Pedagogy

Labzik Assembled! Bringing Radical 1930s Yiddish Children’s Literature to the Virtual Stage

Cameron Bernstein

INTRODUCTION

In May 2021, I had the plea­sure of speak­ing with direc­tor Jake Krakovsky about his bilin­gual Yid­dish-Eng­lish pup­pet film Labzik: Tales of a Clever Pup”. The play was pre­sent­ed by The­ater Emory, a pro­fes­sion­al the­ater com­pa­ny in res­i­dence at Emory Uni­ver­si­ty. The show adapts a Yid­dish children’s book by Chaver Paver (Ger­shon Ein­binder, 1901 – 1964), of twelve rad­i­cal tales about a dog named Labzik who is adopt­ed into a work­ing-class Bronx fam­i­ly dur­ing the Great Depres­sion. This pro­duc­tion, mount­ed dur­ing the COVID-19 pan­dem­ic, com­bined Chaver Paver’s orig­i­nal Yid­dish text, recent Eng­lish trans­la­tion work by Dr. Miri­am Udel, with orig­i­nal music, art, and text cre­at­ed for the show. Pro­fes­sion­al and stu­dent actors gave voice to these twen­ti­eth-cen­tu­ry tales about top­ics still shock­ing­ly rel­e­vant today: Tales of protest, pover­ty, police bru­tal­i­ty, and even dis­ease. In addi­tion to serv­ing as direc­tor, Krakovsky adapt­ed these texts for the screen­play, and per­formed all the pup­petry ani­mat­ing these sto­ries. This inter­view, con­duct­ed at the time of the show’s first run, has been edit­ed and con­densed for clarity.

Cameron Bernstein: A show like yours required so many collaborators who created original art, directed, provided voice talents across languages, music, and original and translated text — the process of bringing all these artists to the project feels reminiscent of the Avengers coming together. Could you talk about how you decided on the first Avenger, the author Chaver Paver, and his story of Labzik, for the production?

Jake Krakovsky: To talk about “why Chaver Paver” actually necessitates telling the story of how Miriam and I became collaborators, and how she and I met. If it’s all right I’ll start with that?

CB: Please do.

JK: Miriam Udel and I met some years ago. We were both participants on a panel in 2014 at Theater Emory, the company that produced this project. They had me perform a scene from my play that I originally started for my college honors thesis, using the comic folklore of the Fools of Chelm as an entry point into Holocaust memory. My play tied well into some of the themes that Miriam focused on in her courseson Yiddish children’s literature. Over the years, she had me come perform readings of this play for her students.

The Labzik project really started when I attended a public series of seminars that she taught in the fall of 2019 as part of a fellowship related to her wonderful, wonderful, recently published book, Honey on the Page: a Treasury of Yiddish Children’s Literature. Her seminars were on the world of modern Yiddish children’s literature. I found it just mind-blowingly fascinating because I was educated in a pretty religious and mostly Ashkenazi setting, and never ever once had anyone told me that something like this existed.

I had always been so excited and held on to any little bits of Yiddish culture that were available to me, as evidenced by this other play I did with the Chelm stories, but I never knew that there was this entire universe of Yiddish culture and literature. Yiddish children’s literature was especially fascinating because I’ve never heard of another national literature in which so many of the great writers, people who were considered at the top of their craft in novels or theater… also wrote for children. I think it is extremely revealing of these writers’ priorities.

Over the course of these seminars taught by Professor Udel, I increasingly fell in love with the whole world of Yiddish and Yiddish children’s literature, and was eager to learn more. And to finally answer your question, two of the stories that we read in this seminar were from Labzik, pulled and translated from the original 12 stories in Chaver Paver’s 1935 publication.

We’re walking back to our cars in the parking lot one night after the seminar, and Miriam kind of like leans over to me with a little twinkle in her eye and she’s like “I could tell you were really excited by those Labzik stories,” and I was just gushing at how cool it was. She knew that I had been working professionally as a puppeteer for a number of years and she said “Wouldn’t they make a great puppet show?” in this manner of hers where her creative and intellectual energy seems infinite, always looking for another exciting combination of ideas, and I was like “Oh my gosh yes, absolutely this would be a great puppet show”, but then I very cynically tucked it away in the back of my head. his was before I had started to study Yiddish, and at the time I thought, “What a niche idea. Who’s gonna produce such a thing?” which was very silly of me because these things just happen when you make them happen.

