We Need a Little Yiddish, Right This Very Minute

As a smash hit, all-Yiddish "Fiddler" preps to move Off-Broadway, the American theater's most unlikely CEO seizes a new tradition.

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"Matchmaker" from NYTF's "Fiddler on the Roof": Raquel Nobile, Rosie Jo Neddy, Rachel Zatcoff, Stephanie Lynne Mason, Samantha Hahn. Photo: Victor Nechay / ProperPix.

The massacre perpetrated by a white American anti-Semite terrorist at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue last month will remain seared in hearts and minds for years to come. The same with the horrific murder of nine members of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC, in June 2015, perpetrated by another white American terrorist. There are various theories as to why such deep, sick hatred exists in this country. But what many people agree upon, sadly, is that these reprehensible attacks on those considered by some to be “other” will continue, given the divisive nationalist rhetoric our Commander-in-Chief regularly spews. What solutions do we have to get the ideals of the world’s greatest democracy — a nation founded by immigrants and for all immigrants — back on track? Can the arts play a meaningful role in bringing different cultures, races and religions together toward a more peaceful future? The CEO of National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene (NYTF), Chris Massimine, believes the arts are the way to find commonality.

At 32, Massimine is one of the youngest CEOs in the theater industry. A Roman Catholic, he’s the unlikeliest of top dogs at the longest continuously producing Yiddish theater company in the world. We’re at a critical moment in this country, so let’s savor the irony. We can see, every day, civility and human decency unraveling. As NYTF reaches for broader audiences and works to bridge divides, its current, tremendous success with an all-Yiddish revival of Fiddler on the Roof is setting an example for arts groups nationwide.

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During my communications with Massimine, I inquired about next steps for Fiddler, which is directed by the legendary Joel Grey and features veteran actor Steven Skybell in the central role of Tevye and fan-favorite Jackie Hoffman as Yente. Since opening in July at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, it has extended four times. When I inquired, there was clearly excitement in the air — but Massimine would not betray what was in store. Then, last week, via Michael Riedel in the New York Post, suddenly the kats is out of the zekl: Fiddler will transfer to an Off-Broadway, commercial run next January. It’s good news, of course. It underscores the idea that NYTF can be an essential antidote for our social and political climate.

This interview is edited for clarity and style.

Robin Rothstein What is your background, and what first inspired you to choose a career in the performing arts?

Chris Massimine: I knew I’d be working in this business from the moment I walked into a theater. I was five, the show was Oliver at the New Jersey State Theatre, and I fell immediately and boundlessly in love. In the months following, I took the path of a child actor and soon found myself on the “big stage.” As I transitioned into my teen years, I learned the basic ropes of arts administration in internships at local theaters. By age 18, before heading off to college, I matriculated into a producer.

I presented The Rocky Horror Picture Show at the Brook Arts Center, a regional theater in Boundbrook, NJ…[t]he show was a fundraiser for my high school’s senior class. I entered a world of performance licensing agreements, production contracts and theater operators. With a lot of planning, and a little bit of luck, I earned my stripes and ended up with a sold-out run. During my first semester of college, I shifted from what would’ve been a future in genetics and biochemical engineering to what, I suppose, was my destiny. A life on stage. Or, rather, behind it.

RR: You’re a founding board member of the Immigrant Arts Coalition. How does this organization function, and what has it accomplished thus far? How is it approaching the hostile climate toward immigrants and immigration policies?

CM: It’s a membership support network comprised of over 50 multicultural, multidisciplinary arts institutions, individual artists, civic leaders, attorneys and affiliate organizations like entertainment unions, the NYC Mayor’s Office of immigrant Affairs, and New York Foundation for the Arts. We’ve opened dialogues that have sparked action on important discriminatory issues, like cultural-misrepresentation in casting. We’ve created opportunities for collaborative projects, shared resources among members, helped immigrant artists attain work visas, promoted cultural empowerment with a speaker-bureau series, and held annual summits advocating for diversity and fair representation of all cultures.

Today’s growing hostility towards immigrants and immigration policies largely comes from ignorance and misinformation. Our approach is a response of positive positioning. It’s our duty at the Coalition to help inform those who are uninformed, to provide metrics to educate those who misrepresent facts, to support immigrant artists who feel unsupported, and to promote to positive and favorable effects immigrant art forms have on the country.

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RR: You’re a non-Jew who is CEO of the longest continuously producing Yiddish theater company in the world. How did that unusual shidduch come about? 

CM: I’ve been with NYTF for almost six-and-a-half years. For the first four years I served as Marketing Director, then General Manager, then Chief Operating Officer. It took three colleagues then working with the organization to convince me to meet with the then-Executive Director. None had actually told me what the organization was, other than an Off-Broadway theater company in desperate need of a marketing consultant. In previous years I had developed a lucrative career in marketing and advertising. It was a diversion from my work in theater, to which I had no intention of returning. Of course, no matter which road you take, destiny has its means of ensuring that you find your way home. When I discovered I was in conversation with this Yiddish theater, I recalled that when I changed degree trajectories from science to art, the first thing I learned about the American theater was the Yiddish theater. The rest is history.

Our team has enacted strategies that have yielded tremendously diversified and expanded audiences; developed and augmented relationships with the Broadway community; increased funding and proven financial stability while more than doubling our operating budget; and partnered with our longstanding artistic director, Zalmen Mlotek, to present first-rate performances and events.

RR: Does the Immigrant Arts Coalition tie to your role at NYTF?

