Though not as strict as the laws of kashruth, which determine what is and what is not kosher, Yiddish revues seem to follow an unalterable pattern. First they explore the world of the shtetl, those tiny communities in Russia and Poland from which Jews fled at the end of the last century. Then they delve into the rich culture of New York's lower East Side in the early decades of this century.
In both cases the aim is not so much sociological or anthropological exploration as the cultivation of nostalgia. "Those Were the Days" is classier than many of its predecessors, but it follows the pattern. The first act is folk material from the Old Country. The second shows the way the shtetl imprinted itself on show business.
The material reflects the varying strengths of the cast. There is, for example, a monologue about the trials of a Jewish mother, which is performed by Mina Bern, a veteran of innumerable such shows. Virtually none of the jokes seem fresh, but there is something affecting about seeing them performed in an exaggerated manner you know is the real McCoy.
Similarly, Bruce Adler, who comes from a long line of Yiddish performers, does a jokey number called "Hootsatsa," complete with a style of dancing - fast steps and a glitzy smile - that conjures up another era. He sings the venerable "Rumania, Rumania" with great flair and is at his funniest in a number that must be vintage Danny Kaye, "The Palace of the Czar," which has lyrics like "I went shootin' with Rasputin/Ate farina with Czarina."
Robert Abelson, who has an extraordinarily rich tenor voice, handles traditional material with aplomb, but he is especially brilliant singing Figaro's aria from "The Barber of Seville" in Yiddish.
The most moving moments belong to two young women, Lori Wilner when she sings, with unusual eloquence, the familiar "Papirosn," and Eleanor Reissa, who captures the ineffable sweetness of the Yiddish language and its mentality in "My Yiddishe Mame" and a beautiful song called "Yosi, Yosi."
Much of the humor, however, seems strained, not special enough. My own feeling is that no such show is complete without a rendition of "My Shtetele Belz." Nevertheless, "Those Were the Days" is an unusually polished evening of nostalgia.
Oddly enough, I can tell you the precise date I first became really aware of New York's Yiddish theater. It was the same date I fell in love with Molly Picon.
It was March 9, 1960. I was reviewing the indomitable Picon making her London debut in Leonard Spigelgass' harmless comedy romance about a nice Jewish matron and a reserved Japanese businessman, "A Majority of One." Picon was playing the role given on Broadway by Gertrude Berg, while the ponderously polite Japanese was acted - what price Jonathan Pryce back then? - by dear old Robert Morley.
Actually, as I soon discovered, this was not Picon's London debut. She had appeared many years before in variety, but to me she was something new and special. Almost immediately in New York I discovered a little about the great Yiddish theater of Second Avenue - I had seen Carnovsky, the Adlers and, of course, Paul Muni, but, in my profound ignorance, did not link them with the Yiddish theater, and my lack of the language made me oddly uncurious.
And then, very quietly, the Yiddish theater seemed to die, or at least go into semi-retirement. Even during the late '60s I recall a large-scale revival of Israel Joshua Singer's "Yoshe Kalb," but like the splendid revues by Ben Bonus and others, such presentations often seemed more like nostalgia trips than a lively, living tradition.
In this respect, the Folksbiene Theater - now at 123 E. 55th St. and celebrating its 75th anniversary - has helped keep the flame alive, and indeed tomorrow it opens a new play based on Jacob Dordin, with music by Emil Gorovets, "Father's Inheritance," in Yiddish with full simultaneous English translation available.
And this season the Yiddish theater, nostalgia and all, has come to Broadway - and I don't just mean that living treasure Jackie Mason. At the Edison Theater we have "Those Were the Days," while at the Town Hall (not quite Broadway but close) we have an English version of a 1936 Yiddish movie (yes, that Molly Picon!) "Yiddle with a Fiddle," celebrating the music of one of the greatest Second Avenue composers, Abraham Ellstein.
The story of "Yiddle" inevitably recalls "Yentl," for it involves a young girl in pre-war Poland dressing as a boy in order to go on the road with her father in a joyously itinerant group of musicians.
The sparkling and cheerful production by Ran Avni lacks glitz to such an extent that it embraces some of the more friendly standards associated with high school auditoriums, but the new book and lyrics (all in English but with a certain Yiddish slant) by Isaiah Sheffer works fine, and the Ellstein music is a pleasure.
The performances are also good, with Emily Loesser - singing and prancing like an elf - offering a Yiddle who could charm the varnish off a Stradivarius.
