Sunday, June 15, 2008

Cultural Archaeology

The first time Michael Tilson Thomas presented The Thomashefskys: Music and Memories of a Life in the Yiddish Theater at Davies Symphony Hall (with a little help from the San Francisco Symphony), my wife and I waited too long to get tickets and then discovered that they were no longer available. This time we ordered our tickets at the beginning of the season; and, even then, it was pretty clear that the demand was already high. It is a curious piece of work; but then Yiddish theater (not to mention the Yiddish language) is, itself, a curious piece of work. According to the program notes, Yiddish theater can be traced back to Jassy (in Romania), where the first productions were offered in 1876 by Abraham Goldfaden, now called the "Father of Yiddish Theater." The practice followed the Jews who migrated across the Atlantic Ocean and took a firm root in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. For the most part it did not extend particularly far beyond that New York base; but it attracted a sufficiently large audience that calling it a "niche market" might be unduly pejorative. When I was a kid in Brooklyn, there were still signs of Yiddish Theater activity, although the only one I recall was my parents going to a Yiddish performance of The Pirates of Penzance. As was the case with more classic sources (such as Shakespeare), this was not simply a matter of translating Gilbert's text into Yiddish but of modifying that text to "fit" the cultural interests of the audience. By the time I was in graduate school moonlighting as a dance critic, the Anderson Theater, on Second Avenue, had ceased to be a major venue for Yiddish Theater and had become a showcase for avant-garde theater. My first visit to the Anderson was also my first exposure to the work of Robert Wilson, The King of Spain. During the time I was teaching in Israel, there seemed to be an itinerant Yiddish troupe that attracted almost no attention. Today we know Yiddish Theater best in terms of those it influenced, Fannie Brice probably being the best example. As a result of The Thomashefskys, we now see its influence on MTT.

As I said, the Yiddish language is also a curious piece of work. While Leo Rosten makes it clear at the very beginning of his Preface that The Joys of Yiddish is not a book about Yiddish, he still gives a bit of historical background, most of which is captured in a single sentence:

Around the tenth century, Jews from what is now northern France, who spoke Old French and, of course, Hebrew, migrated to towns along the Rhine, where they began to use the local German dialect.

Thus, one way to describe Yiddish is as a transmogrification of a German dialect under the influence of Hebrew written in the letters of the Hebrew alphabet from right to left (as Hebrew is written). This would be enough to keep the linguists occupied for some time; but, as Rosten demonstrates, Yiddish is as much about the spirit in which the language is spoken as it is about the syntax and semantics of the text. I say "spirit," rather than "rhetoric," because I am talking less about a tradition of rules and conventions and more about the whole cloth of a cultural context. For example Rosten cited Isaac Bashevis Singer's observation "that Yiddish may be the only language on earth that has never been spoken by men in power." During the two years I lived in Israel, I encountered almost no Yiddish. If you did not speak Hebrew, you could usually get by with some combination of English, French, and German. (The Russians were just beginning to arrive when I was there.) To a great extent Yiddish has had a far greater impact on the English we speak in the United States (such as in William Safire's Political Dictionary, whose latest edition recently appeared) than it has had in Israel. However, it is one thing to use Yiddish as a potent spice to add to English text (as I continue to enjoy doing) and quite another to suss out that underlying cultural context.

This brings us to The Thomashefskys. On the surface this is basically MTT showing us a family album about his grandparents, Boris and Bessie Thomashefsky, who were the giants of New York Yiddish Theater when it was at the height of its popularity. This has been realized through a script that was written by MTT and staged by Patricia Birch. The extensive use of projected images makes that "family album" experience more literal than metaphorical; but one usually does not peruse a family album with enhancements by a small theater orchestra and four singing-and-dancing performers. If Rosten did not write his book to tell us about Yiddish, MTT did not conceive of The Thomashefskys to tell us about Yiddish Theater so much as to give us a taste of what it meant to experience Yiddish Theater. This turns out to be quite a challenge.

The crux of that challenge lies in the extent to which Yiddish-the-language is so tightly wrapped up in Yiddish-the-cultural-context. I suspect that MTT would appreciate the above comment that speaking (or singing) Yiddish has more to do with "spirit" than with syntax and semantics; but, out of all the performers in the cast (including MTT himself as narrator), only Judy Blazer came close to capturing that spirit and embodying it as much in her stage presence as in her singing and readings from Bessie's texts. Why I reacted this way is hard to explain. So little of that spirit has been well captured in either sound or visual recordings; and the reason I invoked the name of Fannie Brice (not to be confused by Barbara Streisand's meshuggener attempts to portray Brice) is because the few film clips we have of her come closer to that spirit than just about any other documented performance (with the possible exception of the film clip of Boris Thomashefsky himself shown as part of The Thomashefskys). There is a rising interest in klezmer music, which is part of the Yiddish spirit; but that interest is usually far too academic to resonate with much authenticity. The same can be said of Uri Caine's rather odd attempts to tease out a Yiddish spirit in the compositions of Gustav Mahler. At the risk of invoking a cliché that I prefer to avoid, I suspect that the closest recent encounter I have had with that spirit has been through its reinvention by Frank London and Greg Wall in their group Hasidic New Wave, probably because, as is the case with Yiddish itself, the performance matters more than what is actually being performed.

However, whatever "weakness of spirit" there may have been in the performances, I feel that MTT put this "family album experience" to good use. Ultimately, this is less a story of Boris and Bessie than it is about how they (particularly Bessie) shaped this Jewish boy who would grow up to assist Leonard Bernstein and eventually direct two orchestras, one on each side of the United States (not to mention many other major visiting commitments). This may seem like egotism, but what story is not fundamentally a reflection of the storyteller? Eventually, the narrative all comes down to a narrative about making strudel (far more wholesome than any of those political metaphors that have occupied me recently) and a joke that says everything about how you prepare to make strudel and nothing about the making itself. MTT's point is that there is not much difference between his standing on the podium before the San Francisco Symphony and his grandmother standing in the kitchen tying on a fresh apron while facing a table full of strudel ingredients. Understanding this point is yet another step (and, I would say, a rather important one) on the path to being a better listener.

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