Over the next few weeks Miriam and I kept up a correspondence and she started to really strongly encourage me to get more serious about Yiddish. I shrugged it off with an, “I don’t know, all these summer programs are just for college students, I’m too old for this”. I can’t remember the exact words but basically she said “Jake, it’s not for my sake or really your sake that I’m trying to get you into Yiddish.” She implied that she felt perhaps I had something to contribute to the field. I felt really encouraged by that and she wrote me a recommendation to participate in the Steiner Summer Yiddish Program, this seven week intensive last summer, remotely. And it totally changed my life.

CB: I totally feel that. I think people come to Yiddish learning for so many reasons and sometimes they do it to become educators to help others build a deeper connection with Yiddish. I personally started learning Yiddish my senior year of college, and then kept learning and really grew into Yiddish when I started a TikTok account to expose Yiddish language and culture to more folks that needed a key to open the door. I think what Miriam was pointing out is that through theater you could be that key to unlock Chaver Paver’s story and Yiddish for others.

JK: She saw some role for me to play that I had not yet seen for myself, which was gratifying and encouraging, and she was right of course. Immediately I was like, “Oh, I was meant to be studying this all along, and it’s crazy that it took until I was 29 for me to get serious about this thing that feels so natural.” I’ve studied a lot of languages and haven’t been very good at any of them, but Yiddish is really different. I think it’s because you have to really love it to actually learn a language once you’re this old… you were asking about Chaver Paver?

CB: Earlier when you were talking about children’s literature you mentioned that it’s in the era of twentieth-century national awakening when literature was first being created for children with a purpose in mind. What was Chaver Paver’s project when creating Labzik?

JK: Chaver Paver and his attitude towards writing for children has to be situated in his moment in 1935. Across the ideological spectrum people are reassessing their ideas about how to educate children, not just in a technical sense but in how to pass along moral, cultural, and political values to children. In the Yiddish world much of that conversation was happening through explicitly political organizations. New York at the time had a system of shules, Yiddish afterschool programs, that were run along ideological lines separated between the communists, the socialists, the Labor Zionists, and the Yiddishists.

Chaver Paver was a communist and he actually wrote children’s curricula for the Jewish section of the International Workers Order. One thing that marked his perspective in 1935 was, and I think this is really the answer to your question, that Chaver Paver with his political program felt that it was not enough to simply transmit values to children and then hope they might eventually put them into place as adults. Rather, children should be encouraged to be themselves political actors, ready to go and change the world. That perspective is reflected in his writing. Chaver Paver didn’t say, “Here’s a little parable about what’s wrong and what’s right, here is who controls the world, and here’s what the grown-ups might do to change it.” Instead, his stories give very explicit examples of how youths can take political action in their day-to-day life.

CB: I think I remember that, with the price of lunch story, where Labzik distributes flyers asking children to strike to demand free lunch. After Labzik gets caught, the children come together and strike for a free dog and free lunch.

JK: That’s actually the perfect example. In Labzik and the Pioneers, we see that Mulik, the son of the family that adopts Labzik, is a member of Di yunge pionern. Among the wide breadth of leftist youth organizations that existed in the interwar period, the real Young Pioneers most of all exemplified this idea that children themselves should be taking political action. There are all these incredible stories of a strike at a mine or at a textile mill where young children, members of the Pioneers, bring food and drink to the picketing workers and distribute radical literature to the children of scabs. The group organized strikes among children at public schools to demand free school lunches. The only exaggeration in Chaver Paver’s story is that a dog was helping distribute the propaganda, but otherwise it’s very accurate to what was happening at the time and an example he wanted his readers to emulate.

CB: I have been thinking a lot about what the role of younger people in activism should be today, especially since I’ve seen that role exponentially increase over the past couple of years, with young people involved in climate activism or gun regulation following Parkland. Perhaps I’m worried that these younger folks haven’t been prepared for how difficult activism really is, and they will become burnt out. But it seems that Chaver Paver creates a world where young activists have more support than perhaps the young people of this current generation.

JK: You know in his milieu the entire community was involved in political action and it’s a very collective thing, and it wasn’t maybe as atomized as we experience it these days.

CB: Perhaps we should turn to your artistic decisions for the show. You combined Chaver Paver’s Yiddish text for the dialogue with Miriam Udel’s English translation for the narration. There’s also a separate Chaver Paver meta-narration in accented Yinglish which is completely new. Can you talk about the goal of this bilingual format and why you didn’t choose one language?

