(New York Jewish Week) — In the Yiddish classes Mikhl Yashinsky teaches for the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research and the Workers Circle, he begins by asking students to explain why they decided to learn the language.
Often, a student will describe attending a performance of “Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish,” the smash hit from the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene.
This is literally music to the ears of Yashinsky, who not only teaches conversational Yiddish, translates Yiddish literature and writes Yiddish plays and videos, but who also played a beggar and innkeeper in the latest run of “Fiddler” in Yiddish, which closed on Jan. 1.
“Many thousands of people have seen Yiddish ‘Fiddler’ by now and it’s had a real impact on them and how they see the language,” he told the New York Jewish Week. “It makes me happy that one thing feeds into another.”
The 32-year-old Chelsea resident is in some ways the future of Yiddish, at least of the secular, artistic and academic variety that is spoken and studied outside of the haredi Orthodox community, where it is often the first language. While some Yiddishists bristle at the notion that the language of Ashkenazi Eastern Europe is undergoing a “renaissance,” figures like Yashinsky are making sure the language continues to flourish in communities beyond the yeshiva.
”Mikhl has played a very big role in my Yiddish journey,” said Judith Liskin-Gasparro, a retired linguistics professor from the University of Iowa. Liskin-Gasparro had four grandparents who were native Yiddish speakers but who never spoke the language in front of her. She estimates that over the course of her career she’s watched 1,000 people teach a language class. After studying with Yashinsky remotely from Iowa City for five semesters, Liskin-Gasparro said: “I have rarely seen anybody as good as he is.” His YIVO course has been so popular that YIVO had to create a second section.
Liskin-Gasparro now describes herself as obsessed with the language. In November, she made the trek to New York to see Yashinsky perform in “Fiddler.” During her visit she joined about 15 people from Yashinsky’s YIVO class to meet her teacher in person.
Yashinsky, who grew up outside of Detroit, credits his late maternal grandmother, Elizabeth Elkin Weiss, with putting him on the path to becoming a Yiddishist. Weiss and her husband Rube were veterans of Yiddish theater, performing on stage and the radio. His grandmother also performed in English-language radio dramas, and her ability to do accents and characters earned her the nickname “The Woman of 1,000 Voices.” A radio ad in which Weiss imitated the Hungarian Jewish actress Zsa Zsa Gabor convinced customers of an Italian restaurant in the Detroit area that Zsa Zsa herself had done the commercial.
Talent ran in the family, sometimes in unexpected ways: Yashinsky’s uncle, David Weiss, was one-half of Was (Not Was), a major funk-rock band in the 1980s and ’90s. David’s partner, Don Was, is celebrating his 30th year as a record producer for The Rolling Stones.
Yashinsky studied modern European history and literature at Harvard, attended the Vilna Yiddish Language Institute and in 2015-16 worked as a fellow at the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Mass. In 2018, Yashinsky performed in the held-over runs of Yiddish “Fiddler “at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Lower Manhattan, then left New York for a steady gig teaching Yiddish at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. He rejoined the musical when it was staged in 2019 at Stage 43, the largest off-Broadway theater in the city.
Joel Grey, the director of Yiddish “Fiddler,” wrote in an email: “Mikhl is one of the most resourceful and delightful actors I’ve ever had the pleasure to work with. He has more ideas for a moment than most actors do in a lifetime.”
Jackie Hoffman, the comedian and Broadway veteran who played Yenta the matchmaker in earlier runs of Yiddish “Fiddler,” said Yashinsky “is a truly Yiddish soul. He’s like someone who could’ve crept out of the 19th century. It’s like Yiddish is in his blood.”
Steven Skybell, who played Tevye in in the latest Yiddish “Fiddler,” attended Yashinsky’s classes for a few semesters, which enabled him to converse with Yashinsky in the mamaloshn (mother tongue) backstage.
Yashinsky’s mother in Michigan, who did not grow up speaking Yiddish, has attended all five semesters via Zoom. Debra Yashinsky, who said she can’t begin to count the number of times she’s seen Yiddish “Fiddler,” used her maiden name in the Zoom interface for the first two semesters.
“Mikhl once asked me, ‘Mom, are you taking the class to learn Yiddish or do you just enjoy seeing me teach?’” she recalled. “I didn’t know the right answer. The truth is I love seeing his punim [face] for an hour and a half and kvelling [being proud] while I watch him teach.”
