Aug 01, 2017
As the audience filed into the lovely little theater at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, a fellow Yiddish student turned to me and whispered, “Is this a sing-along?” The question was reasonable enough. It was the weekend of July 9, and I was chaperoning a weekend trip of eighteen summer students from the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst to New York City, a journey that took three buses and two transfers in order to provide the students with lived experiences of the Yiddish language and culture. The off-Broadway musical Amerike – The Golden Land seemed to promise just that, advertising an “authentic” Yiddish performance with some popular period pieces to boot. Which is how I found myself walking past the Elie Wiesel quotes at the museum’s entrance into the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene, located at the tip of Battery Park, the Statue of Liberty just a symbolic boat ride away.
By the end of the play it became clear that the show was a sing-along. But more than simply encouraging the audience to tap their feet along with classic Yiddish songs, the show projected (quite literally, given the use of super-titles) the linear notes to what we might call, “The Greatest Hits of Ashkenazi-Jewish History.” Written in 1984 and revised (and revised yet again) by Moishe Rosenfeld and Zalmen Mlotek, Amerike – The Golden Land is the second Yiddish production hosted by the museum, directed by Bryna Wasserman and starring a talented cast of actors and musicians. This skillfully produced show attempts to tackle seventy years of New York Jewish history (~1880 – 1950) in ninety minutes, leaving about a minute and a half per year, or two to three songs per historical turning point. These historical turning points were included in the playbill as categories such as “Arrival,” “Citizenship,” and “The Depression,” with the few accompanying songs listed underneath. Guided by the well-rehearsed Yiddish of the twelve-person cast, we took a quick tour through “Jews at Ellis Island,” “Jews in Sweatshops,” “Jews unionizing,” “Yiddish culture” and wrapped up with “Jews immigrating after WWII.”
At the show’s start, I had relatively high hopes for how those ninety minutes would go. An impassioned émigré (wonderfully portrayed by Alexandra Frohlinger) begs us not to “have hearts of stone” while hopeful immigrants are turned away from the country’s gates. When the scene ended with a father and child separated by arbitrary immigration policies, I thought the show might indeed straddle that seemingly impossible space between musical pageantry and responsible representation of history. But then the play arrived at the so-called “Citizenship” scene. A gigantic projection of the American flag hung over the stage and the chorus began to sing a song titled “Lebn Zol Kolombus (Long Live Columbus),” followed by praise for the “the home of the free” in “Gebentsht iz Amerike (Blessed Be America)” and “hurrahs” for Uncles sam in “Amerike Hurrah for Onkle Sem (America, Hooray for Uncle Sam).” This succession of victorious nationalistic ballads—presented as though the previous scenes almost didn’t happen, or at least ought to be forgotten—were quick to do away with any of those aforementioned high hopes.
While the original script was commissioned by the Workmen’s Circle in the 1980’s to celebrate the Forverts’ eighty-fifth anniversary, the rewritten version was advertised as having to do with more than Jewish immigrants, and more than the twentieth century–evidenced by the “Immigration Arts Summit” planned in conjunction with the show (taking place on July 17th and 18th). The summit features a wide range of amazing artists and activists, with the expressed goal of producing a “timely” understanding of what the NYTF chief executive, Christopher Massimine calls “common immigrant identity.” Which is what makes the “Citizenship,” scene—specifically the request that “Jews…cry out “Long live Columbus!”—so jarring. Though certainly a classic, one can’t help but wonder why “Lebn Zol Kolombus” wasn’t revised in the play’s latest round of edits. (Couldn’t we get the message that Jews loved and idealized America without toasting the colonists responsible for indigenous genocide?) However, the play functions largely to remind audiences—with a wink and a nudge—of the stories their grandparents or parents might have told them, assuming that the audience will be comprised of mostly elderly Ashkenazi Jews. And if the July 9th audience was any proof, this assumption was mostly correct —in the packed theater, many people around us were speaking Russian and Yiddish, and our group of students were some of the only younger audience members at the show.