JK: I knew it would be a fool’s errand to attempt to authentically recreate this material as it would have been experienced at the time. Any attempt to do so would still be colored by the retrospective lens. I thought: resist that urge to attempt “authenticity” through language because it is doomed from the start, and even the concept of authenticity is troubled. I felt we should take what could be seen as limitations of language as an opportunity to engage with the material on different levels.

I was thinking about the different folks who might be the audience for something like Labzik. People are going to come to it from very different places, like my father who can understand bits and pieces of the Yiddish that was spoken all of the time in his childhood home, but otherwise can’t speak it nor read Yiddish characters. There would be Yiddishists who would love for the entire thing to be in Yiddish. There would probably be enthusiasts of storytelling, puppetry, and children’s stories for whom this might be the first time they’re ever encountering something Yiddish. In part, the multilingual language format was a practical choice: to create multiple entry points for an audience.

But I also just think it’s an exciting opportunity to present this material, whose major political themes still feel urgent, by putting those different language elements into conversation with one another: We have the original Yiddish text, the English translation, and then Chaver Paver’s accented Yinglish.

CB: How did Chaver Paver get his distinctive Yinglish dialect?

JK: I’ll acknowledge the accent was kind of schmaltzy as it was actually me who voiced Chaver Paver doing it. The accent lives somewhere between accuracy and parody. Prior to an event with Yiddishkayt, Rob Adler Peckerar was asking me some initial questions like “Why all the Yinglish?”. I had to go “This was an intentional creative choice with very thorough intellectual backing”. Frankly, I hadn’t really thought about it that hard, but now I have so we can talk about it.

When writing Chaver Paver’s dialogue, his particular brand of Yinglish was inspired by my growing up with a paucity of access to Yiddish. The closest thing I had growing up was the Yiddish words and phrases that my teachers and rabbis would use. I was also obsessed with old Jewish comedy as a kid, like the 2000 Year Old Man shpiel on Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks radio tapes. There’s this variety of different influences that went into this Yinglish dialogue, some more ‘authentic’ and others exaggerated or fictionalized, and I hoped something interesting might come up if we let them all talk to and even contradict one another.

I also had a selfish reason for creating the purely Yiddish dialogue layer, which is that I was actively falling in love with the Yiddish language while working on this show. It felt like a personal priority to share that with people, especially folks who have never heard an entire story in Yiddish before. Also, Chaver Paver is just a wonderful writer across the board, but his dialogue is especially lively. It seemed a shame not to include that.

Additionally, because of the secular nature of the stories and his priorities, you could translate this stuff to English and a reader might have no clue that there was a Jewish element. It felt important to me to preserve that if only through the Yiddish language because I do think it is a really unique cultural artifact of a very specific type of diasporic Ashkenazi culture that is often forgotten, or at least not discussed in the mainstream.

CB: Oh definitely. Nowadays when we hear Yiddish, so many people tend to think of their grandparents today or “The Shtetl” of the past and there’s not much in between.

JK: Yes, Yiddish culture isn’t just Sholem Aleichem or our grandparents. I think a lot of people just don’t have a sense of how diverse the experiences of people who spoke Yiddish were and are, even just within the United States. I wanted to uplift and share that with people.

CB: I also just want to remark on how tickled pink I am by how Chaver Paver thrusts every single character into Yiddish dialogue, in moments like when the mayor of New York gives a speech in Yiddish, rather than transliterating English in Yiddish letters.

JK: Absolutely, there are these characters who obviously would not have actually been speaking Yiddish but they’re speaking Yiddish because the stories are being told in Yiddish. That’s really strange and exciting to me.

CB: Diving further into the topic of language, how did the film’s bilingual format play into the voicing of the show? Going back to the “assembling the Avengers” metaphor, you were able to bring in some of our contemporary Yiddish professional greats alongside student English narrators. How did all these individuals come together and add to the language texture of Labzik?

JK: One element is that Theater Emory is a unique institution, in that they are a professional union theater company in residence full-time on Emory University’s campus. Unlike many other university programs, they will cast student actors and hire professional performers in the same production. I had really wonderful experiences as a young 19 year old, getting to work with an actor I had seen on stage literally my whole life. When it works out, you can learn so much.

Because of that it was very important that we try to include students as much as possible. I had really hoped to have a team of student puppeteers who would perform the show but because of COVID that wasn’t possible. One thing that we landed on was the narrator role. Each story has its own student narrator, using text adapted from Miriam’s English translation. Narration has a very specific role in children’s literature, setting the tone to let you know that this is intended in part for children. I think this role was a very unique experience for the undergraduates, because we weren’t doing a deep dive on the motivation of characters. Rather, we created a musical and technical experience, learning how to use our voices to frame the action of the story.