CM: NYTF was America’s first theater of social change: “Folksbiene” translates to “People’s Stage.” It’s the sole survivor of the country’s original Yiddish theaters. It was the voice of a diaspora; its language was a connector of countries; its content was a conduit from one generation to the next. Its art represents the precursor to Broadway and is stitched into the fabric of our nation’s history. I’ve become a champion of NYTF’s 104-year-old legacy and its many traditions.

RR: What was NYTF’s “brand” before you arrived? Why did it need to change — or did it?

CM: NYTF primarily served an audience of Yiddish speakers rooted in nostalgia. Despite excellent productions, typical houses were at less-than-half capacity and the company was running a deficit. The mission statement was unclear to funders; the marketing did not employ metrics; the mainstream media — aside from New York Times reviews — gave the company little to no visibility; and the productions were severely under-budgeted. If a brand change did not happen, the company could not have sustained. Although English super-titles had been accompanying performances, it was not enough. We had to look beyond the Yiddish repertoire, while still maintaining it as a focal point. We had to understand not just who our audiences were, but who they could be, where they were, and how they were spending their time.

Today, we still serve an audience of Yiddish linguists. Our primary demographics, however, reside in English speakers who take an interest in our unique programming. What I learned about Yiddish, through experiencing it, is you do not need to know what’s being said to understand what’s being said. Yiddish is such an expressive language. Nine out of ten times you’ll know exactly what is going on in the play without needing to read the super-titles. We now also present work in English, Russian and other languages, so long as it relates thematically to Jewish culture and identity.

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RR: How will NYTF bridge cultural divides in a world of rising hate crimes? 

CM: The story of the Jews in America, reflected in its literature, is the story of running away from persecution to find a peaceful existence, only to find prejudice in their new home. Sadly, it is also the story of so many other ethnic groups in America. The music and the accent might be different, but we have all felt cultural adversity as the “other” and felt the same pain. Through music, art and theater to tell the story, we transcend the language barrier and help find commonality. NYTF makes an effort to reach out to multicultural audiences through our programming, to connect our stories. A great example of this is our annual MLK Jr. Day concert, Soul to Soul, which parallels experiences of Black and Jewish populations during the Civil Rights era and their paths to America’s promise of freedom — overcoming segregation, prejudice and economic hardship.

RR: How did NYTF’s partnership with the Museum of Jewish Heritage come about?

CM: NYTF had been itinerant for over a century. While the company has always had performing spaces, it never had one to officially call home. In early fall 2014, our leadership met with the museum’s leadership. In years prior, our two institutions had partnered on programs, with NYTF always bringing crowds to the museum’s 350-seat theater. Our institutions worked for almost a year to define the terms of a trial merger. Then they took it to a vote. Our solid partnership today is the result.

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RR: Given how frequently Fiddler is performed (including recently on Broadway), what prompted the decision to produce this Fiddler now?

CM: In 2014, NYTF hosted the official 50th anniversary of Fiddler with a Broadway concert. We complied the largest gathering of Fiddler alumni — from casts of the original Broadway production to the film to subsequent Broadway incarnations and national tours. Following the event, Zalmen and I had our first conversation of what it could mean to present Fiddler in Yiddish. After all, the source material was Sholem Aleichem’s Tevye stories. It turned out that a Yiddish translation existed — it was presented in Israel in 1965 and a cast album was made. But the translator died many years ago, and we had no luck finding his next of kin. Until one glorious day when Zalmen came into my office — he’d just learned that one of our patrons had a direct connection to the daughter of the translator. The Yiddish Fiddler had never been presented in the US, and we were determined to give it the life and due it fully deserved.

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RR: Eleven Jews were recently murdered at Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh by a gunman who says he was motivated by HIAS, the nonprofit organization founded in 1881 to assist Jews fleeing pogroms in Russia and Eastern Europe — like the people fleeing Anatevka. In light of this, how does this Fiddler resonate with current audiences?

CM: The show’s depictions of anti-Semitic violence — the pogrom at the end of Act I; and Act II’s conclusion, with the Jewish villagers’ displacement — are especially devastating now. But in resilience, hope maintains. Fiddler is much more universal than today’s headlines. Its themes innately resonate: parents struggling with children who won’t follow their beliefs; the “otherness” of immigrants; fight or flight survival; love and its infinitude. Fiddler will always be timeless, as will its guiding message of strength in community. Anatevka was just a place: it’s the villagers that gave it life. It’s the people that brought that life and Anatevka’s traditions to other corners of the planet after it was emptied…

RR: How do you define leadership?

CM: This past year more employees than ever have overturned bosses, gone on strike, and jumped ship. A leader can no longer issue an edict and expect, or demand, that it be done. And good riddance to that! Today’s leader must cultivate talent and empower direct reports to motivate their teams; a leader must make the time for groups to enact plans, yet retain a reasonable level of flexibility; a leader must go forward knowing there are things the leader doesn’t know and must seek in education; a leader must lead with not just facts and figures of metrics and experience, but with empathy.

Like many leaders, I can struggle, but my heart is in the right place. I remind myself that I can’t please everyone all the time. As long as you’re thinking about the overall success of the people who comprise your organization and create an environment where everyone is a winner, you’ve done a great job.

When everyone’s on top, the world becomes open to wonderful new and inspired possibilities. We’ve been doing it at NYTF, although, while we have made excellent progress, we’re not fully there yet. But, every day, we get a little closer. And I get a little wiser every time I close my mouth and listen to those around me.