Browse the index:
Keywords: artistic identity; artists; Boston University; Boston, Massachusetts; Catholic school; Dublin, Ireland; Hingham, Massachusetts; Irish-American Catholic community; Irish-American community; literature; Muckross Park College; Notre Dame Academy; Quincy, Massachusetts; religion; Saint Paul's School; theater; theatre
Keywords: "Der mames shabosim (My mother's Sabbath days)"; "Di kloyz un di gas (Synagogue and street)"; "Rabbis and Wives"; "Tsemakh atlas (The yeshiva)"; American Jewish writers; American literature; Bernard Malamud; Chaim Grade; high school; I.B. Singer; Irish literature; Isaac Bashevis Singer; Itskhok Bashevis Zinger; Jewish American writers; Jewish culture; Jewish literature; Philip Roth; Saul Bellow; Yiddish writers
Keywords: 1990s; archives; Avraham Novershtern; Boston University; Hebrew language; Hebrew University; Israel; Jeffrey Aronofsky; Jerusalem; Mikhl Borden; Mount Holyoke College; Nati Cohen; Neil Zagorin; School of Theology; University Professors Program; Western Massachusetts; Yiddish Book Center internship; Yiddish books; Yiddish language; Yiddish learning; Yiddish literature
Keywords: "Got fun nekome (God of vengeance)"; "Yoshke muzikant (Yoshke the musician)"; Aaron Beall; friendships; Joseph Buloff; Luba Kadison; Luba Kadison Buloff; Manhattan, New York; mentors; New York City, New York; New York University; NYU; Ruth Wisse; Sholem Asch; Todo Con Nada; translations; Yiddish Book Center; Yiddish language; Yiddish learning; Yiddish plays; Yiddish teachers; Yiddish theater; Yiddish theatre
Keywords: "Der dibek (The dybbuk)"; Hebrew Actors' Union; immigration; Luba Kadison; Luba Kadison Buloff; migration; Miriam Kressyn; Molly Picon; music; musical theater; musical theatre; Seymour Rechtzeit; Seymour Rexite; Vilna Troupe; Vilner Trupe; WEVD; Yiddish actors; Yiddish language; Yiddish radio; Yiddish speakers; Yiddish theater; Yiddish theatre
Keywords: "Der dibek (The dybbuk)"; 1910s; artists; Joseph Buloff; Leib Kadison; Leyb Kadison; Luba Kadison; Luba Kadison Buloff; Vilna Troupe; Vilna, Lithuania; Vilner Trupe; Vilnius, Lithuania; Wilno, Poland; World War 1; World War I; WW1; WWI; Yiddish actors; Yiddish theater; Yiddish theatre; Yosef Bulov
Keywords: "Yoshke muzikant (Yoshke the musician)"; acting styles; American theater; American theatre; Buenos Aires, Argentina; Eastern Europe; immigrants; immigration; Joseph Buloff; Leib Kadison; Leyb Kadison; Luba Kadison; Luba Kadison Buloff; Maurice Schwartz; migration; Osip Dymov; Osip Dymow; Osip Isidorovich Perelmann; Ossip Dymov; relationships; Romania; United States; US; Vil'na, Russia; Vilna Troupe; Vilna, Lithuania; Vilner Trupe; Vilnius, Lithuania; Wilno, Poland; Yiddish actors; Yiddish theater; Yiddish theatre; Yosef Bulov; Yosef Perelman
Keywords: "Memories of the Yiddish Theater"; "The Rabbi’s Melody"; 1910s; 1920s; cantors; Hy Jacobson; Hymie Jacobson; immigration; love; Ludwig Satz; Maxwell House; migration; Miriam Kressyn; musical theater; musical theatre; New York City, New York; Piotrków Tribunalski, Poland; Piotrków Trybunalski, Poland; Piotrków, Poland; radio shows; Reform Judaism; Reform shul; Reform synagogue; relationships; Seymour Rechtzeit; Seymour Rexite; singers; singing; vaudeville; Yiddish acting; Yiddish actors; Yiddish radio; Yiddish theater; Yiddish theatre
Keywords: "Death of a Salesman"; "Der toyt fun der voyazher"; anti-Semitism; antisemitism; Arthur Miller; assimilation; Folksbiene Yiddish Theatre; klezmer music; National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene; New Yiddish Rep; Sholem Asch; the Yiddish Public Theatre; translations; Yiddish language; Yiddish plays; Yiddish theater; Yiddish theatre
Keywords: "Shver tsu zayn a yid (Hard to be a Jew)"; 1970s; 2nd Avenue; acting; actors; Esta Salzman; Joseph Seiden; Max Eisen; Molly Picon; Second Avenue; Seymour Rechtzeit; Seymour Rexite; Shalom Rabinovitz; Sholem Aleichem; Sholem Aleykhem; Sholem Rabinovich; Sholem Rabinovitch; Sholem Rabinovitsh; Sholom Secunda; Yiddish film; Yiddish movies; Yiddish theater; Yiddish theatre
CARAID O'BRIEN ORAL HISTORY
CHRISTA WHITNEY:This is Christa Whitney, and today is May 8th, 2019. I'm here inNew York City with Caraid O'Brien. We're going to record an interview as part of the Yiddish Book Center's Wexler Oral History Project. Do I have your permission to record?
CARAID O'BRIEN:You do.
CW:And did I pronounce your name correctly?
CW:Okay, great. So, I wanted to start with a little bit of your background. Canyou tell me where your family comes from?
CO:I can. I was born in Galway, and my mother's father is from the Aran Islands,which is an Irish-speaking island off the coast of Galway, and so some of my greatest childhood memories are of sitting in his kitchen with my grandmother making us tea, and visitors would come in. A lot of his nephews were fishermen, 1:00and they would bring fish, or his cousins would come in to speak with him in Irish, and I would just sit and absorb it. And so from a young age, I understood that there was, behind much of Irish culture, this -- not exactly a secret language, but definitely a minority language, that gave Irish English its flavor, and its passion, and its interesting details.
CW:And who -- so, who in the family spoke Irish?
CO:Well, everybody in Aran speaks Irish, because you learn it in school. But interms of being a native speaker, that was my grandfather.
CW:And can you just -- you were there not too long, right --
CW:-- before you came to America.
CW:But can you describe a little more about the sort of scene that was in2:00Ireland as you remember it, as a young kid?
CO:Yeah. Well, I would -- even when we moved to America, I would spend mysummers with my grandparents, and they were hugely influential to me. So, that's how I started spending time with older people. There was my mother's parents, who lived in Galway, and I adored my grandmother, and she would bring me around shopping, or doing her garden, or, you know, the little pattern plates, and the AGA stove, and people and neighbors would always come in for chats, and it was a very much of a community feel, and I loved that. And then I noticed my grandfather -- he would speak to me in English, and he was quite taciturn. He was a policeman. But then I noticed when our relatives came in and started speaking to him in Irish, he became a whole different person. He became loquacious and vibrant, and he didn't drink much, but they would often give him a glass of whiskey, and the big joke is he'd be there talking, and everybody 3:00would be talking and listening, and -- or, I'd be listening -- and the whiskey would always be empty, but nobody would ever see him drink it. But, you know, he clearly did. And then my father's mother, she lived in County Mayo, and she was a -- just a brilliant storyteller, kind of the first great performer that I met. Her name was Anne O'Brien, and she lived in Louisburgh, and her husband died when I was about five or six, and he was a very literary man, so deep interest in literature. And she would tell the most incredible stories that would just have you weeping and laughing at the same time. And they weren't Irish legends, or things like that. She was definitely a seanchaí, you know, an Irish storyteller, but her stories were about her friends and her relatives, and so many people from her generation, it wasn't far removed from the Famine, dealt with incredible poverty and had to go to England to make money, where they were treated terribly, and had jobs in [sic] maids as factories, and her brother died 4:00over there, and he -- his coat got caught in a bus, and the way she described the scene of his death, it was just the most tra-- I mean, she would love to get you laughing, right, and then she would love to punish you for the laughter with some terrible, tragic turn that would have you in tears. And the story of her brother's death was one of them. So, I would go between my two grandmothers, and they were definitely two of the most interesting, lovely, wonderful people that I knew, and I liked to spend time with them as much as I liked to spend time with my friends.
CW:And then, how old were you when you came over here?
CO:Oh, well I came first as a baby, with my family, who was doing a residency.My father is a professor of pathology at Boston University. And we settled, first in Quincy and then in Hingham. And then we went back to Ireland, and I 5:00spent my seventh grade year there, at Muckross Park in Dublin, and it was a fantastic year, and I met two great young women who -- we were eleven or twelve -- who were already self-identifying as artists, and so that's when I kind of discovered my artistic identity, in Ireland at that time. But then, for high school, I was at Notre Dame Academy in Hingham, Massachusetts.
CW:So, on the Massachusetts end of it, can you describe the community that yougrew up in?
CO:Sure. It was an Irish-American Catholic community, mostly not from Ireland.It was very different from Ireland itself. It was a lot less intellectual than -- and a lot less story-based and culture-based than what I remembered from Ireland. And at the same time, I was still spending my summers there, so I 6:00definitely felt more comfortable in Ireland, and considered that my home, even though I spent most of the time in Massachusetts.
CW:And was religion a part of your growing up?
CO:Yes. My parents weren't religious, but they didn't have a concept -- I mean,I think we thought that public schools were for hooligans, or -- I mean, of course they were not, especially where we were living. But it was just not a concept, 'cause all the Irish schools are Catholic. There might be a Protestant school or something. So we went to Catholic schools. We went to Saint Paul's in Hingham, which was the elementary school, which is famous center of many priest scandals. So that was a weird place, for sure, that there was a lot of children who were abused there. And then, we went to -- I went to Notre Dame Academy, 7:00which was -- it was an all-girls school, and we had some amazing teachers, some who were nuns, some who were not, and I had this fantastic teacher named Cathy Doyle, who was the English and drama teacher, and she just taught us so much about theater and literature, and was just an extraordinary person that I think of and whose wisdom comes back to me on a daily basis. And I met some great friends there, also young artists, who identified as artists, and who were both artists today. One of them, Meredith, is a film producer. She's doing the new Harry and Meghan movie. My friend Raluca is a songwriter, and a visual artist, and so we're -- we still hang out. And my two friends in Dublin, we're still friends. Artists kind of stay friends forever. They're deep friendships, I find.