The songs and jokes included seemed targeted towards audience members who would recognize themselves, their cultural references, or their family members on stage. In the first few moments of the play we’ve already heard the classic Shawn Ferguson joke, in which a Russian Jew at Ellis Island exclaims “Shoyn Fargesn!” when asked for his name. As someone who was partly the target audience for this joke (a non-elderly, Ashkenazi Jew), I felt the old combination of amusement and disappointment, the joy of familiarity combined with the dead-end feeling of having a history of complex cultural assimilation reduced to punchlines of previous generations. Reductive punchlines aside, this sort of cheesy parade past familiar signposts should still be enjoyable even for a younger audience, except for the fact that the schmaltz was practically flavorless: jokes took themselves too seriously, acting as plot, or ways to tell over the historical narrative, rather than turning towards the audience with a playful, exaggerated wink.
The few genuinely wonderful moments of the play highlight what was missing from the rest of it. The best songs took place during the “Early Yiddish Theatre” period and the “Yiddish radio” section, fantastically performed by Daniel Kahn and David Perlman as vaudeville actors and WEVD hosts. Toting tattered suits and canes, Kahn and Perlman danced around the stage in a delightful rendition of “Steam, Steam, Steam,” provoking plenty of laughter from the audience–most of whom were clearly familiar with the reference. Joined by Glenn Seven Allen, the three performed the WEVD opening song and segue into a popular Yiddish monologue about the weather. Dani Marcus, Stephanie Lynne Mason, and Alexandra Frohlinger filled in with very funny recipe instructions and ads for Manischewitz and Gluckstern’s catering. Here the actors get literally schmaltzy, telling us how to make grivelach (crispy fried chicken skins with onions), loudly instructing that “there’s no such thing as too much garlic!” Between recipe directions, Kahn got everyone laughing again as he simulated cooking noises using tin foil, cutlery, and other props. During these scenes the actors achieved what the rest of the play lacked: a tolerable amount of nostalgia for a certain period of Jewish life, funny overdone memories of Yiddish in New York, smooth transitions from one point in history to another, and a perfect cocktail of American sensibilities informing Jewishness and vice versa.
With a talented cast, an excellent klezmer band, great costumes, and beloved songs, it’s tricky to pinpoint exactly where the play went wrong. (Was it that almost shockingly hasty transition from the brief “Holocaust scene” to a blithely joyous “Romania, Romania”?) Though at times American accents slip through, the Yiddish is without mistakes, and the Yiddish-English fusion is believable and well done. The characters ask each other if they “hot shoyn gecalled,” and insist that they “hobn getried.” Daniel Kahn is most enjoyable to watch, with the best Yiddish of the bunch and some of the better songs. Especially poignant is Kahn’s rendition of “Motl Der Opereyter,” by Chaim Tauber, one of the few numbers that could be truly billed as still relevant to today. As Kahn sings about a picketer killed in the line, the early twentieth century briefly comes to life, only to disappear again when the rest of the cast marches out with a banner reading “justice” and an uninspiring song about the union.
If we were to try and understand why the play missed the mark, the various songs buttressing the title’s claim (“Amerike – The Golden Land”!) provide a clue. If the show’s thesis is an attempt to understand how America could be a home to the displaced and a hostile environment at the same time, its conclusion seems to be that the “home to the displaced” side of America greatly outweighs the “hostile environment” part. And while songs praising the red, white and blue probably do reflect the attitudes of many Jews in the twentieth century; the fact that these are, for the most part, so uncritically presented makes the play (called a “love letter to America” by the New York Times in 2012) appear quite tone deaf in the larger context of 2017. That the show was revived with the intention of speaking to the current events of 2017, specifically the immigration politics in the United States, is all the more embarrassing. At best, “Amerike – The Golden Land,” is a light, breezy run through the hits of Yiddish history, encouraging the audience to sing along with its predictable version of Jewish immigration and subsequent integration into American life. At worst it is a naïve retrospective of a Jewish immigration story presented as a universal immigration story, one that attempts to connect with what the playbill calls “themes of today” but instead comes across as Yiddish in form, nationalist in content.
