Who’s That Goy Speaking Yiddish?

Shane Baker's muse -- from the crown of his keppie to the ends of his kishkes.

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Allen Lewis Rickman, Yelena Shmulenson and Shane Baker in "Tevye Served Raw." Photo: Jonathan Smith.

I literally LOL-d when I read the bio for actor Shane Baker in the press release for Tevye Served Raw, an evening of stories by Sholem Aleichem that have been adapted for the stage. None of that hokey where-I-went-to-school, and-then-I-played stuff for this guy. Baker has both chutzpah and sechel:

Shane Baker is the best-loved Episcopalian on the Yiddish stage today.

Vus iz dus? What kind of goy goes “oy”? Well, this one:

And this goy, moreover, is well known for his work with New Yiddish Rep: Off-Broadway, Baker has twice played Vladimir in his own Yiddish translation of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, a production (now titled Vartn af Godot) that toured Northern Ireland and Paris. The New York Times declared his Godot translation “even more depressing than Beckett’s original,” so wonder of wonders, miracle of miracles, it has to be true: Yiddish is Baker’s muse — from the crown of his keppie to the ends of his kishkes. (Don’t get excited: I only speak a bissel Yiddish.)

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Together with Allen Lewis Rickman and Yelena Shmulenson, Baker now cuts several very colorful figures in Tevye Served Raw, a new Off-Broadway adaptation of Aleichem’s works, though the title character is surely familiar to anyone who ever yearned to be a rich man or marveled at the passing of time in a sunrise and a sunset. Yet while Tevye the Dairyman indeed inspired the musical Fiddler on the Roof (which, in a Yiddish translation, has also drawn major crowds this summer), there is more source material available beyond what was used by the creators of the 1964 musical. Thus, Tevye Served Raw not only surveys many of the stories of Aleichem that were omitted from Fiddler, it incorporates numerous other Aleichem tales that few theatergoers, goy or not goy, will know, from “Strange Jews on a Train” (yikes) and “A Stepmother Trash-Talk” (yikes!). And here’s the fascinating part: the actors are fluent in the language.

Directed by Rickman and featuring an original score by Alex Ryaboy, Tevye Served Raw is running at the Playroom Theater (151 W. 46th St.) through Oct. 3. For dramatic scenes, a supertitle translation is provided; for comic scenes, there is “rapid-fire interpolated English dialogue.” For tickets, click here.

And now, 5 questions that Shane Baker has never been asked:

What’s the most perceptive question anyone has asked you about your work?

“How do you make a living at this?”

What’s the most idiotic question anyone has asked you about your work?

“Why do you do this?”

What’s the weirdest question anyone has asked you about your work?

“Can I have your material?”

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If you could transport yourself to the shtetls that Sholem Aleichem knew, which aspects of life would you find the most surprising and the most familiar?

I’m not sure “surprising” is the right word, because I can’t anticipate a surprise, but I’d be very curious to see how the levels of religious observance worked, what people’s actual daily schedules were like, and I’d be curious about interaction among Jews and Gentiles.

The most familiar aspect would likely be Yiddish for me, but then that could well be a surprise. Speakers of modern secular Yiddish aren’t often very well prepared to speak with modern-day Hassidim. How well would I be prepared to speak with the people who spoke the language I’m purportedly speaking today? Sholem Aleichem was a master of the language, yet he apparently felt that it was slipping through his hands like sand, for a great part of his achievement was capturing the language as he had heard it and knew it, yet felt was disappearing. So we get to hear Yiddish as he heard it directly from his stressed-out stepmother, from failed businessmen on the streets of Odessa, from traveling salesmen on the trains of Czarist Russia, and from small-time tradesmen in the sticks. His Yiddish covers a broad spectrum of life, and it’s not immediately easy to understand for almost anyone in the Yiddish world today. My own Yiddish is impoverished in comparison.

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All actors have brands, but “the best-loved Episcopalian on the Yiddish stage today” is certainly unusual. When did you know you had a kinship with Yiddish? As a goy — and in a political moment of heightened sensitivity about identity — do you worry that you’ll be accused (unfairly, obviously) of cultural appropriation?

That phrase is just a way to get a little laugh and break tension when I’m being introduced, usually for comedic performances. Early on, one of my mentors encouraged me not even to mention the fact that I’m a Gentile, as it disrespects Yiddish in a way. Does an American of German or Irish descent have to mention that when studying French? Is Yiddish any less a subject of serious study than French?

Why would accusations of cultural appropriation be “obviously” unfair? I am always questioning what I’m doing and wonder at what point I’m crossing certain boundaries, whether it’s performing a comic song in English with Yiddish dialect or portraying a character in a serious drama. And I know there are other actors out there, born Yiddish speakers, who might feel that they should have the roles or gigs that I’m getting — just as I sometimes feel I should have roles or gigs that they’re getting! But that’s also partly the nature of working in a boutique field. I do feel I’ve put in my time learning about the language and the culture, although there’s so much more to learn.

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“Bonus” question:

You’ve had many articles written about you, and online videos of you prove your almost spiritual love for Yiddish, your ancestral goy-ity be damned. Can you name two aspects of Yiddish culture that you still feel like you’re learning to internalize, to make your own?

Two items? OK. First, I’ll go with the simple one: the Yiddish language — vocabulary and grammar, both — as a productive and creative means of expression.

Second, and more important, I could do with more of the Jewish sense of joie de vivre, which I would argue is dos pintele Yid, the irreducible spirit of Yidishkeyt, the drive to squeeze joy out of life, to fight to continue and to make life better, even under the most difficult and trying of circumstances. We get a good taste of that in the character of Menakhem-Mendl (whom we style “The Yiddish Sisyphus”), a kind of funhouse mirror representation of Sholem Aleichem himself; we also get that in Tevye, who loses his wife and a daughter and finally his home and his hometown, but still looks forward to his grandchildren and to seeing Sholem Aleichem again.