‘Tevye’ serves suitably ‘Raw’ homage to the greatest of Yiddish writers

L to R: Allen Lewis Rickman, Yelena Shmulenson and Shake Baker. “Tevye Served Raw” is at the Playroom Theater through Aug. 14. | Photo by Jonathan Smith

BY TRAV S.D. | In the middle of this year of grim golden anniversaries of assassinations, and riots and strife, it’s well to remember some positive things that were happening in 1968. For example, that year the original Broadway production of “Fiddler on the Roof” was two-thirds of the way through its record-setting, six-year run. Based on the Yiddish “Tevye the Dairyman” stories of Sholem Aleichem (Solomon Rabinovich, 1859-1916), “Fiddler” was not just an award-winning box office hit — it was a groundbreaking cultural event, the first mainstream pop cultural depiction of Eastern European Jewry as it existed before World War II.

It seems strange to imagine a time (and so recent a time) when theatrical producers actually worried that “Fiddler on the Roof” might be “too Jewish” for mainstream audiences. For some contemporary producers, apparently, it’s not Jewish enough! The National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene is presently showing an all-Yiddish version of the musical, translated from the English version by Shagra Friedman, and playing at the Museum of Jewish Heritage through Sept. 2. And the Congress for Jewish Culture is currently presenting a production called “Tevye Served Raw” at the Playroom Theater through Aug. 14.

“Tevye Served Raw” is the artistic brainchild of a trio: the husband-wife acting team of Allen Lewis Rickman and Yelena Shmulenson (best known as the Yiddish-speaking couple in the prologue to the Coen Brothers’ 2009 film “A Serious Man”) and Shane Baker, who styles himself “the best-loved Episcopalian on the Yiddish stage today.” All three act in the production, which consists of adaptations of Aleichem’s stories by Rickman and Baker, as well as some scenes from Aleichem’s own theatrical dramatization of the Tevye stories. Some portions of the show feature spoken English translation, others make use of supertitles. Rickman directed the show, which, in contrast with the current Folksbiene production, is a showcase for Aleichem’s original Yiddish voice.

“[The Public Theater’s] Joseph Papp called Yiddish the perfect language for the theatre,” Rickman said. “Our use of the word ‘raw’ in the title means ‘unprocessed.’ This is the organic, macrobiotic, sustainable version,” he joked. “Everyone in this production is a genuine Yiddish speaker. Yiddish is unbelievably expressive and musical and only someone who really speaks it can tap into that.”

Though Baker is a gentile who hails from Kansas, Rickman singled him out for specific praise, saying, “Shane may be the most fluent Yiddish speaker I’ve ever heard. He speaks the most gorgeous, idiomatic Yiddish.” Rickman’s father was a native Yiddish speaker from Poland; Schulenson was born in Belarus and grew up in Ukraine.

L to R: Shane Baker, Allen Lewis Rickman and Yelena Shmulenson. | Photo by Jonathan Smith

The current production grew out of Baker’s appearances at Aleichem’s yahrzeit, annual bereavement ceremonies honoring the deceased in the Jewish tradition. Aleichem’s will requested readings of his stories at this ceremony each year. Baker had been brought in to interpret the tales several years in a row, and a theatre piece grew out of that experience, with a view to presenting something by 2016, the 100th anniversary of Aleichem’s death. Versions of the show have been presented in Australia, Canada, Israel, and Ukraine.

The pieces range from hilarious comedy to the depths of tragedy — or, as the ads promise, “You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll krechtz.” One special gem, called “A Stepmother’s Trash-Talk,” depicts the process by which Aleichem became a writer: He created an alphabet book based on his stepmother’s curses. Other sections, with titles like “Strange Jews on a Train” and “The Yiddish Sisyphus,” remind us why Sholem Aleichem was known as “the Jewish Mark Twain.”

But never far away are harsh realities.

“Aleichem and the people who wrote ‘Fiddler’ were writing for two entirely different audiences,” Rickman said. “The outlook of the shtetl is not the same as the outlook of a Long Island housewife. So Aleichem’s original stories got whitewashed when they made the musical. The ugliness and the horror of the pogroms got covered up. In real life, interfaith marriages were outlawed in Russia. A Jew would have to convert to Christianity. You weren’t allowed to convert to Judaism.”

So tears flow between belly laughs in this faithful homage to the greatest of Yiddish writers. And, while it’s not a musical, there is one lovely song, a lullaby sung by Schulenson, with lyrics by Aleichem. With very little imagination one can picture this bare-bones, but highly skilled production, touring on the back of a wagon from village to village across the Pale of Settlement. It’s not possible to be more authentic.

Sun., Mon. and Tues. at 7pm, through Aug. 14, at the Playroom Theater (151 W. 46th St., btw. Sixth & Seventh Aves.). For tickets ($38), visit TevyeServedRaw.com or call 800-838-3006.

Allen Lewis Rickman. | Photo by Jonathan Smith

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