[BREAK IN RECORDING]
CW:So, I wanted to ask about -- you grew up in a very Irish setting,8:00Irish-American setting. I'm curious if you -- what, if anything, you knew about Jews and Judaism, as a young person.
CO:Well, how I was introduced to Jewish culture was through literature. When Iwas fourteen, I thought I was the reincarnated soul of Oscar Wilde. I just loved great writers. And I thought that because he was from Dublin, and he had a father who was a doctor like I did, and a mother who was this larger-than-life personality, which reminded me of my mother a little bit. So I just really would identify with artists, and learn everything I could about them. And my father, even when we were in America, gave me a great Irish literature education, of both Irish -- I was introduced to Irish-language authors, like Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, and also Irish authors who wrote in English, like Yeats. He would give me -- when I was ten, he gave me poetry books, and things like that. So, 9:00very literary environment. And so, in our -- we took an American literature class, when I was a junior in high school, and we would study -- there was Philip Roth, there was Saul Bellow, there was Bernard Malamud. And I did a paper on Isaac Bashevis Singer, which we studied in an American lit class, because he won the Nobel Prize as American, and so I really enjoyed these Jewish writers, and I recognized certain things of feeling like an outsider in America, of the centrality of religion, of the famous self-deprecating humor, the fierce intellect, the incredible respect for literature, and once I discovered Singer, I was like, Oh, he's a Yiddish speaker. And then I realized that Malamud, and 10:00Roth, and Bellow, they were all Yiddish speakers or the children of Yiddish speakers. So, I was like, Oh, okay, how it works in America is, the under-language is Yiddish, the way in Anglo-Irish literature, the under-language is Irish Gaelic, and I didn't really think too much about this, I'm like, Oh, that's what American culture is. And so then, I got into -- I wanted to go -- like, I had gone back from poets like Yeats to Irish-language poets. I wanted to go to the source, to the more -- what I felt might be more culturally rich, linguistically, although I might not have thought of it that clearly at the time. So I went to the Boston Public Library, and they had about this -- (holds her hands up) -- three shelves, about that wide, of Yiddish literature and translation. And so I began reading all of them. And I came across this writer called Chaim Grade, and I'm like, Oh my gosh, I like him even more than Singer, 11:00he's just incredible. So moving. "The Yeshiva" was one of the books that I read, and "Rabbis and Wives" was another, and so I went back to this great teacher that I had, my English teacher and my theater teacher, and I said to her, "You know, I just discovered Chaim Grade, and he's just, you know, he's amazing. What do you think of him?" She was like, What? I'm like, "You know, the Yiddish writer, Chaim Grade. He's fantastic. Don't you love his books?" And she looked at me and she said, "I've never -- I don't know that writer." And I was like, Oh. That's interesting. This is a beautifully educated, fantastic Irish, brilliant teacher, and she doesn't know Chaim Grade. And so then, it dawned on me that there was a lot here to dive into, and to discover, and to share with other people, and I began sharing -- I read a book of his, his memoirs, called "My Mother's Sabbath Days," and I was so moved by his description of Jewish 12:00Vilna, and of his mother, and of his wife, and in a way, it reminded me of Ireland -- it's not this way anymore, but even when I was a kid -- you know, my father grew up in Ireland in the '50s, and my parents did, but that was like America in the '20s, you know what I mean? It was not -- it was an Old World type of place, and it was a very arable -- lots of farmland, and it just wasn't -- slower pace, a real focus on community and the church at the center of it. It was just different from -- generations different from America at the time that I grew up. So, the -- I recognized something that felt very comfortable to me in the stories of Vilna. Just a feeling, and -- of community, and culture, and of struggling to survive. It just felt -- just comfortable. And so when I read his 13:00memoirs, I said, Oh, gosh. I have to go there. I have to see this. And then of course, my second thought was, Oh, I can't. It's completely destroyed. And so in my high school, we were studying French and Spanish, and I knew a little bit of Irish, and so I went to Boston University, and I was in this perfect program called the University Professors Program, where you could make your own major. And my family didn't want me to major in theater, which was my great passion, so I said, Okay, I'll major in literature. And I began taking different languages, and I was like, You know, I want to read this in the original. I had that experience, maybe with -- who did we read? Camus in French, or something. I was like, Oh, translation, that's wild, that's so different. I have to read everything in the original, if I'm going to really understand something. So, I said, You know what, I'm going to study Yiddish. And there were no Yiddish 14:00classes. I couldn't study Yiddish. But I said, Oh, there's a Hebrew class. So I took Hebrew. And I didn't really know the difference too much at the time. And then I -- the University Professors Program was in the School of Theology, and I was walking down the hallway there, and I was like, You know what, this Hebrew's great and I really love it, but I -- and I know it's a good step, with the same alphabet -- but I really want to learn Yiddish, and I don't know where to learn Yiddish, and how am I going to learn Yiddish? I love learning languages, I would take French at nine, and Spanish at ten, and Hebrew at eleven, and just -- I would answer the wrong language in every class, it just would explode my brain, it was just a great feeling. And then I see this poster in the hallway. And this is a theme that would happen throughout my life, being like, I have to do this, and I don't know how to do this. It said, "Get paid to learn Yiddish." In the School of Theology. It was the only -- probably only poster in the whole huge 15:00university campus. And I was like, Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa. (laughs) I was late to -- I was like, Get paid to learn Yiddish. So I got the information, and of course it was to be an intern at the Yiddish Book Center, and I just couldn't believe it. Not only could I learn Yiddish, but I could get paid to learn Yiddish. I didn't have any money to pay for it, and so I applied, and I took the bus out there, and Neil Zagorin, who was such a wonderful bibliographer, and person -- is -- and Jeffrey Aronofsky, interviewed me, in the warehouse I think, and it was just a fantastic conversation. I think I talked a lot about my grandmother. And we just had a great time, and then they accepted me, and they sent us money to rent an apartment, and it was ten other interns, some of which I'm still friends with. They were great people. Sarah Benor, who's a wonderful linguistic scholar, and Daniel Kokin, who's a Jewish history scholar, and you 16:00know, we just had a great time.
CW:So, can you explain what the Yiddish Book Center's internship was when youwere there?
CO:Yes. So this was, I guess, 1994. The summer of 1994. And we would actuallywork in the warehouse, in Mount Holyoke, Massachusetts, and we had a pallet. Simon Rozes, who's actually a Yiddish speaker from Lithuania, was one of them, so he spoke Yiddish beautifully. And we would learn Yiddish in the morning with Robert Shapiro, and then we would start unpacking books and identifying them and shelving them, and the wonderful smell of the books, which, I mean, literature lover, book lover, can't get enough of. What a fantastic perfume. And -- which is still -- I can still, when I go to visit the Book Center now, the first thing I do is (sniffs) smell the books. And so we would shelve the books. And study Yiddish, and we lived in -- we shared a couple of apartments, and we went to 17:00Puffer's Pond, and it was just a lot of fun.
CW:So what was it like for you when you began being able to decode some of the Yiddish?
CO:Well, it was very exciting. And also, when you're a college student andyou're entering a new topic, you know, you kind of can become overwhelmed of it. But then we had this physical, kind of sensory, body experience of touching an entire literature, and looking at the titles, and then seeing all these rows of books, and okay, they were maybe a couple of floors in a warehouse, but you still had the sense like, Oh, I could -- I can handle this. I can figure out -- read all of these books. And then, you'd just -- I mean, books are such totems, and you felt the love and the care of the authors that had these -- of the readers that had these books, and you had the sense that maybe they might not 18:00have paid for groceries one time, to get these books. And how beautifully they were preserved, and they were often -- many of them had notes from the author handwritten in the cover, and it was tremendously exciting to begin to have a window into what these books contained, and I saw copies of "My Mother's Sabbath Days -- Der mames shabosim," by Chaim Grade. They were rare. His books were hard to get. You weren't allowed to buy them. But I would sit, and I would look at it, and I would be able to figure out, you know, the chapter headings, and the titles, and then I spent a year in Jerusalem with The Hebrew University, studying -- and because I had taken Hebrew, my Hebrew was good enough to take classes in the regular -- 'cause I was in the American program -- in the regular university, so I kind of threw myself into advanced Yiddish literature classes 19:00with Avraham Novershtern, and Nati Cohen, and Mikhl Borden, and -- I understood what I understood. But it was a lot. It really just kind of dipped me into deep waters, and I gained a tremendous amount from it.
CW:So, I want to go back a little bit, just to outline the theater thread ofyour life.
CW:So, can you tell me when you first got interested in theater?
CO:Yes. I was always interested in theater. I don't remember. I remember, Iguess when I was in fourth grade, I had to read a paragraph about baseball out loud to the class. Everyone was going around, and I couldn't care less about baseball, but I just read it, you know, and I read it with full dramatic -- I just, I became so interested in baseball as I was reading it, and I remember the class kind of being into it -- or, the teacher being into it. The others just 20:00probably rolled their eyes. That feeling of reading something in front of people, and performing something. It just made me feel alive. And then in fifth grade, I remember we were studying the Greek myths, so instead of writing a paper, I staged one of the myths with a classmate that I dragged into it. And it was fantastic, and then I staged -- also in fifth grade, I staged "Anne of Green Gables." I had my friend play Anne, and I was the bigger part. I was Mrs. Rachel Lynde, and I was berating Anne, and -- so, yeah. And then when I was in high school, I auditioned for every play, and I met these incredible two friends who were actors too, and also this wonderful teacher. And then we did Oscar Wilde. It was an all-girls school, so I would play the male leads, and I just loved it. High school can be a difficult time, and if you have an art or a sport that you 21:00can disappear into -- and for me, that was theater -- it becomes a glorious time.
CW:So, to ask the question that maybe every non-Jew in the Yiddish world isasked, I'm curious, what did your parents think?
