My grandparents spoke Yiddish, especially when they didn’t want their children to understand what they were saying. My dad speaks some, though his German is better, and I know the same handful of words that a gentile might learn after five years of living in New York City. There’s no question the language has been disappearing more and more with each successive generation, and that the droves of Jews who would dodge Friday services to attend the Yiddish theater are no longer to be seen on Second Avenue.
This is a problem that is being directly addressed by the New Yiddish Rep, a bold, if possibly quixotic, group dedicated both to reviving and recreating Yiddish theater. Right now they are producing Seltzer Nights, a cabaret that is running for one Saturday a month until June. “You bring the average age down to sixty-seven,” David Mandelbaum, the emcee, joked when he spotted me walking into the theater. Though we had never met before, this sort of interaction was typical of Seltzer Nights, or of what it is trying to achieve: an interactive and occasionally hostile relationship with its audience, who are encouraged to vocalize complaints. Before the show begins, silent films of old Jewish tenement houses and marketplaces are projected onto two screens and cups of egg cream are poured—in fact, Mr. Mandelbaum walks down the aisles to make sure everyone has partaken, sort of like a grandmother who guilts you into seconds.
Now, there is nothing particularly foreign about Yiddish cabaret (or vaudeville), whose successors include the Marx Brothers in the ‘thirties, Abbott and Costello in the ‘forties, Mel Brooks in the ‘seventies, and, of course, Larry David today. In Seltzer Nights, for a rather delightful one hundred minutes, Mr. Mandelbaum—whose put-upon demeanor and whose desire to play “serious” Yiddish roles recalls Jack Benny in To Be or Not to Be—hosts a variety of singers, comics, and magicians. Much is made of male impotence and old men having sex with younger women (“These days we would probably call it pedophilia, back then it was just called love!”). Daniella Rabbani sings a song about a fan, or “fokher” in Yiddish. Amy Coleman and Ilan Kwittken relish in a particularly maudlin rendering of “My Man.” The entire show is bookended by “Oy Vey Tzu Mir,” in which cast and audience sing together about how life is hard when it’s hard, but even harder when it’s soft. Here, girls are “goils” and verses are “voises.”
When E.M. Forster, one of the greatest writers of Edwardian England, was asked why he stopped writing novels, he said he no longer had a place to put his people. Perhaps the greatest success of Seltzer Nights—beyond its value as pure entertainment, which is a success in and of itself—is that Mr. Mandelbaum and his co-conceivers Shane Baker, Frank London, and Beck Lee have accomplished the unlikely task of finding a place for their people.