February 15, 2007
Yiddish curtain rises at the University of Judaism
In a showbiz career that has spanned nearly six decades, Israeli American actor Mike Burstyn has played everyone from Al Jolson and Tevye to Nathan Detroit and P.T. Barnum.
But for the one-time child actor who grew up in the Yiddish theater with actor parents Pesach Burstein and Lillian Lux, nothing compares to performing "On Second Avenue."
The title conjures up the heyday of the theater during the first half of the 20th century, when a dozen Yiddish stages dotted the storied avenue on the Lower East Side of New York. After earning two Drama Desk nominations in 2005, the off-Broadway revival of "On Second Avenue" starring Burstyn will begin a one-week run at the University of Judaism's Gindi Auditorium, starting Feb. 20.
A production of Folksbiene Yiddish Theater, one of the oldest troupes in the country, "On Second Avenue" goes back farther than the past century to the origins of Yiddish theater in "a cellar in Romania" in the 1870s. The revue combines music, comedy and reminiscence to recreate the entire history of the Yiddish theater.
However, Burstyn does not think of it as a show.
"It's a homecoming. It's a love letter," he said, adding that it's a chance to honor not only the theater that nourished him but also his parents.
Near the end of the performance, Burstyn plays a video of his father singing a rendition of one of his famous songs, after which Burstyn sings the same tune. The homage is all the more poignant since Burstyn's mother died last year.
Burstyn cites Yiddishkayt Los Angeles and the Milken Archive of American Jewish Music for keeping the mama loshen, or mother tongue, alive in Southern California. It's part of a renaissance around the world that includes Yiddish clubs in Florida condominiums and Sephardic students in Israeli public schools signing up for Yiddish classes.
Still, Burstyn does not pretend that a show performed entirely in Yiddish would work in this country. "On Second Avenue" features narration in English, songs in Yiddish and supertitles in English above the proscenium. That such packaging has worked all these centuries for opera suggests that Yiddish could have a future with American audiences.
"On Second Avenue" runs Feb. 20-25 at the Gindi Auditorium at the University of Judaism. For information and tickets, call (877) 733-7529.