CO:Well -- yes, people often ask this, but for my parents, it was my siblings --two of them majored in French literature. So my parents were very supportive. They were delighted that I wasn't majoring in theater. And if I wanted to learn Yiddish instead of French, that was fine with them.
CW:Why didn't they want you to major in theater?
CO:Well, I don't think many parents do want their children to major in theater,because it's such a -- you know, an artist's life is, in most people's minds, an unstable life, or a -- you know, just a difficult one.
CW:So, I'm curious if there was a -- one of -- you've mentioned some names, but22:00any of these early Yiddish teachers who had a particularly strong influence on you?
CO:Well, of course, my first Yiddish teacher at the Yiddish Book Center wasRobert Shapiro, and he was just great, and I really enjoyed -- he gave us a really solid basis for building on. And then, of course, I feel that the books themselves were a major Yiddish teacher. I had an incredible experience, after I came back from Israel, I was able to sit and work with Ruth Wisse, and she gave a Yiddish theater class, and introduced me to the Yiddish theater. So, she had, as she does on so many people, had a tremendously path-altering influence on my life, just by the nature of teaching that class.
CW:What was -- can you tell me more about that class?23:00
CO:Sure. It was an incredible class. We read Yiddish plays in Yiddish. Amongthem was "God of Vengeance." And I wrote my paper on -- because the Luba Kadison-Joseph Buloff Archives are at Harvard, I wrote my paper on "Yoshke muzikant [Yoshke the musician]," which was a play that Buloff directed in Romania in 1924 that influenced a young Eugène Ionesco, and Luba starred in. And I wrote this thirty-page paper on it, and all the different versions of it he did -- they did it throughout their career, and I was just so impressed and moved by their story. It was so exciting. It was "On Stage, Off Stage: Memories of a Lifetime in the Yiddish Theater," I read their memoirs, and there's a great Judaica librarian there named Charles Berlin, and he said, "You know, Mrs. Buloff is still alive and I don't know how much longer she's going to be alive, probably not very long. You should -- I'm sure she'd be happy to speak to you." So I called her up, and went to meet her, and I was expected this frail -- I 24:00took the bus to New York -- this frail old woman on the brink of death, and I met one of the most vivacious, intelligent, beautiful people that I'd ever met in my life. She had an apartment on 40 West Sixty-Seventh Street that was like a salon from another time. It was lined with paintings by Blatas, and Mané Katz, and Reuven Rubin, who designed the sets for "Yoshke muzikant," the Israeli painter. And she was small, and with these bright dark eyes, and these dramatic, drawn-on eyebrows, and she had a little cane, and we went to Orloff's for tuna fish sandwiches, and I interviewed her about the play, and I -- I mean, I just -- I was asking her very specific questions about people she hadn't talked about in decades. And she came alive, remembering these tremendous friendships that 25:00she had as a member of the Vilna Troupe, the company that her father founded. And so a great friendship was born at that moment, and when I came back to New York after I graduated -- because my plan was always to go to New York to become an actor -- I think Sarah Benor, my fellow -- yeah, I know, Sarah Benor, my fellow Yiddish Book Center intern, got me an interview at NYU, 'cause they were looking for someone who spoke Yiddish to write a website on the Yiddish theater. And so I got the job. There wasn't a lot of people who spoke Yiddish who could read these -- and I knew how many books were written in Yiddish about the Yiddish theater. There's even a book written in Yiddish that is a list of all the books written in Yiddish about the Yiddish theater. So I started translating those books, and writing excerpts on the website, and then working on Ludlow Street, where Aaron Beall over there had a great storefront theater called Todo 26:00Con Nada, and it produced Richard Foreman plays, and original verse plays, and so I was working on Ludlow Street, and then my day job was writing a website on the Yiddish theater, and I would talk to all these theater people that I met, and I would talk -- I did the same thing, like, Do you know Chaim Grade? But I didn't say "Chaim Grade." I'm like, Do you know Maurice Schwartz? You know, he had the longest-running repertory company in Yiddish -- in American history, in any language. And for over thirty years, longer than the Group Theater. Why are people talking about the -- and it was a three thousand-seat theater. You can go see it, it's still there, on Second Avenue and Twelfth Street. And everybody would be like, What are you talking about? Like, what? You don't know anything about the Yiddish theater? There were twelve Broadway-sized houses in New York alone. It was huge. And they're like, Oh, no, the Yiddish theater is -- it was just some sort of vaudevillian, Borscht Belt -- I'm like, Actually, wasn't. And sometimes, people would listen to me, and more often than not, they would glaze over. And then I saw a production in Aaron's theater of "God of Vengeance," by Sholem Asch, and of course, I had read "God of Vengeance" in Yiddish, with Ruth 27:00Wisse, so I was very excited to see it. In an English translation. And -- it was so far removed from the play that he wrote, I was just sitting there in shock. And I saw, or imagined, but in my telling of -- I saw the specter of Sholem Asch rise up and look at me, sitting in the audience, and I heard the words. He didn't say them, but they were -- this is what came to my mind. It was, You know that this is not the play that I wrote. And I was like, Whoa. That was a big experience. And I went to Aaron afterwards and I said, "Hey, listen. This play that you have in your theater" -- he didn't direct it -- "This play that you have in your theater is just not Sholem Asch's play. And it's terrible." And I 28:00complained about it, and I complained. I think we were sitting in Katz's Deli. His theater was around the corner from it. I just complained, and I complained, and I complained. And finally, he said, "Please, stop complaining. If you have a problem with it, then translate it yourself." And I said, "Okay. I'll translate it." And he promised to help stage it, or to direct it if I translated it, so I did it. I worked on it for a year. We had different readings of it, and then we ended up producing it at Show World. He had recently taken it over. It was -- Show World is the famous topless bar on Forty-Second and Eighth, and Giuliani was mayor then, and he had introduced some new zoning laws, that you couldn't have adult entertainment close to some schools. So (laughs), so in order to keep 29:00the video booths, the pornographic video booths, going, they had to have cultural -- other cultural entertainment in the former strip stages. So Aaron took over the go-go room, and the first thing that we did was we staged "God of Vengeance," which is a story of a Jewish brothel owner and his attempt to become legitimate, and his daughter, who he's raising to marry off to a respectable yeshiva scholar, sneaks down to the brothel and has a lesbian affair with one of his prostitutes, and is eventually run away, or is kidnapped, by the prostitutes. [BREAK IN RECORDING] So, all hell breaks loose, and the -- so, the show was a big success. We had great actors, big downtown lifelong artists like Mark Greenfield and Andrea Darriau and Shane Baker and Corey Carthew, and Vered Hankin, Mercedes McAndrews and Naomi Odes. It was just a fantastic group. And I 30:00was in it. I played Hindl, the head prostitute. And we had -- Sholem Asch audiences are the best, because he's such a big thinker, and he's always asking the big questions, and he's controversial, and so we had a real intellectual audience come, and then there was a great photo essay in "The Blade" of all these Yiddish-speaking grandmothers with their programs, and then the décor of Show World was mirrored and red and clowns. It was repulsive. So this -- and then we put the alphabet, the Yiddish alphabet, around the go-go stage. So we were really mixing up the sacred and profane in a way that turned out to be quite riveting. And I think that's the -- Chaim Grade has a book that they travel -- that they first translated as "Rabbis and Wives," and then translated it as "The Sacred and the Profane." So, this is an idea, of course, with all -- I mean, it's in Irish culture, too -- but really works nicely if you have a 31:00major religion kind of seeping over every part of life. And yes, and then, flip ahead -- seventeen years later? Aaron directed "God of Vengeance" in Yiddish for New Yiddish Rep, at St. Clement's Theater on Forty-Sixth Street, and this time I played the mother, the brothel owner, the madam, and that was an incredible experience that brought me deeper into my understanding of the Yiddish language, and to the Yiddish theater, and to the life of the Yiddish actor. And at the same time, I was just finishing up a biography of Seymour Rexite and Miriam Kressyn. Seymour was an incredible mentor of mine, and my goal with this biography, that's forthcoming from Harvard Judaica, hopefully soon, is that -- to tell the story of Yiddish theater and Yiddish radio through the lives of two 32:00of its stars.
CW:So, I'm curious -- you talked about starting to read Yiddish. When did youstart to speak Yiddish, and how?
