arlen (Hyman Arluck) and Berlin (Israel Baline). Mandy Patinkin’s latest CD, “Mamaloshen,” is an exuberant, just about over-the-top, selection of Yiddish songs (including a spectacular “White Christmas” in Yiddish).

Reissa’s program was also Broadway-styled and a delight. A terrific stage presence with a sure sense of storytelling through song and dance, she has made Yiddish her mission. Sometimes she translated, often she didn’t--there was no need.

Yankev Lewin, however, used surtitles for his one-man, 40-minute version of the Aleichem play, “200,000,” a parable in which a poor tailor wins the lottery. Lewin was adept enough at bringing untranslatable Yiddish expression to life, but the monologue, modestly acted out with the help of Sabell Bender’s direction, took more from the Aleichem original than it returned. It was impressive to hear the play from one point of view, that of the illiterate schnook who signs his new wealth away, but without the tumble of voices, the noisy shtetl society that Aleichem celebrates, the play’s life force was missing.

Imagine Aleichem’s “Fiddler on the Roof” with just Tevye. Possible but somehow missing the point. Yiddish is the language of many languages, it is the culture of many voices all competing to be heard. Just like what we hear on the streets of L.A. everyday.


* “Yiddishkayt!” runs through Sunday and includes numerous offerings around Los Angeles, with some free events. Hotline: (323) 692-8151.