As a son of Mickey Katz, the great comedian and klezmer clarinetist, I grew up with a somewhat complicated relationship to Yiddish. It was, for our family, both a joy and a problem. My dad was struggling to support a family of four when he had the idea to create a comedy record — a popular American classic, but with Yiddish lyrics so that “Home on the Range” became “Haim afen Range.” Then came “Borscht Riders in the Sky,” “How Much Is That Pickle in the Window?” and his biggest hit, “Duvid Crockett.”
Dad was suddenly a household name, especially among Jewish households.
But the backlash was swift. Though anti-Semitism was rampant and fierce, it wasn’t the anti-Semites who ultimately forced some radio stations across the country to stop playing his records. There was a concern among some Jews that maybe his comedy was reinforcing the same kind of stereotypes here in the US that dogged Jews across Europe for generations.
When my dad asked a radio program director why he wouldn’t play his records, he responded, “I will not play anything with Yiddish in it. Yiddish is the language of the ghetto.”
Speaking Yiddish meant, to many, that you were not being a “real American.” For first-generation Jews here in the 1940s and ’50s, it seemed as though one’s very survival relied on being a “real American.” So Yiddish became a language solely to be spoken in the privacy of one’s home. Then it slowly started to disappear.
Last year, I was invited to direct the first US production of “Fiddler on the Roof” in Yiddish — with English subtitles — for the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene. Some primal part of me responded eagerly to the challenge of tackling this icon in the “mother tongue” that I had never actually learned.
We opened in July, 33 years after my father’s death and four months before the FBI released its report citing a 17 percent spike in hate crimes nationwide, from 2016 to 2017 — a period that saw a 37 percent increase in crimes specifically against Jewish Americans. We are, alas, living through another scourge of violent bigotry. Our very survival is, once again, at stake.
On Saturday, the 27th of this past October, hours after a gunman entered the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh and murdered 11 Jews in cold blood, our company of actors assembled at the theater inside the Museum of Jewish Heritage in lower Manhattan for our evening show, which we dedicated to the victims of that shooting. I stood in the back of the house and watched as the crowd filed in, somewhat jittery and thankful for the museum’s metal detectors.
Shortly after the opening number, it became clear by the reaction of the audience — wildly diverse in age, race and, one would imagine, religion — that every moment of the show had taken on a heightened reality in the shadow of the day’s news. This 54-year-old cultural touchstone — perhaps the most beloved in Broadway history — found itself in a direct and urgent dialogue with a grief-stricken, 21st century America.
How utterly surprising, at least to Mickey Katz’s boy, that this dialogue could be taking place in our long-languishing “language of the ghetto.”
I don’t speak Yiddish. Neither do most of our cast or audience members. But true humanity knows no language barrier.
Joel Grey, the Tony and Academy Award-winning star of “Cabaret,” directed “Fiddler on the Roof” — in Yiddish — which opened Thursday night at off-Broadway’s Stage 42.
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