Interview

Acting Like a Jewish Witch: An Interview with The Sorceress Star Mikhl Yashinsky

C. Tova Markenson

INTRODUCTION

Back in the pre-pan­dem­ic days of 2019, the Nation­al Yid­dish The­atre Folks­bi­ene restored one of the most pro­duced Yid­dish plays of all time, Avrom Goldfaden’s The Sor­cer­ess (1878). The play fea­tures a Jew­ish witch named Bobe Yakhne, who is tra­di­tion­al­ly played by a male actor in drag. Dur­ing lock­down this July, I inter­viewed Folks­bi­ene star Mikhl Yashin­sky who played the title role and whom you might also rec­og­nize from the off-Broad­way Yid­dish revival pro­duc­tion of Fid­dler on the Roof. We spoke about our shared fas­ci­na­tion with Jew­ish witch­es and how Yashin­sky came to ful­fill his dream of act­ing on the Yid­dish stage.

C. Tova Markenson: How did you find yourself in this role?

Mikhl Yashinsky: For parts of my life and career I’ve been directing or acting, but in this phase I was a researcher, teacher, and translator at the Yiddish Book Center. One weekend, a group of artists who were part of the Reboot program visited. They didn’t have much of a connection to Yiddish but were hoping to find out about Yiddish culture in Yiddish sources to inspire them in their artistic lives. A group of them were interested in connections between Yiddish and the occult. So I went to find sources on the occult, [including] an operetta called The Sorceress.

I didn’t know a lot about it other than the title character’s name, Bobe Yakhne, and that it was written by Goldfaden. In my research, I came across the news that the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene was having auditions for an upcoming production. I printed out the info about the Folksbiene audition thinking a few in the Reboot group were actors and they could go audition for it.

They thought it was hilarious that I was suggesting that they audition for this. It was beyond their wildest imaginations that they would do such a thing. But they wanted me to go and do it. For the rest of the week it became a running joke—they would pester Josh Lambert, the academic director at the Yiddish Book Center, and ask, “could Mikhl get some time off to go and audition?” Before then I hadn’t had it at all in my mind to do so—except for maybe in the very back of my mind.

But the more they said it, the more I thought I might as well. So I did indeed get a couple days off from the Book Center, took the Peter Pan bus down to New York, and tried out. I came in and was speaking Yiddish at the audition. The directors, Zalmen Mlotek and Motl Didner, and the casting director Jamibeth Margolis, were all wondering aloud: “Where have you come from? Why did we not know about you before, this young, singing, dancing, Yiddish-speaking actor?”

CTM: The role is traditionally played by a man in drag; did the directors envision casting a man in that role?

MY: The audition announcement said: “Typically played by a man.” Women also tried out for it. It was open to any gender, but I think they were hoping to cast a man because such is the hallowed tradition.

The first thing I saw at the Folksbiene was Di Goldene Kale, which convinced me that I needed to do Yiddish theater. Ever since I saw that production, if anyone asked me about my ultimate career goal or my greatest dream, I would tell them: to act on the Yiddish stage. I love to act. I also love Yiddish. I love the theatrical tradition of Yiddish. To actually put that into practice by performing in Yiddish in a professional production… to me that was the greatest dream.

CTM: Bobe Yakhne is a fascinating figure. Who is she to you?

MY: To me, she is an outsider who is not content with being pushed to the margins of society and has to do something with herself. I think of her as practicing an underground trade, magic, because she is an outcast, seeking out a solitary avenue that might be open to her.

Witches were sometimes women who were poor or orphaned, or just couldn’t fit into the mainstream of society and the accepted roles for women, so they had to pursue another way to make a living and find their way in the world.

I thought of her evil as her way of dealing with the world that had flung her aside. She is very focused on money, which is one of the least admirable aspects of her character. But to me, there’s a reason for it: She has to be an independent woman. Perhaps she wasn’t conventionally attractive or for some reason wasn’t able to attract a suitable match. That’s often how women had to support themselves—through a family and through a husband. If she didn’t have that, what could she do? We certainly never hear of any romantic partner for Bobe. [Witchcraft] was her way of striking out on her own and helping herself and certain women close to her, like her partner-in-crime and supposed niece Basye.

