The Yiddish Book Center's
Wexler Oral History Project
A growing collection of in-depth interviews with people of all ages and backgrounds, whose stories about the legacy and changing nature of Yiddish language and culture offer a rich and complex chronicle of Jewish identity.
Avi Hoffman's Oral History
Avi Hoffman, actor, was interviewed by Christa Whitney on March 12, 2013 in Boca Raton, Florida. He grew up in the Bronx, part of a group of Yiddishist families who raised their children surrounded by Yiddish language and culture. His father survived Auschwitz and his mother a slave labor camp in Siberia; they met working at YIVO in New York City. Avi describes the unique experience of being raised by secular humanists who loved Yiddish language, music, literature and comedy during a time when shules (secular Yiddish schools) and other conduits to Yiddish culture were disappearing. He talks about the famous writers who were friends, such as Avrom Sutzkever and Itzik Manger, and getting Mike Burstyn's autograph after a show. He describes the plays that young people created and produced at his Sholem Aleichem shule. He surmises that the people in his circle, influenced by the Holocaust, were invested in rebirth and creativity related to their almost-lost culture. Avi first acted in a production of "Bronx Express" with the Folksbiene when he was ten. He spent eight years in Israel as an adolescent and talks about the negative attitudes toward Yiddish there. When he returned to the United States, he was recruited into leading roles in Yiddish theater and felt encouraged seeing young people reimagining original Yiddish works through a modern lens. He began receiving serious recognition for his work. Avi believes that Yiddish has demonstrated its ability to rise from the ashes again and again, in part due to the Yiddish theater and the klezmer revival. He is fascinated by people like the talented actor Shane Baker, a Midwesterner and non-Jew who speaks beautiful Yiddish. He wonders whether film will be the medium that brings young people in. Avi talks about how upsetting it is that many Jews no longer recognize the names of wonderful Yiddish writers such as Isaac Bashevis Singer. On the other hand, he believes that the situation has improved since the 1980s, when Yiddish was essentially dead. He suggests that a shift in focus and financial support from mainstream Jewish organizations would make a huge difference; if it happens, it will probably take decades to return to a thriving cultural community. Avi advises aspiring artists interested in this milieu to never stop trying, learning, and exploring, and to find stories that speak to them and find new ways to tell them. He ends the interview suggesting how wonderful it would be if a contemporary music icon like Adam Levine made an album of Yiddish music.
This interview was conducted in English.
Avi Hoffman was born in Bronx, New York in 1958.
Video highlights from this oral history
A Core of Yiddishists in the Bronx: Secular Yiddish Culture and Jewish Tradition on Bainbridge Ave.
4 min 34 sec
Slide 1 of 8
"An Entire World of Creativity": The Secular Yiddish Scene in New York in the 1960s
3 min 6 sec
Slide 4 of 8
A "Modern Revolution in Yiddish Theater": The Genesis of The Show "Dos Goldene Land"
3 min 40 sec
Slide 6 of 8