As far as the Yiddish performers, it started with reaching out to folks that I knew, like my Yiddish teacher Asya Shulman who plays the teacher Miss Crane in the story. My friend Abby Weaver, an awesome young Yiddishist, plays some roles. But soon we realized just how many characters these stories had, and we would need more voice actors.

You know, you keep going back to this Avengers metaphor, and I would say that one of the defining factors of this experience is just how game and generous and enthusiastic people are in the Yiddish world. I cannot think of… there’s not a single time when I asked someone to be involved when they said no, which is crazy. That never happens with any kind of project. People say no all the time for good reasons, I say no to stuff all the time. But every single person who I asked to come play some music, sing a song, or perform some roles in Yiddish said yes, even someone like Shane Baker who is one of the most prominent folks in the Yiddish theater today. He plays the school principal and main antagonist in the last story.

Finding these actors came down to Miriam and me having these little sessions where we brainstormed who could be a dream person to work with, and me sitting and crafting and sending my emails. And then and over and over again, people just kept saying yes. That was thrilling! Perhaps some of it was also driven by a general enthusiasm for someone doing something new with this cultural material.

CB: I’m imagining myself as a Yiddishist who got to give voice to this show, and why it would have been such an exciting experience. For people that love the Yiddish theater, the only media we really had access to were these Zoom plays during the pandemic, which were important pieces of art and amazing accomplishments given the conditions, but I found the medium dissatisfying because it inherently reminded me of limitations imposed by the pandemic. But when I see your show I’m like, “the characters in a storybook have come to life and it was meant to be like this.” I know there’s a history of Yiddish radio, a medium that is built to be enjoyed remotely, but I’m not as familiar with Yiddish puppet theater. Is there a history here?

JK: It is very narrow, really with one company called Modicut.

CB: Did that history inform your production in any way?

JK: They were a big influence on us, if only philosophically. If you want to look more into them, Eddy Portnoy has written like half a dozen great articles. The company’s name “Modicut” comes from a portmanteau of the last names of the two members: Zuni Maud and Yosl Cutler. They’re these two totally zany genius artists doing modernist Yiddish work in the 20s and 30s, primarily in New York City. They met creating political cartoons for a left-wing satire paper called Der Groyser Kundes. In their physicality and demeanor they were total opposites, but something clicked with these two guys. They started working together, and one day a prominent director asked them to make some little hand puppets for a Yiddish theater piece. They thought it would be fun so they gave it a try.

After this whole process, the director changed his mind and cut the puppets from the show, thinking that the puppets were too small for the audience in the back to see.

Left with these puppets, Maud and Cutler decided to do their own little shows. It was as proletarian as puppet theater could possibly be. They were literally performing in a textile factory after hours; the audience could sit on the bench that sewing machine operators would use all day long, and all of the ephemera of labor was all around as they watched these puppet shows. It was very very grounded in the proletarian reality that their work was themed around -- they had a very left wing pro-labor focus and were satirizing their own Jewish community. They were satirizing the rabbis, American politicians, and the broader world… They became quite beloved and prominent and eventually toured throughout Eastern Europe with a stint in the Soviet Union.

The reason that they are maybe the only prominent Yiddish puppet theater we know of, is that if Jews in “Yiddishland” had ever seen a puppet show it was likely yet another expression of day-to-day antisemitism. The shows at the time in Europe were likely hand puppet shows based on broad caricatures and stereotypes, performed by a gentile in the town square, and odds are they would have a “Jew” puppet based on not very nice characterizations. Maud and Cutler thought, we can do puppetry too, we can do it better, and we can do it in a Jewish way. There are these quotations where people who saw these shows say “never before could I imagine a Jewish puppet show, but in these little pieces of cloth and wood is every true Jewish sigh and gesture of the hand.”

Then they broke up due to a fight that no one can quite map out, and then Yosl Cutler met a terrible end getting hit by a car on his way to Los Angeles to do a puppet show. Actually, a few years ago Great Small Works, one of the theater companies that inspired our approach to Labzik, did a show about the Modicut guys called “Muntergang” from the title of Yosl’s book.

Maud and Cutler’s illustration work married old world alter heym Yiddish aesthetics with avant-garde modernist sensibilities and it’s such an exquisite manifestation of that moment in the Yiddish 1930s. A lot of the materials that I provided to our puppet designer and set scenic painter were drawn from the work of Zuni Maud and Yosl Cutler as if to say: “Here. I’m not going to tell you how to do it but I’d love it if you drew some inspiration from these guys as our ancestors for the project.”