CO:Well, certainly I would speak to -- I mean, we would speak it in class,right, and certainly I would speak to Luba and Seymour -- Seymour Rexite, when I was writing this website on the Yiddish theater for NYU, I opened up the phone book, looked around, found the listing for the Hebrew Actors' Union, and called it up. He answered the phone. He agreed to meet. He was the last president of the Hebrew Actors' Union. And his apartment was 1 University Place, and he and his wife Miriam Kressyn had taken it over from Molly Picon, and it was just filled with archives, like, reel-to-reel tapes, thousands of reel-to-reel tapes, and scripts, and sheet music, and the photographs of him with Jackie Mason and 33:00Isaac Bashevis Singer. And he taught me everything that I know about the Yiddish musical theater, 'cause he was one of the last great troubadours. Most incredible voice, you can listen to it on Spotify. I mean, really. And his voice was that beautiful. He would wind the tapes on his Wollensak machine, and whether he was singing, or his wife was singing, Miriam Kressyn, or Maurice Schwartz was speaking, or Abe Ellstein was speaking, you would -- it would be like the people were in the room with you. And he would talk about his friends, and he would talk about the different shows that he did. For instance, he was performing for decades. Eight decades. More. He started performing at two. His father was a cantor, he was a wonder boy. After the Jewish quota laws were in effect, he came to America when he was six years old, in 1920. His mother and sister and brother weren't allowed over, so he had become so popular in American 34:00culture that he got the attention of a gangster named Sam [Sennett?], who was friends with Congressman Isaac Siegel, who arranged for him to sing in front of the Immigration Committee in Washington, and the cover of "The Washington Post," in English, outside that day, introduced him as the greatest juvenile voice in the world. And he got visas for his parents -- for his mother and his siblings to come over, as an eight-year-old. He was already supporting his family, and he was literally saving his family. And so I knew him in his eighties, and Luba was -- Luba Kadison was the last surviving member of the Vilna Troupe, which was kind of the premier literary theater company in Europe, and her father founded it after they were -- had twenty-four hours to escape Kovno, like all the Jewish people there, at the beginning of World War I, or face death, and he was terribly depressed, and then he started this theater company with -- the subsidy 35:00was a sack of potatoes from the German Army, and actors would be fainting in rehearsal, and Hannah, her mother, would be feeding them with potatoes, and out of that company came so many great actors, but came perhaps the most famous Yiddish play from the Yiddish theater, "The Dybbuk," and she and her husband, Joseph Buloff, were in the original "Dybbuk," and so -- but they were very different strains of theater. There was the musical theater, and then there was the literary theater. So, broadly. And so I had a master teacher in both. Now, if I had gone to university, I could not have gotten that information. There was nowhere to study. I had taken the one Yiddish theater class that was offered anywhere in the world at the time. So, I began studying with these two incredible people. And this is a long answer, that has gone many ways to your question, but yeah, I spoke to them in Yiddish. And with Luba, we studied texts in Yiddish. We studied "The Dybbuk" in Yiddish, we studied "God of Vengeance" in 36:00Yiddish. She starred as the daughter opposite Stella Adler's lesbian lover in the '20s on Second Avenue. Seymour and Miriam -- I never met Miriam and I never met Buloff. They were both passed away by the time I came to New York. But Seymour and Miriam had the longest radio show in American radio history. That's not in any books, but it's the truth. They were on for Maxwell House coffee for over fifty years, on WEVD. And they were one of the first people to document and discuss the influence of the Yiddish theater on the American theater, on Yiddish and American music, how close they were, how -- they had a famous thing they would say, Who's the quintessential American composer? You'd come, Oh, Irving Berlin. Okay, his name was Israel Beilin. He was born in Russia. He was a Yiddish speaker. They had Irving Caesar on their radio show and their TV show, 37:00and they would sing his songs in Yiddish. So, they did all the hit parade songs in Yiddish. So, there was always this translation going on. So, either we were speaking in Yiddish, or we were speaking in English, or I was listening to songs by Jerome Kern, or so many others. Or the great American musicals. "Music Man," they translated into Yiddish. "Man of La Mancha," they translated into Yiddish. So there was this huge -- they began, their radio show was about introducing American audience-- no. They began it introducing Yiddish audiences to American culture. And then they switched it, by the '70s, to introducing American audiences to Yiddish culture.
CW:Well, maybe we could talk about Luba and Seymour a little bit.
CO:Yes, I'd love to.
CW:So, starting with the Vilna Troupe --38:00
CW:You mentioned a little bit, but could you just give a little background ofwhat is the Vilna Troupe, for anyone who hasn't heard of it?
CO:Yeah. Well, the Vilna Troupe is probably the most famous Yiddish literarytheater company in Europe. It was started at the beginning of World War I. Leyb Kadison had a thriving set design business and sign-painting business and icon-painting business in Kovno, Lithuania. But the Jews were given twenty-four hours to evacuate. They came to Vilna. And, of course, it was overcrowded and they had moved into -- it was Luba, my teacher, Luba Kadison, she had the -- an older brother and an older sister, and their mother, and they had to move into an apartment where there was already people living in there, there was an old woman living in there. And they -- because of Leib Kadison's work as an artist, 39:00people came to him and said, Hey, listen, why don't you -- give you a little subsidy, why don't you start a theater company here? And so he did. And that became the Vilna Troupe. And the first play that they did was a Sholem Asch play, "Der landsman," and this was in 1914, I believe. And then, only six years later, they were premiering the most famous Yiddish play of all time, "The Dybbuk." Luba's father, Leyb Kadison, directed many plays for them, but "The Dybbuk" was directed by someone with a background in Hasidic Jewish history -- or, life, family -- named Dovid Herman. And her father did all of the sets, and Luba started as a child, like Seymour Rexite and like so many actors in the Yiddish theater. They started as children, and she would -- if they needed a kid 40:00in the production, she was born in 1906, so she was, what, eight, when the company started, so she was always the child. One of her first big roles was playing a young Spinoza. And then Joseph Buloff -- he writes so beautifully about how he had a terrible wartime experience, and he was from Vilna. And there were pogroms, and the death of family members, and poverty and starvation, and he was conscripted by two different armies and he got a big gash in the side of his face. But still, whenever he could, he would try to perform in plays, and he remembered one time he got some small role, he rarely asked to take part, and as Buloff became the actor who, no matter how small of a role that you gave him, he took all the focus because he was just so talented, and he remembered having a few lines, and he had a chicken onstage, and everybody started laughing, and he 41:00just felt alive, and all the pain, the pain that he was experiencing at that time, of living in Vilna, just disappeared, and he felt alive and happy. And so, much of the foundation of that company was about finding a reason to stay alive, for artistic personalities in the worst circumstances. And they did their work at all costs, when their pay was potatoes, literal potatoes. And so, I remember the first time I met Luba, I'd been through her archives, which was all fresh in my mind, who all these people were, and I was asking her very specific questions, and I said to her -- she said, "Well, what about you? What are you going to do?" I said, "Well, what am I going to do? I want to have a life like yours." And she just -- she looked shocked, and a little horrified, and she just stopped for a moment, and she said, "Well, you know, I had a very rich life. But 42:00it was also very difficult." And she warned me, she warned me, about what an artistic life entails. And I listened, I heard it, I didn't understand it, but I heard it, and now, of course, I understand that deeper. Although I wouldn't change anything, and she inspired me to -- you know, whenever I would complain to her about -- she and Seymour helped me produce "God of Vengeance," and they came to see the show, and they gave advice, and Seymour introduced me to an amazing publicist called Max Eisen, who was one of the last Yiddish theater publicists. He had a office in the Sardi's building, filled with old placards, and he was a Broadway publicist too. And, oh, yes, whenever I would complain about something, But we don't have money for the costumes, and we don't have money for this, he'd say, "Well, first of all, in theater, there's never enough money. No matter how much you have, it's never enough." And then Luba would be 43:00like, "You just do it, you just figure it out." You know, they did it for potatoes.
CW:So, how did Luba and Joseph Buloff meet?
CO:Oh yeah, this is a great story. So, Luba was about thirteen, and Buloff hadjust survived -- war had just ended, and he had survived just by luck and cleverness and fate, and he was pretty hungry and starving and frightening-looking, with a gash on his cheek, and he met Leyb Kadison, and of course they were such empathetic -- the Kadison family, such empathetic, wonderful people, if they were anything like Luba, and said, Okay, you're an actor, we'll take you in, sure, we have this company. And the Vilna was even having a higher profile at that time. And so, Just come, my wife is a wonderful 44:00cook, come to our apartment, and we'll check you out. We'll do a reading, we'll feed you. And so he rings the door, the bell of the apartment, and Luba answers it, and she sees this bedraggled-looking creature in front of her, and just screams and shuts the door on him. And then her father's like, No, no, no, and then he comes, and Buloff quickly became the leading actor of the company. He was such a great talent. And I did this -- I did a panel on a production he did in 1947 on Broadway called, "The Whole World Over," where he played this Russian professor. And at the HB Studio on this Monday, and there were so many great stories about him, and what a tactician he was. And his archives are at Harvard University, and you can see his scripts, which have the timing it took to say each line, and he was a master of makeup, and he was an -- he would do the out-- 45:00get perfect hair and makeup and wigs, and his costumes, but there was no detail that was too little for him. Everything that he said or he did, while theatrical, had a deep root into the psychology of a character. And it's interesting that their daughter is a psychologist, so you can definitely -- and a wonderful psychologist, and you can definitely see the connection between her artistic parents and her present-day work. Just figuring out what makes a person tick, that was creating a whole person, that's what Buloff was really great at. And Luba had a different acting style. We talked about acting styles a lot. She said Buloff would go to a theater two hours in advance to prepare for a role, but Luba would -- I mean, her most famous role was as Leah in "The Dybbuk." There's a poster of it on the Book Center walls. And -- she's so gorgeous. She 46:00would just -- I mean, that is a very -- I mean, that's a play about the veil between life and death, and there was -- sometimes she would do it, and she would just be transformed. Something would happen. And sometimes, that thing wouldn't happen. She didn't spend a -- she had a different way of approaching a role than her husband did. But she was equally brilliant actor, and in Buenos Aires, where they traveled often, she was as -- just, revered as a great artist.
CW:So, how did they come to the US?
CO:Well, Joseph Buloff directed this production in Romania, in 1924, called"Yoshke muzikant." It was a simple folktale by Osip Dymov, and Buloff directed it as seen through the eyes of a child, and Reuven Rubin designed these Disney-esque sets and a bubbly Disney sign, but before Disney had this style. 47:00And it was just really a -- it really brought people, transported people. The King Carol of Romania came to see it, because he had a Jewish mistress at the time that brought him. People heard about it all over the world, and teenage Eugène Ionesco saw it, and then later called Buloff in Paris and said, "You're my greatest idol. I saw 'Yoshke muzikant.'" And so it was just a famous production. And all about Buloff's genius, and all about the childhood he never had. And Maurice Schwartz, who was one of the great American directors in any language, longest-running repertory theater company in American history, he brought them over. And he met them at the -- Luba tells the story -- he met them at the boat, and these two tiny, very thin, young people came, and they didn't even have the fifty dollars that you have to pay to get off the boat, so Buloff had to come and -- I think Chaim -- I mean, Schwartz had to come, or Chaim 48:00Ehrenreich, the critic, was with them, and pay it, and then Schwartz, he said, "What? These are my stars?" And so they began working with his company, and doing very well. It was difficult, the transition. The European actors always felt artistically more daring than the American actors. They had to use a different accent, more of a Polish Yiddish, as opposed to a Lithuanian Yiddish. They weren't in charge of it anymore. Maurice Schwartz was a genius, but they were a different sort of genius, and so there was a little bit of conflict there. Harold Clurman, the great theatrical director, and critic, and writer, was in love with Stella Adler, who was also in the company at the time, so he would come to see their shows, and he saw Joseph Buloff perform, and just thought it was the greatest actor he'd ever seen in his life. And so he was the 49:00one to direct "The Whole World Over," and cast Buloff in the lead in that play in English. So he began making inroads into the American theater as well, and film, and he'd like to say, "I made my money on the American stage, and I lost it in the Yiddish." But that wasn't the case for all people. Sometimes a Yiddish actor would make more money than their Broadway counterparts, and would have more opportunities to perform, because the union was smaller, had less people in it, and the turnover of Yiddish plays -- a Broadway show might run for six months or a year, but a Yiddish show would run for just weeks, and they'd hire people for a season, and so they'd be doing shows in repertory. So, yes.
