A Yiddish ‘Godot’: New Yiddish Rep takes on Beckett
Wed, 09/11/2013
Special to the Jewish Week
Nicholas Jenkins, left, Shane Baker and David Mandelbaum in a scene from New Yiddish Rep’s “Waiting for Godot.” Ronald Glassman
Nicholas Jenkins, left, Shane Baker and David Mandelbaum in a scene from New Yiddish Rep’s “Waiting for Godot.” Ronald Glassman

When a Yiddish production of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” ran on the Lower East Side a century ago, it was shamelessly promoted as “ibergezetst un farbessert” — translated from, and improved upon, the language of the Bard. Now, long after the decline of Yiddish as a living language outside the chasidic world, a Yiddish version of Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” will have its debut in New York. The New Yiddish Rep production, which opens just a month before the much-touted Broadway revival, begins previews on Sept. 20 in Hell’s Kitchen.

Directed by Moshe Yassur with a translation by Yiddish scholar and magician Shane Baker, the drama, originally written in French as “En Attendant Godot,” has been translated into 20 languages, including Hebrew, but never before into Yiddish. The production will feature the New Yiddish Rep’s artistic director, David Mandelbaum, along with French actor Rafael Goldwaser, singer/comedian Avi Hoffman, and Baker.

In an interview, Baker told The Jewish Week that it was an early-20th-century Marxist Zionist intellectual, Ber Borochov, who first called not just for important Yiddish texts to be translated into major world languages, but for the canon of world literature to be translated into Yiddish. With “Godot” now in the mameloshen, joining Barry Goldstein’s recent Yiddish translation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit,” Borochov’s dream is finally coming true.

While some lines of dialogue were easy to translate into Yiddish, translating others felt like “reaching over your head and scratching your right ear with your left hand,” Baker said. But the work of translation reinforced, for Baker, the play’s Jewish resonances. For example, he discerns implicit Holocaust references throughout the play, including in its bleak, wasteland setting that the characters describe as a “charnel house” — a house of bones.

Translating the play also helped Shane to attune himself to the play’s existential comedy. While critics have often noted similarities between the characters in the play and the silent film comedians Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, Baker compares them instead to Shimon Dzigan and Yisroel Schumacher, the great Polish Jewish vaudeville duo who mined comedy from poverty and war during both the Nazi and Stalinist periods.

Yassur directed I.B. Singer’s “Gimpel Tam” (Gimpel the Fool) at the Folksbiene in 2008. The world in which “Waiting for Godot” was written, he said, was not unlike our own — a world still waiting to be redeemed, a world in which tragedy happens every day, and no end seems to be in sight. “Who is more used to waiting than the Jews?” he asked pointedly. “We’ve been waiting for 2,000 years for the Messiah.” Waiting, he said, “implies hope.”

“Waiting for Godot” begins previews on Sept. 20 for a Sept. 22 opening, and runs through Oct. 13 at the Castillo Theatre, 543 W. 42nd St. For tickets, $35 (students and seniors $10), call the box office at (212) 941-1234 or visit www.newyiddishrep.org.