Admittedly, a scene highlighting the quotas on Jews in universities and other forms of American anti-Semitism works to complicate these “Hurrah for Uncle Sam” choruses. In this scene, “Blessed is America” is played in between the characters’ criticisms of the United States, as if to say that the hope Jews felt for the country was later contradicted by the poverty and anti-Semitism they experienced there. However, such weak jabs barely register and do little to complicate the play’s message of simple nationalism, especially towards the end, when we see New York Jews lamenting America’s refusal to open its borders to European Jews both before and during the events of WWII. But suddenly, the plot shifts yet again, and we find ourselves back where we started at the beginning of the play: at Ellis Island, welcoming European refugees. The pain of the previous scene, and the history it depicts (namely America’s passive role during the Holocaust) doesn’t prevent the show from bursting into yet another patriotic ballad in its final moments, this time the song version of Emma Lazarus’ famous 1883 poem, “Give me your tired, your poor.” The song is projected over the stage in many languages, scrolling in Chinese, French, Spanish, Yiddish, etc., over the singers’ faces. This final, triumphant scene is slightly reminiscent of the 2014 Coca-Cola commercial where “America the Beautiful” is sung in different languages. It was only the fabulous klezmer solo at the curtain’s close, performed by the exceptional Katsumi Ferguson, Jordan Hirsch, Dmitry Ishenko, and Daniel Linden that redeemed the otherwise saccharine ending.
As I rode the bus back to Amherst that evening, I found myself wondering whether or not the Yiddish students in my charge experienced “living” Yiddish with this play. True, it is always nice to hear the language you love performed on a beautiful stage in Manhattan. True, it is lovely hearing classic Yiddish songs arranged by very capable hands and sung with capable voices. And yet, I couldn’t help feeling that the students–and the gifted cast, musicians, producers, and directors involved in this play–deserved so much better. There is a knee-jerk reaction to be grateful for anything performed in Yiddish, as if the very act of including the language makes the show something of merit. This pressure comes from parties on both sides of the “Yiddish is dead!” debate: those who feel pessimistic about the language expect those who are optimistic to cluster around any type of Yiddish cultural production with heaping praise and appreciation. Those who are optimistic feel as though they have little choice other than to seriously engage with cultural productions they would otherwise ignore. Because of these (and other) pressures, it seems wrong and unfair to criticize anyone who takes the time and the risk to use the Yiddish language as a major part of their art. But it’s hard to feel like this production took many risks by performing the hits of Ashkenazi Jewish history in Yiddish. Rather than using a Yiddish imbued with life and energy to create something new and beautiful, a play like Amerike – The Golden Land, which expects us to be grateful simply for the presence of Yiddish, does a disservice to the language, culture, and history that students, educators, Yiddishists, and elderly Ashkenazi Jews love.
Yiddish theatergoers deserve to experience a complex version of Ashkenazi history, even in a schmaltzy musical with more period pieces than plot. But if we have to give up a complex version of history (or any history at all), then we should at least get a greasy, unpretentious ninety minutes of over-the-top fun that wants to entertain. In its struggle to provide both of these experiences, Amerike – The Golden Land delivers neither. A part of me wondered why the play was even performed in Yiddish. I sensed a strange contradiction between what felt like a finished story of American Jews and their process of Americanization, and the choice to perform the play in Yiddish. There was an eerie irony to watching a show celebrate America using a language and culture that America did precisely the opposite of celebrate. Amerike – The Golden Land is devoted to the country that was instrumental in the assimilation of the very culture and language it purports to engage with. And of everyone in that theater, the Yiddish love letter to America unfolding on the stage seemed least aware of the irony there.
Amerike – The Golden Land runs at the Museum of Jewish Heritage through August 20.