CW:I think it might be helpful to just explain a little bit about the -- 'cause50:00you mentioned that the Buloffs -- Luba and Joseph Buloff -- went to Argentina. So, how would a Yiddish actor originally from Lithuania and now living in New York end up in Argentina? You know, that circuit.
CO:Well, the Yiddish theater was truly an international theater, and Yiddishactors were often more sophisticated than American actors who had grown up just in the American theater. And in fact, the vast majority of Yiddish actors were not born in America. So they had more of a sense of what was happening all over the world. So, they started in Bucharest, and they would travel around Eastern Europe, because you have to -- you want to keep the one play going and make as much money as you can. Luba remembers going and performing in small towns where people didn't have money, and would bring a chicken to the box office, or being carried over mud, because they were performing in places that had no 51:00entertainment, or even had no roads. And they would go wherever the people were, and then they were brought to America by Maurice Schwartz, and then the Buenos Aires season was the opposite of the American season. So, during the American summer, when the Yiddish theater wouldn't have mainstage shows -- it would just -- people would go to the Catskills, or they would do cabaret-type shows -- they would get a contract to go to Buenos Aires and perform there. Seymour -- sometimes actors would perform in Mexico, or Uganda. They would make European tours, Western Europe, London, Ireland, France. There was Yiddish theater in South America. You would get contracts, and it was a world that communicated, and there was, as you know, so much publishing in the Yiddish theater, so many newspapers, so many magazines, and theatrical journals, that people would hear about a star, or they'd hear about a play, and they'd want to see it. If I had a 52:00hope, it would be that more people would have access to the Yiddish theater and understand that it was a major cornerstone, and, in some ways, still is a cornerstone of the American theater. People certainly -- the Yiddish actors who were performing certainly considered themselves part of the American theater.
CW:Yeah. Well, there's -- of course, I'm sure you could tell stories --
CO:Yes, I could.
CW:-- without an end, about Luba, but I did want to ask, just what she was like personally.
CO:Luba was one of the most brilliant people that I've ever met. One of the mostbeautifully educated people that I have ever met. And she never went to school, except for, she had -- when they were doing -- when they were starting to 53:00rehearse "The Dybbuk," she had started studying acting in a Polish dramatic school, about fourteen. And she was given the leads. Her talent was recognized, even though she was the only Jewish person in the school, and even though she experienced some anti-Semitism, in particular when she got the leads, she would play the lead in a Greek drama. But she spoke Russian, Polish, Yiddish, and English -- maybe more languages -- beautifully, and she was very well-read in many languages. And of course, lived with such an incredible artistic personality, as well as being such an incredible artistic personality, and was around so many other great actors, from both the American English theater, and the Yiddish theater, that she was a wonderful conversationalist. And she loved to know about people. She had this mind that would absorb everything. And she 54:00was incredibly compassionate, and generous, and -- she didn't suffer fools lightly. I remember one time, an actor came over and was kind of just droning on about himself, and when he left, she was like, "Now that is a man who is in love with the sound of his own voice." (laughs) So, she expected people also to give, and to be present, and to engage. She must have been a wonderful scene partner onstage, because she was in the present moment. And sometimes, if a man would call her, like a colleague, or Seymour would call her, you would say -- I mean, she was in her nineties when I knew her, eighty-nine, and nearly a hundred, or perhaps older than a hundred -- her birthday was a little bit nebulous -- she would (leans back suddenly in her chair, smiling and throwing her hands up) -- and she would look like she was twenty. And she would move her hands when she spoke, and she moves them like a dancer, and so she was just -- you couldn't 55:00take your eyes off her, really, and she was just an incredible human being. And it was such -- I mean, she was my best friend in my twenties. She gave you great advice, and she was just a wonderful person.
CW:So maybe we could talk a little bit about Seymour Rexite.
CO:Oh, I would love to talk about Seymour.
CW:So, what do you know about his family background, where he came from?
CO:Well, I know a lot, because I've just written a book on it. But he was bornin Piotrków, Poland, in 1914, let's say, but it could be years either side. When he came with his father to America in 1920, they had been living in Łódź, where his father was a cantor at a Reform synagogue there. And his father, when they -- it was a very traumatic experience for him, taking the ship 56:00over to America and going through Ellis Island. He was sick, they separated him from his father, he was in quarantine for three days, he didn't know what was happening, he spoke no English. It was one of the great traumatic moments of his life. But eventually, he was reunited with his father, and they began working immediately. He was known as a wonder boy, and his father was a cantor. He would sing in the cantor's choir, or his father would bring him around to all the vaudeville houses, and he would learn how to imitate -- the actor Ludwig Satz, was a big mentor of him, of Seymour's, and so he would imitate his little yeshiva boy style and jokes. And he began doing concerts all over town, to raise money for Jewish orphanages. His father was working in a Jewish orphanage. And then, he won a nationwide competition. They would pick a group of performers 57:00from all over America and bring them to Washington, DC, to sing for the -- actually, for the president there. So he met Calvin Coolidge twice within several months, and he sang at the White House, specifically at a state dinner, and he sang in Yiddish and Italian and in English. And he was -- that helped him secure visas for his family. And of course, Calvin Coolidge was a Republican. He had just given the first presidential radio address around this time, talking about the need for stronger borders, so -- and it was, this was a front-page news story. And then, when Ludwig Satz got a role to perform on Broadway, in "Potash and Perlmutter," he was doing a really hit musical play called "The 58:00Rabbi's Melody." It's beautiful music by Joseph Rumshinsky, and it's about a thirteen-year-old boy of a Hasidic dynasty whose rabbinical father suddenly dies, and so the kid inherits the thing, and all of these old ladies are coming up to him and saying, How do I get pregnant? and Is this chicken kosher? And he's like, What are you asking me for? How should I know? And then it had chorus of twenty-two Hasidic men, and they were like, What? He won't tell her? And he's just -- and then the family moves to America, and there's this great song where they long for the Old World, that Seymour sang so beautifully. He recorded it -- Satz recorded it first -- called "I Long for Home." And so when Satz went on to Broadway, he didn't know who would take over the role on Second Avenue, and so Satz recommended Seymour, who was actually a thirteen-year-old boy, as opposed to a thirty-year-old man playing that. And so he was thirteen or fourteen, the first show he starred in on Second Avenue, which was pretty incredible. And then 59:00-- he still wasn't a member of the union then. Because he was just a kid, they let him get away with it, but then he was performing out of town in Philadelphia, and he was in the same cast as a young actress named Miriam Kressyn. And he fell madly in love with her. And she went on a tour of South America with someone else, with Hymie Jacobson, who became -- so, she married Hymie Jacobson, and they didn't see each other for ten years, and then they were cast in a show on Second Avenue with the comedian Itzik Feld, and Hymie Jacobson was also in that show, and Miriam and Seymour, 'cause Hymie was older than her, played the young lovers, and everyone could tell that they were falling in love, and the composer was Alexander Olshanetsky, and there's this scene where the lovers kiss, and the kiss breaks when the orchestra starts up again. So, 60:00Olshanetsky, knowing that they were madly in love, held the orchestra off, so the kiss went on and on and on, and then it started up again. And so eventually, they -- Miriam divorced Hymie Jacobson, and Seymour and she got together, and it was just an incredible relationship that lasted -- they were married in 1943, and then Miriam died in 1996. Seymour died in 2002.
CW:And earlier, you mentioned that Luba and Seymour -- Luba Kadison and SeymourRechtzeit represent these two different strains of Yiddish theater.
CW:So, we talked about the Vilna Troupe. What was the strain that SeymourRechtzeit came from and represented?
CO:Well, the Yiddish theater was a very vast theatrical movement that was unitedby performing in Yiddish. There was the literary theater that was non-musical 61:00theater, there was musical theater, there was also marionette theater, there was also Yiddish acting schools, there was also political theater, and anarchist theater, and just a -- biblical dramas. But Seymour Rexite was one of the great singers of the Yiddish stage. He was the last incredible tenor, from wonder boy to star, and his wife was a prima donna. She had a beautiful voice. She came as a thirteen-year-old girl to Boston, Massachusetts, and got a scholarship at the New England Conservatory of Music, and then began starring in the Yiddish theater because she started acting as a chorus girl in Boston, and eventually worked with Aaron Lebedoff in Chicago, Hymie Jacobson discovered her. And so they would do primarily musicals, by the great composers of the Yiddish theater: Rumshinsky, Olshanetsky, Sholom Secunda was a very close friend of theirs, Abe Ellstein was a very close friend of theirs. And these are all such brilliant 62:00composers. You know, educated at Juilliard, Yiddish speakers. Some went uptown and some went downtown, or some went to Tin Pan Alley, and some went to Broadway, and some went to Second Avenue. But so many of the great musicians, and of the great composers, of twentieth century New York, were Yiddish speakers, and Seymour and Miriam made it their mission to capture the history of the Yiddish theater, and of the Yiddish influence on the American theater musical scene, which they documented not in writing, but on their radio shows, two thousand of which still exist and are at Harvard University, and hopefully will be available online, or definitely are available now for people to go and listen to them.
CW:Can you remind us what that radio show was called?