Unfortunately, this comes at the expense of other women like Mirele. Although Mirele was played with such goodness and sweetness by Stephanie Lynne Mason and Jazmin Gorsline in the two times I did the role, Mirele to me—to Bobe—is a daughter of the oppressive upper classes, the bourgeoisie, the society that had thrown Bobe Yakhne out. So Bobe is getting her comeuppance by plotting against that world of privilege.

The play opens on a very fashionable scene of a girl’s sixteenth birthday party, and she has every advantage in the world. She has a rich father. She has mountains of wrapped presents. She has a pretty pink dress—or at least she did in our production. Bobe doesn’t have any of that.

She wants to gain the upper hand or win a place that’s her own through taking down this far more privileged family that has, traditionally, more power in this society. Bobe ends up with more power, at least until the very end, when she gets her societally expected comeuppance. Goldfaden could only let her have her fun for so long.

But even then, when the witch burns in the fire, it is a fire she herself has set. There is a certain power in that. I asked to think up my own last line for her as she is consumed by the flame, with Motl’s collaboration, as she is not given one at that moment in the text, and the team wanted something for her there. It was my desire to give her something unrepentant, full of her signature bravado, allowing her to hold onto this fearsome strength and devilish flair and red-hot defiance even as she lets go of her life. Motl had wonderful Rachel Botchan as Basye asking her to save them with some kishef, some magic, and my Bobe cries, “Nishtu keyn kishef af der velt,” there is no magic that can save us in this world, “nor di fayern fin genehem af yener velt!” — for us there are only the fires of Hell in the world to come! She screams, and her face contorts in a mixture of pain and pleasure and pride, almost seeing and expecting and looking forward to the inferno, for she is fiery enough to contend with it.

Of course, she’s just plain evil, and she takes a great delight in being evil, and to me that was [also] important. She takes a special joy in taking down people she doesn’t think are worthy, and in showing her strength and demonstrating her intelligence; that’s where she gets her nakhes.

I don’t think I was the tallest man in the cast, but I was the tallest figure on stage because I was also wearing heels, and I liked that feeling—going about the stage being much higher than everyone else. I feel like Bobe would get off on that sort of thing. Sometimes her pleasure mixed with my own. I would take sincere enjoyment in the devious tricks I was getting to do as Bobe on stage.

CTM: What is the pleasure she gets out of being evil?

MY: I think it’s showing her cunning, her hardiness, her abilities, proving herself. “You think I’m terrible, you have no use for me? Well, vest shoyn zen vus di bobe yakhne ken!” You just wait and see what Bobe Yakhne is capable of! That’s a line that Goldfaden had for her in one scene that got left out of our revised version of the script. I asked if it could be reinstated for this reason, this sense of her playing upon and outdoing people’s expectations of her, this tremendous strength she has, and the pride she takes in it.

I think she enjoys plotting. She gets schadenfreude out of people’s lives being ruined, especially if they are people for whom she doesn’t have respect or who don’t respect her, or who she thinks may have wronged her in some way. Maybe [Mirele’s] family did Bobe Yakhne dirty before the events of the opera. Maybe they led to her having to occupy this position at the margins of society in some way. So she enjoys fighting against them.

CTM: In a meta-theatrical way, Bobe Yakhne is also directing the whole action of the play through her magic. Though she doesn’t believe in magic, other people believe in her power and seek her out.

MY: Yes. She has a special power of gaining people’s trust. She works on people’s minds. The reviewer for the New York Times said of my Bobe Yakhne that she is a “keen, if malevolent, psychologist,” which delighted me. It’s interesting that you say meta-theatrical because that itself is a bit meta-theatrical. When you’re an actor on stage, you’re also playing with people’s expectations, their sense of reality, and their imagination.