In addition to teaching and acting, translation has been a big part of Yashinsky’s devotion to the language (and need to earn a living).
He has a deadline looming at the end of January for his translation of the memoirs of Ester-Rokhl Kaminska, the Polish-Jewish actress considered the “mother of Yiddish theater.” He’s been working on the project for a few years and could often be found backstage at “Fiddler” translating a couple of sentences at a time between scenes.
Yashinsky has also been translating short stories by the Nobelist Isaac Bashevis Singer for a forthcoming anthology of the author’s early works. He describes them as “little gems” Singer wrote when he was a young writer that have never been translated into English. Yashinsky said he has translated three or four of the short stories so far.
Yashinsky is also a playwright whose Yiddish play, “Vos Flist Durkhn Oder” (“Blessing of the New Moon”), was performed at the Lower East Side Play Festival last summer. One of six plays chosen from more than 100 submissions, it was the only non-English play in the festival. The one-act play, set in a Lower East Side yeshiva in 1912, deals with the tradition of pranks that take place during the month in which Purim falls.
His full-length play “Di Psure Loyt Chaim” (“The Gospel According to Chaim”) will get a public reading this winter at the New Yiddish Rep in Manhattan. The play is based on the true story of Henry Einspruch, a Baltimore Jew who in the 1940s found Jesus and translated the New Testament into Yiddish for the purpose of converting his fellow Jews. Yashinsky said no Yiddish publisher would help Einspruch in his quest.
“I just thought that this was a very curious bit of history,” said the playwright. “It was really insidious in some ways. He was trying to convert Holocaust survivors in some cases. He would preach outside synagogues on Shabbos mornings.”
Yashinsky will be working on a Yiddish musical in 2023, thanks to a LABA Fellowship for Jewish artists. He plans to write the musical in collaboration with Mamaliga, a klezmer band based in Brooklyn and Boston. Yashinsky said he may write something about the underworld of Jewish life in Eastern Europe.
Another bright spot on the horizon: On Jan. 26 he’ll make his Carnegie Hall début, singing in a concert titled “We Are Here: Songs from the Holocaust,” which will feature Broadway stars Harvey Fierstein, Chita Rivera and Shoshana Bean. Yashinsky will perform “Zog nit keynmol” (“Never Say”), the anthem of the Vilna partisans.
And somehow Yashinsky will make time to produce more videos for the Workers Circle #YiddishAlive series on YouTube. Among the 11 videos he’s done so far are a Yiddish rendition of Tom Lehrer’s song “Hanukkah in Santa Monica” and a music video shot in Michigan to celebrate the strawberry harvest. That video featured “Trúskafke-vals” (“Strawberry Waltz”), a Yiddish song he wrote, as well as a strawberry cake baked by his mother.
He also produces humorous Yiddish music videos, including one based on Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ demented, spooky classic, “I Put A Spell On You.” In his version, Yashinsky performs in drag as Bobe Yakhne, a sorceress he played in Folksbiene’s 2017 revival of the classic Yiddish operetta “The Sorceress.”
“This art form continues,” he said of Yiddish theater. “It’s a tradition that hasn’t evaporated and it’s nice to feel that I’m part of the continuity.”
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Phyllis Pollock died at home Sunday September 3, 2023 in Winnipeg, after a courageous lifetime battle with cancer.
Phyllis was a mother of four: Gary (Laura), daughter Randi, Steven (deceased in 2010) (Karen), and Robert. Phyllis also had two grandchildren: Lauren and Quinn.
Born in Fort Frances, Ontario on February 7, 1939, Phyllis was an only child to Ruby and Alex Lerman. After graduating high school, Phyllis moved to Winnipeg where she married and later divorced Danny Pollock, the father of her children. She moved to Beverly Hills in 1971, where she raised her children.
Phyllis had a busy social life and lucrative real estate career that spanned over 50 years, including new home sales with CoastCo. Phyllis was the original sales agent for three buildings in Santa Monica, oceanfront: Sea Colony I, Sea Colony II, and Sea Colony. She was known as the Sea Colony Queen. She worked side by side with her daughter Randi for about 25 years – handling over 600 transactions, including sales and leases within the three phases of Sea Colony alone.
Phyllis had more energy than most people half her age. She loved entertaining, working in the real estate field, meeting new and interesting people everyday no matter where she went, and thrived on making new lifelong friends. Phyllis eventually moved to the Sea Colony in Santa Monica where she lived for many years before moving to Palm Desert, then Winnipeg.