CO:It was called "Memories of the Yiddish Theater." It was their show forMaxwell House. They -- the Yiddish radio was an incredible phenomenon, that was really at the birth of American radio. There were Yiddish radio stations all 63:00across America, and in fact, when radio started in America, there was more than three hundred different languages being broadcast at the time, but none were as diverse and as numerous as the Yiddish radios. And they -- so, it was like Yiddish theater, except for they didn't have the production costs, so there was advice shows, and game shows, and call-in rabbi shows, and news, and rhyme, and soap operas, and Yiddish swing bands, and American songs in Yiddish. It was so -- they had several radio shows, and Seymour was -- he was first on the radio in 1927, on Sholom Secunda's radio show, "Feter sholem -- Uncle Sholom." So, he was just a radio pioneer. But they were sponsored by Maxwell House in the '40s, and at one point it was called "Memories of the Yiddish Theater." Sometimes, it was called "Maxwell House Show," or -- so it had several variations, but at the 64:00height of his career, Seymour did eighteen -- this was in the '30s -- eighteen live radio shows a week. They were about fifteen minutes long, most of them. He did a full-size show on Second Avenue, where he would play a major singing role. And then he did the midnight show at Billy Rose's Casino de Paree, which would become Studio 54. It's now a Broadway house. And that was the premier supper club. Billy Rose was married to Fanny Brice at the time. Buck and Bubbles, Lou Holtz was the emcee, Eleanor Powell, Bill Bojangles Robinson, so -- and he was the lead singer. He led the band, and they tried to -- it was The Dorsey Brothers, who had a lot of hits, they tried to get him to tour with him, because he had such a beautiful voice, but he couldn't, because of his Yiddish theater commitments, his eighteen radio shows, he was making good money, he felt that was the safer place to be. Often, he made more money performing in Yiddish than 65:00he did in English. So he made a real decision to stay with Yiddish.
CW:And what was he like when you met him?
CO:Oh, he was fantastic. He could -- he had to like you. I mean, everybody hasto like you to want to share what they know with you. He would wear this battered cream raincoat, and he had a Greek fishermen's cap, and he had white hair, and he would come in with a bottle of scotch in one hand and a briefcase of music in the other. That's how I remember him. And he was very willing to talk to people who knew what they were talking about, and who had respect for the Yiddish theater, and respect for the Yiddish language, and were willing to do their research, and willing to do their work. You know, Mandy Patinkin came and Seymour advised him, gave him some of Miriam's translations and things, and 66:00they did a beautiful -- Henry Sapoznik did a beautiful series about him for NPR, the Yiddish Radio Project. So, he liked people doing real work. But he was very protective of his material, and of people taking it, or misusing it. But eventually, he did decide to give his archives to Harvard University, which he did right before he died, thankfully, and they preserved them and digitized them. So now, they exist for eternity. But he was -- he knew everything. He was such a wonderful actor, too. You could really see the different characters come through him. Buloff thought he was a great actor, and there was a time that, in the '50s and '60s, he did a lot of synthesizer work, and people thought some of his stuff was cheesy. It's just interesting now, it's just the style of the moment, but he was just effortlessly talented. He would never warm up. He would 67:00just sing. And he had this just, this golden voice. He loved Frank Sinatra because Frank Sinatra, he said, told a story with his song. And he covered most of Frank Sinatra's songs in Yiddish, also Perry Como's songs in Yiddish. In fact, they shared a piano player, Dick Manning, who was Perry Como's piano player, but when he played for Seymour, he was Sam Medoff, who was the song of a famous Yiddish actor called David Medoff. So again, one of these -- and everybody loved it when he -- who wouldn't. Was it Irving Berlin? There were some people who didn't like people to translate their lyrics, and Seymour would convince them and say, "Let me play this for you. If you don't like it--" Of course, they spoke Yiddish, these major American composers, and he would almost always get permission, and -- or, he would do it without permission. Some of them, he recorded -- he also started a record company in the '40s, after all of 68:00-- Columbia and Victor closed their foreign language departments after the war, called Banner Records, and it was just -- it produced -- they were kind of the leading producer of Jewish and Yiddish, and some other ethnic content as well. He was one of the first people that Mo Asch, the great founder of Folkway Records and the son of Sholem Asch, recorded, at -- Mo Asch had an office in the WEVD building, where Seymour was doing a lot of shows, and Seymour would run over to him and record some stuff, and everybody wanted to work with him, and he worked a lot. He didn't have a childhood. When he was older, he was kind of fascinated by cars, little kids' cars, and he would still collect them if he saw someone selling a car. He would buy it. So, he definitely was a child who worked and did not have a childhood. And he worked -- I knew that things were getting 69:00very bad for him when about six months before he died, maybe even less than six months, maybe four months, he lost his voice and he couldn't sing anymore, and he couldn't believe it. He just opened and -- it was just shocking to him, and his wife had died painfully of cancer, so when he was diagnosed with cancer, he refused treatment, and he died in October 2002. But not before he sent off his archives and preserved his legacy and -- the book that I've written about him and Miriam is an introduction to what they did on their radio shows, and the story of their life, through which I tell about the last days of the golden age of the Yiddish musical theater and radio scene, which was pretty phenomenal. Such a productive generation of artists. Very inspiring, and they just did extraordinary work, world-class. So, it was a great honor to know him and to 70:00have him teach me about musical theater. I didn't know too much about it, but I remember the first song he played for me -- he was like, "Who is this?" So, you know, testing me. And I'm like, "It's you, it's your voice, it's incredible." And he's like, "Ach! Of course it's me. Who is it? Who's the composer?" And I was like, Oh my God. And fortunately, by some fluke of gift of God, I knew it. It was "A Fine Romance" by Jerome Kern, because I had a cassette tape of Jerome Kern's music. I was interested in "My Fair Lady." So he said, Okay, yeah, okay. So, because I answered that one question right -- and I couldn't have necessarily answered too many others at that time -- he started this great musical conversation with me. And he was a repository of information and he was very respectful of the Yiddish theater and its tradition, and of the truth. You know, often when people tell Yiddish theater stories, they like to tell about 71:00the audience breastfeeding their babies and screaming at the actors, and you know, I'm sure things like that happened, but that's just not the point of the Yiddish theater. It was just part of the endless devaluing of this incredible culture for all sorts of complicated reasons. But the Yiddish theater was -- they had some of the highest-grossing shows, and Bessie Thomashefsky had the highest-grossing show of 1913, in Yiddish or in English. They added extra train cars to get people out to see -- it was a show about a suffragette. "The Rabbi's Melody" was higher-grossing -- by Rumshinsky, was higher-grossing than anything on the American stage as well, the year that it came out. So, it's so interesting how -- but a lot of people wanted to hide what they were -- "Nature 72:00Boy," Herman Yablokoff, was an incredible Yiddish theater performer. And there was a big hit song called "Nature Boy," which was ripped off from one of his compositions that he wrote, and he had to sue the composer to get credit for it. So, some people would mine the Yiddish theater for things that they could steal, and they wanted to hide their influence. So, it was complicated.
CW:So, I'm trying to envision what it was like for you arriving to New York inyour twenties, and entering -- making, forging these relationships with some of the greats of the Yiddish theater. Can you talk about it from your perspective?
CO:I certainly can. You know, I came to New York to be an artist, because that's-- when I was eleven years old, I felt that that's what I was, however that unfolded. And because I spoke Yiddish, because this was a passion that I had 73:00developed and followed through, and because I spoke it at the beginning not so great, I had access to these incredible personalities that, strangely, nobody else was interviewing, or very few people were interviewing. So I felt, just in the way that I knew that "My Mother's Sabbath Days" was an amazing book, when I met -- when I was hanging around with Luba and Seymour, I felt like I was hanging around with Greta Garbo and Frank Sinatra. And I had complete access to them, and to their artistic life and how to build an artistic life, and to their artistic knowledge, because I spoke Yiddish. It was this weird portal I had -- I had the passport, because I spoke the language, and I had access to world-class, world-class, world-class people. The same thing happened in college. I studied with Elie Wiesel, because I spoke Yiddish. I spoke to Saul Bellow in Yiddish. I 74:00spoke to Harold Bloom in Yiddish. People were interested. People were open, because I actually spoke their language, and they were interested into why I felt it was important to speak the language. So, it was -- in a way, the Yiddish theater, the Yiddish artistic experience, is a metaphor for the artist's experience. Why did Leopold Bloom make his -- why did James Joyce make Leopold Bloom Jewish? To just hone in on the isolation and the loneliness and the separateness that is the artist's life. So, I was trying to build -- and of course, one has very simple dreams when they're young. You know, you're going to be a star. I was trying to build an artistic career for myself, and that was difficult, and I was noticing that not only was I seeing other great artists not getting recognized, but I was seeing a whole artistic tradition that was 75:00enormous, that was bigger than anything I'd ever played in. I was playing for forty people a night. They were playing for three thousand people a night. And nobody knew who they were. And nobody in the American theater knew who they were. And I just couldn't understand how this was possible, and it made no sense to me. And I've seen things shift a lot in the twenty years. People understand the value of the Yiddish theater more. They still extract from it what serves themselves, right, and maybe cover up where they got it from. But they recognize its value more.
CW:I am curious, from your perspective -- I mean, why do you think this happenedto Yiddish theater? I mean, why do you think people didn't know about it?