CTM: How do you think magic is working in relation to gender in the play?

MY: In some way, the business of a man playing a woman onstage recalls magic and sleight of hand in the sense of playing one thing and having people believe it’s that thing, but in fact being another. Not to say, of course, that a person wearing the clothes of another gender is always a case of trickery or deception, for so often it is plainly not. But in this case, the padded bodysuit, and the remarkable corset, and the drag makeup, and the throwing of the voice and the swaying walk which sometimes turned into a twerk, it was a kind of trompe l’oeil, a tricking of the eye, just like a good card trick might be.

I was always fascinated by people’s reactions to this play with gender, and how the audience saw me. I would come out into the lobby after the performance. Often people wouldn’t recognize me at all, but sometimes people would say, “Oh my! You’re the sorceress” and “I can’t believe you’re a man—this whole time I thought you were a woman,” although I’m there in the program with my name and my photo and my beard.

Such is the magic of theater. The audience forgets all of that and they are swept up in the performance. They would talk to me about whether or not they thought I was a man or a woman. And very often, most often, I’d say, they thought I was a woman throughout the show. Sometimes they would say outrageous things like “I thought you were a woman until you threw Mirele over your shoulder and carried her offstage, then I was sure you were a man,” or another one, “I didn’t know whether you were a man or a woman until you lifted your skirt and I thought, ‘No man has such nice legs as that!’” It amused me, how the performance worked on people’s minds and attitudes in that way, how some of them left it still confused, and why not! Gender is a fluid and complex thing.

It’s interesting playing on people’s stereotypes, playing on people’s expectations, overturning them or upholding them. Every person comes into it differently as an audience member, and experiences it in a different way, just as they might experience a magic show. And someone who knows the behind-the-scenes of magic tricks might perceive the mechanics of every trick and know how they’re doing it, while others might be fully swept up in the illusion, not perceiving the man behind the curtain, or in this case, the man behind the majestic foam bosom!

CTM: Who were your inspirations for this role?

MY: Chiefly my grandmother, my own bobe.

CTM: Oh, how lovely! What’s your grandmother’s name?

MY: Elizabeth Elkin Weiss was her name. She was an actress. She and my grandfather Rube Weiss, my maternal grandparents, were both career actors in Detroit. They did stage work, voiceover, early radio serials, and television.

She had passed away by the first time I did the part in 2017, but I was always thinking about her and her physicality and the way she would move her hips. She had this way of walking in a grocery store, where she would be leaning on the grocery cart with both her arms and walking with her posterior extended proudly behind her.

I thought of that often onstage. I did have the help of this huge bustle and bodysuit. But I brought them to life with a kinetic spirit, which was that of my Gramma Liz. I thought a lot about the way she moved and laughed and the audacious delight she took in living. Bobe Yakhne gets delight out of bringing people devastation and my grandmother got delight out of bringing people joy, but they were alike in this way, that both of them seized the bubbling cauldron of life with both hands — and were not afraid of being burned by it.

A final delight for our read­ers: Yashin­sky gen­er­ous­ly record­ed him­self per­form­ing Bobe Yakhne’s song from the GOSET (Moscow State Yid­dish The­ater) pro­duc­tion of Di kishef-makherin in the 1920s. The song was not includ­ed in the Folks­bi­ene pro­duc­tion because it was not in Gold­faden’s 1878 work; In geveb read­ers are in for a rare treat!

MLA STYLE
Markenson, C. Tova. “Acting Like a Jewish Witch: An Interview with The Sorceress Star Mikhl Yashinsky.” In geveb, October 2020: https://ingeveb.org/blog/acting-like-a-jewish-witch.
CHICAGO STYLE
Markenson, C. Tova. “Acting Like a Jewish Witch: An Interview with The Sorceress Star Mikhl Yashinsky.” In geveb (October 2020): Accessed Dec 01, 2020.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

C. Tova Markenson

C. Tova Markenson is a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Research on Antisemitism at Technische Universität Berlin.