CB: Are there any other Easter eggs or “afikomen” that people can look out for in this performance?

JK: Oh, that’s interesting. So this is less of an Easter egg because it is made explicit in the text, but one of the things that marks the text as both Yiddish and communist is the newspaper Morgn Freiheit, a daily New York Yiddish paper associated with the Communist Party USA, that shows up in one of the first scenes of the book. Berl has a copy of the newspaper which he uses to dry off and wrap up the little sad sopping wet Labzik when he first takes him home, which really politically, thematically, tonally sets the scene for the rest of the book.

There is also a portrait of Itche Goldberg on the wall of Chaver Paver’s office. Goldberg was a prominent advocate for Yiddish and left-wing politics. We included him in the film because Chaver Paver dedicated the original book to Goldberg.

CB: It seems like Chaver Paver includes lots of “Easter eggs” about his own society, wrapping real history and indicators of the political climate into his work. What is the future of the show? I know the first two rounds ended already.

JK: We very much want it to have a future. The university owns the thing itself, but we’re feeling hopeful that we will be allowed to go and do more with it if we ask for permission. We’re hoping to submit it to the Jewish film festival circuit because we think that it could have a much broader life.

There are eight more stories that Miriam has translated in their entirety, so I would love to do a second version. Then of course there’s the sequel: Vovik, son of Labzik, though I haven’t read it yet. I’m hopeful, you know I have fallen so in love with this book and this dog, and this has turned out so much better than I could have dreamed.

Miriam and I had a good idea and that’s valuable but so much of what has made this a really special and extraordinary piece of art, if I’m allowed to say so, is my absurdly skilled, kind, and wonderful team of collaborators. Ryan Bradburn created storyboards and 189 individual beautifully illustrated puppets. Milton M. Cordero lit and shot the show with such cinematic rigor as if he was putting up a film for the Oscars, which made such a difference with flat 2D puppets. Melanie Chen Cole, who designed our soundscape, basically made a radio play that we could have released on its own as a piece of art. We also were so fortunate to have amazing Yiddish actors, have musicians Jake Shulman-Ment and Michael Winograd do music for us, and then to have Lisa Fishman, Lorin Sklamberg, and Mikhl Yashinsky singing was a dream come true. Weirdly enough, the song we created was my favorite part of the show.

The Ode To Labzik song

CB: Was that entr’acte song based on something you guys wrote, or did Chaver Paver also write some poems about Labzik that you set to music?

JK: Oh, no that didn’t come from Chaver Paver. I thought Labzik deserved a theme song, so I wrote an initial version and Mikhl helped me immensely to get to the final set of lyrics heard in the film. There’s a rich tradition of writing parodies of that song for the theater or for political purposes, and I grew up on Al Yankovic and Alan Sherman, so unfortunately for everyone else my go-to creative impulse is writing parody. We set our song to the tune of “Rozhinkes mit mandlen”, a famous Avrom Goldfaden song from the late 1800’s. I’m still in total disbelief that this thing that started as something to make Miriam and me laugh became a collaboration with some of the greatest Yiddish musicians of our moment.

CB: There’s a quote at the beginning and you said “these things just happen when you make them happen”, and I’ve loved hearing about the whole team that came together to make this show happen, across time, space, and at all levels of Yiddish.

JK: I mean if there’s anything I would emphasize is how much this is only possible because of such a collaborative effort and just the generosity of this incredible team.

CB: Hey, thank you so much for speaking with me!

JK: Yeah, pleasure. I can talk about this forever, and it’s great to know another young person excited about Yiddish.

MLA STYLE
Bernstein, Cameron. “Labzik Assembled! Bringing Radical 1930s Yiddish Children’s Literature to the Virtual Stage.” In geveb, November 2021: https://ingeveb.org/pedagogy/labzik-assembled-bringing-radical-1930s-yiddish-childrens-literature-to-the-virtual-stage.
CHICAGO STYLE
Bernstein, Cameron. “Labzik Assembled! Bringing Radical 1930s Yiddish Children’s Literature to the Virtual Stage.” In geveb (November 2021): Accessed Nov 29, 2021.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Cameron Bernstein

Cameron Bernstein is an artist and Yiddishist from the Chicagoland Jewish community and the 2021-2022 Communications Fellow at the Yiddish Book Center.