Sholem Aleichem and Isaac Leib (I.L.) Peretz died almost a century ago, but the works of the two giants of Yiddish literature live on in film and on stage.
Last month saw the release of the documentary film “Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness,” and this week the play “The Stories of Isaac Leib Peretz” will debut in Los Angeles.
The two writers lived at the same time and were born in shtetls, both under czarist rule, Sholem Aleichem (1859-1916) in the Ukraine, and Peretz (1852-1915) in Poland.
Matt Chait, producer-actor of the play, was first attracted to Peretz by the author’s worldview.
Peretz, who was a lawyer and also wrote extensively in Hebrew, “was a passionate fighter for social justice — which earned him a prison term — and women’s rights,” Chait commented in an interview. “Though not Orthodox, he was fascinated by the Chasidic mystic experiences. The more I learned about him, the more I fell in love.”
As the title indicates, the play, opening Sept. 10 at the Ruby Theatre in Hollywood, consists of seven Peretz stories, performed in English and “vaguely connected by a sense of caring,” both divine and human, Chait said.
Chait adapted the stories for the stage and, as an actor, he switches roles, from narrator to Peretz himself, and sometimes as two separate characters engaged in conversation.
The themes of the stories are both specifically Jewish and universal and include the tale of a doubter who learns the true meaning of righteousness from a mystical yet pragmatic holy man and of a town inhabited by the walking dead.
Other stories include a magician concealing his secret identity at a special time of the year; an orphan boy begging at a soup kitchen, who elevates the life of a stranger; the secret longings of Jewish housewives; why the Jewish people are not vengeful; and the most modest man in the world and his reward in the world to come.
Setting the musical mood will be violinist Lior Kaminetsky, featured in concerts in his native Israel, as well as in Europe, Africa and the United States, including New York’s Lincoln Center.
A one-time Angeleno who served as the Yeshiva University of Los Angeles high school’s music director, Kaminetsky also writes about his visits to small Jewish communities around the world.
Chait, 67, was born in the Bronx, but spent much of his childhood with his Yiddish-speaking grandparents in Scranton, which at the time was akin to a shtetl transplanted to Pennsylvania, he recalled.
He caught the acting bug while studying at Cornell University and went on to play roles as pompous burghers and sensitive young men at the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York, then headed to California to teach at UCLA and the American Academy of Dramatic Arts West as well as give private lessons.
In 1990, he bought the old Richmond-Shepard Studio in Hollywood and transformed it into the Complex, with five small theaters, six rehearsal studios and offices.
Chait first linked up with Peretz some 20 years ago when Rabbi Harvey Fields of Wilshire Boulevard Temple asked Chait to stage some plays for the congregation.
Because Chait’s wife was pregnant, he didn’t want to commit to erratic rehearsal hours and instead proposed putting on a one-man play, with himself as the actor.
The very next day, Chait caught a PBS report on a book edited by Harvard Yiddish professor Ruth Wisse, titled “The I.L. Peretz Reader.” He bought the book, found the stories admirable and presented them in dramatized form to the Wilshire congregation.
He returned to the same book not long ago, and found new stories to use, which inspired the current project.
Of his craft, Chait observes, “I have always loved acting and always hated being an actor — waiting for the phone to ring, depending on the decisions of other people, and so forth.”
The reward lies in getting his teeth into a role with the intensity of this one-man play. “I’m going to put the people — including myself — through the wringer,” he promised.
“The Stories of Isaac Leib Peretz” runs Sept. 10 through Oct. 9 at the Ruby Theatre at the Complex, 6476 Santa Monica Blvd. in Hollywood. Performances are Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday evenings, with Sunday matinees. $15-$20. For more information and reservations, call (323) 960-7780 or visit www.Plays411.com/peretz.