A traditional Yiddish tale takes the stage

A hundred years ago, Mirele Efros was one of the most beloved plays in the world of Yiddish theater. Written by famed Jewish playwright Jacob Gordin, the play will be revived in a staged reading on December 3 by the Seattle Jewish Theater Company (SJTC), headed by artistic director Art Feinglass.

Though Mirele Efros was originally written and performed in Yiddish, SJTC will be staging an English translation of the original play. The translation was produced by renowned Yiddish scholar Nahma Sandrow, who Feinstein calls “one of the great Yiddish scholars of our day.”

“[Dr. Sandrow] gave us permission to do this,” said Feinstein of using her translation for their performance. Feinstein also gave credit to Lauren Spokane, the assistant director of the University of Washington’s Stroum Center for Jewish Studies, which is working with SJTC to publicize and host the event. The reading of Mirele Efros will be introduced by Professor Barbara Henry, who teaches in the Jewish Studies program and specifically focuses her research on modern Yiddish drama and literature. Dr. Henry has published two books on Jacob Gordin’s contributions to Yiddish theater.

“Jacob Gordin was the David Mamet of his day,” explained Feinstein. “He tried to change the nature of Yiddish theater.” At the time of Mirele Efros’ debut, Yiddish theater was commonly referred to by the Jewish community as “shund,” the Yiddish term for “trash.” The plots of most plays made little to no sense, and it was not uncommon for characters to randomly burst into songs that had nothing to do with the story. Jacob Gordin, however, felt that Yiddish theater could be at the same level as the plays written by Shakespeare. Mirele Efros, commonly known as “the Jewish Queen Lear,” was his masterpiece.

Just as Shakespeare’s King Lear decided to divide his kingdom amongst his daughters, so does Mirele Efros give away her successful business.

“It’s really [the story of] a conflict between this very powerful matriarch and her young, inexperienced daughter-in-law,” Feinstein said. “When the mother also owns a business that’s the source of all the family’s wealth and power, there’s a power struggle.”

The play, which focuses on the relationship between these two female characters, shows that Gordin was truly ahead of his time. Feinstein pointed out that Gordin, who was a champion of women’s issues, paints Mirele as a smart, honorable businesswoman who is revered throughout Europe at a time when it was thought that women simply weren’t capable of running businesses.

Mirele Efros is one of two plays that will be put on by SJTC this year. While they focus on classic Jewish theater in the fall, in the spring they plan to perform From Door to Door, a contemporary Jewish production by James Sherman that plays off the famous Hebrew phrase “l’dor v’dor.” The play focuses on three generations of Jewish women and will be performed throughout the Seattle metropolitan area.

For his part, artistic director Art Feinstein is pleased to be able to continue the long and rich tradition of Jewish theater in the Seattle area. Feinstein, who lived in Israel as a young adult and served in the Israeli army during the Yom Kippur War, actually considered becoming a rabbi later on in life. But after a year in rabbinical seminary, he decided it wasn’t right for him.

“I liked it, and respected everyone who was there, but I decided that wasn’t my path,” he said. “I wanted to do something else to have an impact in the Jewish world. A couple of years later, I started the Seattle Jewish Theater Company.”

Now in its fourth year, SJTC hopes to provide the Seattle Jewish community with access to and an appreciation for classical Jewish theater. Jewish theater’s historical significance as a way that Jewish immigrants acclimatized themselves to American culture is not lost on SJTC, and they hope that they can continue the tradition of Jews seeing their lives reflected back to them in the art form.

“The Jewish theater is really a cultural treasure,” said Feinstein. “I’d like to share it with the Jewish community and the non-Jewish community. I’d like my grandkids to be able to go with their friends to see a Jewish play, and to appreciate this lovely gift that the Jewish community has given to the world.”

That’s what Mirele Efros is to the Seattle Jewish community – a gift, to thank the community for its support of SJTC as they work to revive an important piece of Jewish history and culture.
“It’s a very emotional presentation,” Feinstein said of the production of Mirele Efros. “There’s a reason it was so successful. This is going to be a very powerful piece.”

The staged reading of Mirele Efros, presented by the Seattle Jewish Theater Company in conjunction with the Stroum Center for Jewish Studies, will take place on Tuesday, December 3 at 7:00 PM at the Ethnic Cultural Theater, 3940 Brooklyn Avenue NE in Seattle. The play is free and open to the public. To reserve your seat, email SJTC at seattlejewishtheatercompany@gmail.com, or go online to jewishstudies.washington.edu.

This piece originally appeared on Jew-ish.com.

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