CO:It happened to Yiddish, too. It was the -- six million of its audience76:00members were killed, and then there was the rise of Israel, and the primacy of Hebrew as the language that was chosen. Seymour and Miriam were also in Yiddish films, and Seymour was in one of the first Yiddish talkies -- I think the first Yiddish talkie. And it was screened in Israel, and there were riots, and people were throwing rocks, and this was covered in "The New York Times," because how dare they show a movie in Yiddish. So, then it became just associated with failure or not success, and then Broadway became you wanted to assimilate. You wanted -- for instance, take -- one of the most quintessential American playwrights of the later half of the twentieth century is Arthur Miller. Right? You think of him as American, and some people might be interested in his Jewish roots, but people don't necessarily think of his characters as Jewish characters, or people who aren't Jewish don't. And Joseph Buloff translated, 77:00with Luba, "Death of a Salesman -- Der toyt fun der voyazher," into Yiddish, and it was just -- in 1952, when it was still a new play, and Miller saw it, and "Commentary Magazine" said he returned Arthur Miller's script to its Yiddish original. So just, again, these roots, this secret language, was there. It was the sauce, it was the depth, it was the struggle, it was the pain that people were trying to get into the English, and they were just -- either intentionally covering it up, or just wanting to assimilate, or to appeal to more people. And anti-Semitism, of course, plays a part in it, why the Jewish actors -- so many Jewish actors feel the need to change their names. So it's just a very controversial thing, or people who did make it on the other side wanted to just have their roots disappear. Because it was painful, and because so many people 78:00had suffered so tremendously because they spoke that language. [BREAK IN RECORDING] Well, not as much as there is now. That is really, excitingly, increased in the past twenty years. Well, there was the Folksbiene, and then there was Zypora Spaisman was the head of the Folksbiene when I came, and then she was deposed and started her own theater, called the Yiddish Public Theatre, so then there was two Yiddish companies going for a year or two, and then New Yiddish Rep came up, and of course the Klezmer music was really getting -- scene was really getting bigger and bigger. But, for instance, working on the Yiddish Book Center Fellowship, I'm translating four plays by Sholem Asch, and for me, I like to work in a theatrical context and need to hear things out loud, and so we did a reading in my living room of a Sholem Asch play in Yiddish, and I was able 79:00to call up twelve people that I wouldn't have been able to do that twenty years ago. They all did a very fine job. Some of them -- a lot of them were actors. Not all of them, though. And there was one guy who was a professor who was fantastic, and so, yeah. More people are learning Yiddish, are knowledgeable about Yiddish. There's less explaining that I have to do, that I can -- you know, to have an actor who can access the original text is -- or, I like to keep some -- sometimes I experiment with keeping some of the Yiddish phrases in my translations. To an actor who already speaks Yiddish, that just makes it so great. And for instance, when I translated my first translation of "God of Vengeance" into English, my model for how I wanted it to be was John Millington Synge's "The Playboy of the Western World." Now, he lived on the Aran Islands for several months, studying its people, to write that play, but at that time, 80:00nobody on the Aran Islands spoke English. So even though he wrote that play in English, and it became a famous play in 1906 in English, it was a translation. And within it, he put in Irish Gaelic words. And this caused riots to happen, 'cause they felt that this was sort of stage Irish, it was like a "shande far di goyim [embarrassment in front of the Gentiles]," you know, but in an Irish context. And so I wanted to do that with Sholem Asch. I wanted to leave in a layer of Yiddish, just to have a real connector. I wanted some of Sholem Asch's actual words to exist as we brought the play in translation. And also, it was -- the plays were written around the same time. "The Playboy of the Western World" was 1906, and Sholem Asch was 1907. 81:00
CW:So, what is your process in terms of translation?
CO:Well, I've -- translation is such a wonderful way to learn a language. Iwould encourage everybody to start translating, even if it's every word up at the dictionary. Start with a poem. That's what I did. I started translating Itzik Manger plays when I was in Israel, and I'd only been studying Yiddish for four or five months at that point. And for me, there's so much I want to translate, that I had to narrow it down. And I really feel a connection with the plays of Sholem Asch. I have translated a play by Dovid Pinski as well, and he has twenty-two published plays, and most of them haven't been translated, so it's my goal to translate all twenty-two. I've done three and working on four now. I loved the experience of reading it in Yiddish first. If you can -- I read it in Yiddish, of course, myself, but if you can get actors together to read the play, to waken up the script that hasn't been performed in eighty years, I would 82:00recommend that. And there's a group of Yiddish actors in -- well, in New York. You maybe have to come to New York. But maybe you can find some Yiddish actors. But even if it's just you, read it yourself. Read it out loud. Record it. That's what I do. That's what I would recommend, that other people do it too. And then, I translate it, and then I get some English-speaking actors together, and I get them to read it, and I listen to it, and then, Oh yes, and then you hear the false notes, and so I go back and do another translation. And then you get actors together again, and then ideally -- and this is my hope -- I really want to produce these four plays in English. And they're huge plays, they're like thirty characters. In one, there's like, ten of them have to be musicians. So, it'd have to be a big community experience. Then, while you're rehearsing, you're doing it, you still notice some other things. So when -- the translation of "God of Vengeance" wasn't finished until the run was over. And then we 83:00self-published it, and put it on Amazon. But then the script was really woken up, and then I felt that Asch's play was best represented. What I love about theater is the communal experience of it, and the actors bring so much to it, and the director brings so much to it. The audience brings so much to it. Aaron had an amazing experience when he directed "God of Vengeance" in Yiddish. We decided that -- it's a big tragedy at the end, so we had this wonderful actor, Shmuli, who was a cantor, and he sang the song of mourning at the end, and we always have super-religious people showing up. It's Sholem Asch, they're just -- 'cause he's this -- I mean, he's got the education, and he gets them right. He's just -- they sneak in, even at Show World, they were obviously Hasidic, and they had, like, a hoodie on, or something, to go undercover. Plenty. And so, there 84:00was somebody who was like, No, you can't sing that song at the end. Immediately emailed to the thing, because she's escaping, she's going to America, perhaps, she's living a new life, this is not her funeral. And Aaron was like, Oh, yeah, he's right. So it was a beautiful moment, but he cut it, because it's -- the audience gives so much. The feedback that you give. I mean, you don't listen to all of it, but sometimes people say incredibly interesting things. I love the people who come to see Sholem Asch. They are such interesting people. We would -- Aaron did a series of talkbacks, after each show, and we did one with all sorts of different people, some artists, some social, because the -- Sholem Asch's work is very much social justice-influenced and -inspired. And people just had such interesting things to say, and everybody would stay. Talkbacks can be rough-going, but when Sholem Asch is involved, they're always interesting. 85:00Just so much people want to say. And he asks the most difficult questions, and he doesn't answer them. He just opens them up for discussion. That's why I like him so much.
CW:Practically speaking, could you give an example, or explain how you keeptraces of Yiddish in your English translations?
CO:Sure. I don't know how it's going now, with these plays that I'm working now.I'm doing less of that, but maybe that'll change. I don't know. But if there is a word that's repeated, like a phrase that's repeated, I might do it once in English and once in Yiddish, or, for instance, in "God of Vengeance," the scribe, the holy scribe, I had him speak all his lines in Yiddish, and then the -- whatever, the sort of rabbi character would then translate for him. And then, the more religious characters would have more Hebrew words or Yiddish words 86:00thrown in. There was -- the pimp character had some Russian slang. Sholem Asch is really good about creating individual dialects for each of his characters, especially with "God of Vengeance," so you really had a sense that people were coming from different countries and different -- you could almost hear -- I mean, it's "Pygmalion," right, it's Bernard Shaw -- you could hear their background and their education in their speech. And Sholem Asch was very, very attuned to that. And he had spent a year as a letter-writer. His education was writing letters for people. He was raised in a religious family, and then he read all the German books -- or the trans-- you know, in his village, and then he got kicked out of that library because the guy was getting in trouble for giving him to them. So he left, and he started making a living writing letters. So, he would go to dark and desperate places and write for desperate Jewish prostitutes, write their letters. And they're very much -- you can see that, in the language that he writes for these women. And that also -- when you hear 87:00modern Jewish speech today -- Sarah Benor does a lot with this, again -- you know, "I was staying at my friend's house by Shabbos," you know, just -- or, "we went to the chupah." Even in New York English, you've got words like "schmear," and "chutzpah," and so, recognizing the influence of Yiddish on English is part of it. So just really playing with that. There's a great dictionary out there of Yeshivish. There's -- the Dovid Pinski play I tried to translate into Yeshivish, in a Modern Orthodox context. And that was fun, so these -- sometimes if you listen to -- I met a great friend of mine at BU who had gone to Kaminetz Yeshiva, and -- sometimes if you listen -- when I first started listening to him talk to his friends, and, I mean, they were speaking English supposedly, but I didn't quite understand everything, and I loved that. And you see it in Irish culture, too. People will say certain words in Irish as they are -- and of 88:00course, Irish influenced American English too, with all the Irish-speaking immigrants who came after the Famine, or during the Famine. So that really interests me, just how the languages are separate and apart, and how they mush together, and so whenever -- I make up words sometimes, for -- in "God of Vengeance," instead of saying, "It was raining," we said, "It was regn-ing." The Yiddish word for "regn" is "rain." Things like that. Just, if it works in the character's mouth, you know, we all have our own individual way of speaking. It's amazing that any of us understand each other, because we all have different associations with every word. There's endless miscommunications, and accidental triggerings. So I try to bake that into that language, too.
CW:Well, are there any other mentors or people that you wanted to talk about89:00that have had an influence on you?