After battling breast cancer four times in approximately 20 years, she developed metastatic Stage 4 lung cancer. Her long-time domestic partner of 27 years, Joseph Wilder, K.C., was the love of her life. They were never far apart. They traveled the world and went on many adventures during their relationship. During her treatment, Phyllis would say how much she missed work and seeing her clients. Joey demonstrated amazing strength, love, care, and compassion for Phyllis as her condition progressed. He was her rock and was by her side 24/7, making sure she had the best possible care. Joey’s son David was always there to support Phyllis and to make her smile. Joey’s other children, Sheri, Kenny, Joshua and wife Davina, were also a part of her life. His kids would Facetime Phyllis and include her during any of their important functions. Phyllis loved Joey’s children as if they were her own.
Thank you to all of her friends and family who were there to support her during these difficult times. Phyllis is now, finally, pain free and in a better place. She was loved dearly and will be greatly missed. Interment took place in Los Angeles.
Gwen Centre Creative Living Centre celebrates 35th anniversary
By BERNIE BELLAN Over 100 individuals gathered at the Gwen Secter Centre on Tuesday evening, July 18 – under the big top that serves as the venue for the summer series of outdoor concerts that is now in its third year at the centre.
The occasion was the celebration of the Gwen Secter Centre’s 35th anniversary. It was also an opportunity to honour the memory of Sophie Shinewald, who passed away at the age of 106 in 2019, but who, as recently as 2018, was still a regular attendee at the Gwen Secter Centre.
As Gwen Secter Executive Director Becky Chisick noted in her remarks to the audience, Sophie had been volunteering at the Gwen Secter Centre for years – answering the phone among other duties. Becky remarked that Sophie’s son, Ed Shinewald, had the phone number for the Gwen Secter Centre stored in his phone as “Mum’s work.”
Remarks were also delivered by Raquel Dancho, Member of Parliament for Kildonan-St. Paul, who was the only representative of any level of government in attendance. (How times have changed: I remember well the steadfast support the former Member of the Legislature for St. John’s, Gord Mackintosh, showed the Gwen Secter Centre when it was perilously close to being closed down. And, of course, for years, the area in which the Gwen Secter Centre is situated was represented by the late Saul Cherniack.)
Sophie Shinewald’s granddaughter, Alix (who flew in from Chicago), represented the Shinewald family at the event. (Her brother, Benjamin, who lives in Ottawa, wasn’t able to attend, but he sent a pre-recorded audio message that was played for the audience.)
Musical entertainment for the evening was provided by a group of talented singers, led by Julia Kroft. Following the concert, attendees headed inside to partake of a sumptuous assortment of pastries, all prepared by the Gwen Secter culinary staff. (And, despite my asking whether I could take a doggy bag home, I was turned down.)
Palestinian gunmen kill 4 Israelis in West Bank gas station
This is a developing story.
(JTA) — Palestinian gunmen killed four people and wounded four in a terror attack at a gas station near the West Bank settlement of Eli, the Israeli army reported.
An Israeli civilian returning fire at the scene of the attack on Tuesday killed one of the attackers, who emerged from a vehicle, and two others fled.
Kan, Israel’s public broadcaster, said one of those wounded was in serious condition. The gunmen, while in the vehicle, shot at a guard post at the entry to the settlement, and then continued to the gas station which is also the site of a snack bar. A nearby yeshiva went into lockdown.
Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant announced plans to convene a briefing with top security officials within hours of the attack. Kan reported that there were celebrations of the killing in major West Bank cities and in the Gaza Strip, initiated by terrorist groups Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Hamas said the shooting attack Tuesday was triggered by the Jenin raid.
The shooting comes as tensions intensify in the West Bank. A day earlier, Israeli troops raiding the city of Jenin to arrest accused terrorists killed five people.
The Biden administration spoke out over the weekend against Israel’s plans to build 4,000 new housing units for Jewish settlers in the West Bank. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also finalized plans to transfer West Bank building decisions to Bezalel Smotrich, the extremist who is the finance minister. Smotrich has said he wants to limit Palestinian building and expand settlement building.
Kan reported that the dead terrorist was a resident of a village, Urif, close to Huwara, the Palestinian town where terrorists killed two Israeli brothers driving through in February. Settlers retaliated by raiding the village and burning cars and buildings.
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