CO:Yes. I have to say, I had a wonderful friend called Esta Salzman, and she wasin a lot of -- you can see her in Yiddish movies. She did a lot of Joseph Seiden films. And she would perform a lot with Molly Picon, she would put -- play the second role, and she was just -- when she died, her -- I wrote her obit for "The Forward," and the headline they picked was "Little Miss Sparkle," 'cause there was the -- when she performed in Chicago, at the opera house there, they called her -- in the '30s, they called her "Little Miss Sparkle." She just, even in her nineties -- I knew her in her nineties -- she just radiated this incredible zest for living, and for life, and I lived with her for a couple of months, when I was between apartments. She lived in Penn South, and she let me stay in her second bedroom. And she was -- she loved to go see the theater. She didn't have too much interest for the history of the Yiddish theater. She didn't save any of 90:00her archives, even though she supported her family that way, and she was married to another Yiddish actor, who eventually -- they were divorced. And she felt that theater was -- even though she still loved to go to plays, that it was just a really hard life. She remembers that she had a nanny, of course, when she had a child, 'cause she was always on the stage, not having enough money to buy her little son milk one time. She was paying the nanny, and her husband was sick, and she was paying a nurse, and it was just -- and she -- her father had started as a stagehand in the Yiddish theater, and volunteered her when they needed a kid. She was in a movie that I don't think exists, from like 1920, early '20s, called "Salome of the Tenements." She performed with Jenny Goldstein, who was the soap opera queen of the Yiddish theater. Really dynamic actress. Seymour said she would always -- she was much older than Seymour, and she was always putting the moves on him. She just, a zest for life. And she ended her career 91:00starring in a Tennessee Williams play. She was one of the few actresses born in America, and started as a child actress. And Esta was born in America, too, so she played the child roles in Jenny Goldstein plays, and things like that. And she would always go to the Yiddish theatrical -- there's an incredible cemetery in Queens, where so many of these people are buried, that's just -- you can almost feel them hovering over their graves. It's a pretty special place to be, and she would go there and visit them. Seymour also introduced me to Max Eisen, who was a publicist, a Broadway publicist. He had this building -- this office in the Sardi's building, and it was full of old placards from shows that he had done in the '40s and '50s, and he still wrote on a typewriter. And he typed up everything. I even worked for him for six months, after he did the publicity for "God of Vengeance." And he was always shouting at people. He just terrified 92:00people into showing up to things. And it was a strategy that worked. And he did a lot of publicity for the last shows of the Yiddish theater in the '70s, in the '60s. I talked about how Yiddish musical theater and Yiddish literary theater have had kind of different strains within Yiddish theater, broadly. But at the end, in the '70s, at the end of the golden days, so many people had died. The only composer left alive was Sholom Secunda, and he was penning music from his hospital bed for a production of Sholem Aleichem's "Hard to Be a Jew," and I loved this play, because -- many reasons. But once, when walking up the stairs to the Yiddish Book Center, Neil Zagorin or somebody else had put signs up to encourage us, 'cause it's like five flights of factory building steps, and one of them was, "Shver tsu zayn a yid" -- so, this was, "Hard to Be a Jew." This was one of the things that we learned, one of the first phrases we learned in 93:00Yiddish. I thought that was very funny, and I knew that it was based on the Sholem Aleichem play, and so Joseph Buloff, the great star of the Yiddish literary theater, and Miriam Kressyn, who had done work with Schwartz, but was primarily a prima donna, they starred together. And that was not something that would have happened thirty years ago. The musical, and the -- they wouldn't have necessarily mixed. So, to me, this was -- it was in 1974, this was the last hit show on Second Avenue that was in Yiddish. And of course, Second Avenue, as we know, is the Broadway, the theater district of the Yiddish theater. And it was a beautiful production. I didn't see it, of course, but everybody who saw it that I knew -- Seymour said it was great, and Luba said it was great. Everybody of talent was brought together. Everybody who was remaining. And there were many people who were remaining and did a beautiful production.
CW:I know that you've performed both in English and Yiddish, of course. What is94:00it like for you to perform in Yiddish?
CO:Performing in Yiddish was a revelation. It was so thrilling to -- I mean, Ithought I knew "God of Vengeance" really well. And I thought -- in fact, we did -- there was two versions of it. The first one, I played Hindl, which was the same role I played in English, and I thought that I would just play it like the way I did it in English. But it turned out not to be like that. The character was different, because the character spoke a different language. And well, it deepened my understanding of Yiddish, and it deepened -- it was just such a pleasure. It was -- theater is ritual, and I love ritual. One of the things I do before I translate is, I light a candle and I bring Sholem Asch into the room, and I ask to honor his work, and the work of the Yiddish theater. I ask, I intend that the work that I do just honors the tradition that I'm translating 95:00from. And that's definitely because of the theatrical influence, and so in terms of a ritual, performing in Yiddish, in terms of having the Yiddish theater, having the ghosts of the Yiddish theater whisper in your ear, that's pretty powerful. And just the history of the language, and the honoring of the language -- what Yiddish and Irish have in common is genocide, and people being killed for speaking that language. My great-grandfather was a hedge teacher in Irish, because it was illegal to speak Irish. He was John McCormick's Irish language teacher, the tenor who -- Seymour would sing some of John McCormick's songs in Yiddish, and they were almost contemporaries, or kind of contemporaries. And the Famine in Ireland, in the 1860s, wiped out a million Irish speakers, a million 96:00emigrated to New York, and of course, their children didn't speak Irish. And then, it became illegal to speak Irish in Ireland. With, sometimes, death sentences. So, people buried it. People in rural areas, or in the Aran Islands, they could -- no one was going to go out there anyway, so they had a little privacy. So, when -- the best way to conquer a people is to take away their language. It is something that is so -- or, the most evil way to conquer a people. It is something that is so in-- part of our personalities, and our birthright, and who we are, and how we express ourselves. To make it a crime, or to make it a death sentence to speak your language, is to take your power away. And that happened with the Irish language, and that happened with the Yiddish 97:00language. And things are shifting. Of course, things are shifting, because people are on safer ground now. But it's completely understandable why Irish-speaking immigrants and Yiddish-speaking immigrants to this country were afraid to speak their languages, or didn't want to speak their languages, because the penalty for doing so was so steep, and they certainly didn't want their children to have that legacy. So, to have the opportunity to honor a language that survived a mass genocide is a very sacred and transformative experience. It was very humbling to perform in Yiddish, actually. It was very humbling. It was -- I think language picks up its experience in this. It 98:00transforms through the experiences of the people. It takes in its history. There's a translator I'm reading, "Translation as Transhumance," and the author of that writes about how German is forever changed because of its participation in -- or its creation of the Holocaust. The language is different now. Its history is in its language. So what Yiddish had been through, since perhaps the last time "God of Vengeance" was performed in Yiddish, or one of the last times, was just so brutal. It had been through World War I and World War II. And so the honoring of those actors -- and not only the actors, but the people that the actors were representing. I felt those people in the room. And it was a healing 99:00experience for them, and for me, and it -- it was a sacred act. All art -- I think all art is a sacred act. But when you can do something in its original, and not in translation, you are accessing a power of a people and of a -- the genius of a people, and the legacy and the history of a people, that just radiates at a higher decibel level. So it was this tremendous thing that I'm grateful for New Yiddish Rep and David Mandelbaum for inviting me to do. Really, really, really grateful for it.
CW:I just have one more question, but is there anything that you want to be sureto include that we haven't touched on?
CO:(looking off camera) I don't know, anything you can think of, Aaron?100:00
CO:Oh -- well --
AB:I'm going to feed the meter.
CO:Okay. You know, let's talk a little bit about "The Dybbuk." That was one ofthe plays, the role of Leah, who I studied with Luba, and Luba played it. It's a bride who's -- she was betrothed to someone as a child, and things don't go that way, and her father tries to arrange a marriage with a more suitable match, and so her original match kind of delves into Kabbalah, and eventually dies, and then possesses her on her wedding night. And there's this scene in the graveyard where she talks about -- she asks her grandmother, "What happens to a life? What happens when someone dies far der tsayt -- before it's their time." "Vi kumt ahin zayn nisht derlebt lebn, zayne freyd un zayne leyd un zayne tife gedanken 101:00-- What happens to the joy and the life and the undone failings of someone who dies before their time? Where do they go?" And one of the reasons why this is such an incredible play, and kind of symbolizes much of the Yiddish theater, is because it honors, as literature does before its time, a culture of artists who died before their time. At least three hundred members of Yiddish Actors' Union in Europe died, and of course, so many -- that's only known, it wasn't the people who were going to become artists, or going to become actors. And it's the honoring of all of this unlived, or creative expression, or unread -- even the 102:00things that managed to get through, right, just a small portion of a small portion of a small portion -- that I think is all in the air. It's around. And when you are asking me about what it was like to perform in Yiddish, it was reawakening all of those. Where did they go? Where did they go? Oh, they're here. And doing creative work in response to a cultural, an actual genocide, is, I think, a tremendously powerful thing to do. And it offers healing for the people now, and for the people before, and for the people to come. And -- yeah. 103:00
CW:Well, I am -- I like to always close by asking if you have an eytse, if youhave advice, for people curious about Yiddish, Yiddish theater, coming into this world?
CO:Yes. Well, there's so much available in translation, and translation is awonderful thing. And you can read it in translation and enjoy it in translation and know that it's part of the American artistic tradition. And it's part of -- if you're from Poland, it's part of the Polish artistic tradition as well. But don't be afraid to dive into the language, and to learn the alphabet. You're just an alphabet away. It's just one little code away, of being able to open things up, 'cause it's a Germanic language, it's not -- it's similar, you'll notice resonances from just knowing English. And not to be afraid to start 104:00translating, to look at poetry, to look at novels, to do your research. You can do a lot of research now, without speaking Yiddish, and if you get further enough, you're going to want to speak Yiddish, at least learning the alphabet so that when you go to the archives -- there's so many underutilized archives relating to the Yiddish theater, there's so many. There's thousands, thousands of plays written in America, in New York City, that have never been translated or read. So if you are somebody who wants to do original work on American theater history, there's so many options available to you. And just pick something. Pick one person, or one author, that really speaks to you, or one actor that you want -- there's so many incredible actors' archives -- that you want to research, or honor. In particular, if you're a young Jewish playwright -- but if you're a young American playwright, I think Yiddish theater is 105:00American theater, and it belongs to the history of the American theater, and everyone interested in the history of the American theater. There is so much there to inspire you. Just look at "Indecent," you know, and how that went on Broadway and became such a hit, and that just, really, that's just the tiniest fleck of dust on the fingernail of the depth of what's available for artists to learn and uncover about Yiddish theater.
CW:Great. Well, a hartsikn dank [thank you very much].
CO:Oh, anytime. Nishto far vos [You're welcome].
CW:It's great to speak with you, thanks for giving this time and perspective.
CO:Yeah! It was my pleasure. [BREAK IN RECORDING] Well, I just wanted to expressmy tremendous gratitude to the Yiddish Book Center, and to all the people who work there. It was -- they were the first people to take my interest in Yiddish seriously, and to recognize I had a deep artistic interest and affinity for 106:00Yiddish, and for Yiddish culture, and if it hadn't been for them, I wouldn't have learned Yiddish. I wouldn't have been able to take Yiddish classes at The Hebrew University in Jerusalem. I wouldn't have met Ruth Wisse and have been able to take her Yiddish theater class. I wouldn't have met Luba Kadison or Seymour Rexite. So, it really -- the Yiddish Book Center, and Aaron, and Neil Zagorin, and everybody who works there had such a positive and joyful impact on my career as an artist, for which I'm tremendously grateful. So, thank you.
[END OF INTERVIEW]