I enjoyed "Yiddle" (another engagement forced me to leave three-quarters of the way through, unfortunately), but I loved, quite extravagantly, "Those Were the Days."
This is nothing but a musical revue (chiefly in Yiddish - but, believe me, you'll understand) with five enormously talented performers, some curtains, a fine little orchestra, and a bunch of songs worth braving the Cossacks to hear.
Directed and choreographed by Elinor Reissa, with the Golden Land Klezmer Orchestra under Zalmen Mlotek, the scenic production takes austerity to the irreducible minimum of a bare stage, but there is nothing austere or bare about the terrific performance.
Mina Bern - Bonus' widow - glitters with charm as the Jewish grandmother of warm legend, while Robert Abelson, a fine singer who can even manage Rossini's "Largo al Factotum" in Yiddish, and the two younger women, the lovely Lori Wilner and the dynamic Reissa, are ambassadorial paradigms of that hallowed musical journey from shtetl to Second Avenue.
Best of all is Bruce Adler (yes, those Adlers!) as the troupe's slightly mature juvenile, whiz-dancing up a minor hurricane, and singing with a zest and style that would even have done the great Danny Kaye (who Adler fleetingly resembles) proud.
What fun! And like "Yiddle," as those old-time bread advertisements used to put it, "You Don't Have to be Jewish" to enjoy it. However, I can't imagine that a little Jewishness doesn't help. But in New York, who is not a little Jewish? It comes with the territory and the subway map.
Like a glass of cold seltzer, "Those Were the Days," the new revue at the Edison Theater, brings sparkle to the eye and a tickle to the throat. It's in Yiddish and English, practically a self-translating effusion of song and dance. Yiddish, a dead language? At the Edison, it bounces like a baby.
There is no plot, no set, maybe a prop or two and an image on the backdrop, and that is all to the good because one is too busy taking in the superb performances of the troupe of five performing to the tune of an orchestra equipped to play anything, from lean to schmaltz. "Survey" is an off-putting word with overtones of seminars and droning, so although "Those Were the Days" covers a lot of musical ground and time in its romp from shtetl to Lower East Side, let's call it a cavalcade. Whatever it is, it is a humdinger of a hum-along.
This is third revue of its kind fashioned by Zalmen Mlotek and Moishe Rosenfeld, who, with "The Golden Land" and "On Second Avenue," pioneered a way to stage programs of old Yiddish song in contemporary theatrical modes. This mating of the ages naturally puts one in the mood of a wedding, and it is an especially happy marriage at the Edison.
And why not? There is something old ("Romania, Romania," delivered with stunning dexterity of tongue by Bruce Adler); something, er, nu? ("Litvak/Galitsyaner," the ancient north-south Polish conflict, fought in wounding words by Mr. Adler and Eleanor Reissa); something borrowed ("Figaro's Aria," sung operatically, with neat Yiddish lyrics, by the resonant Robert Abelson); and something blue ("My Yiddishe Mama," hauntingly crooned by Ms. Reissa and still as blue as it was when sung by the red-hot mama, Sophie Tucker).
Ms. Reissa, who is also director and choreographer of the undertaking, keeps the cast in constant motion, from the batting of an eye to an ensemble dance in which the five can conjure up a mass celebration. She and her stage mates are an unusual assortment of young and not so young, of Yiddish-born fluent in English, of those born to English and fluent in Yiddish. Mina Bern, the seasoned veteran of the Yiddish stage, emerges as a superlative comic. She gives a hilarious, if sometimes painfully accurate, monologue of the old mother who proudly tells of her three children, none of whom let her live with their families for more than a few months at a time. Ms. Bern is beguilingly manipulative as she leads the audience in a sing-along, tartly chiding a man up front for just nodding his head and not singing out.
Lori Wilner, a woman for all seasons, manifests uncommon versatility in characters from a shtetl child playing out "Who Will Laugh First?" to a femme fatale giving a sexy rendition of "Shpil Gitar." Mr. Abelson, a real-life cantor with credits from opera and Sammy's Famous Romanian Restaurant on the Lower East Side, is a sonorous musical presence who doubles nicely in comedy. As for Mr. Adler, what is there that this anchor man can't do? He kazotskys, he soft-shoes, he fandangos, or something in reasonable facsimile. He makes the oldest jokes fresh and funny in his nonstop hoofer break-two-three-four vaudeville routine, "Hootsatsa." He plays the bemused restaurant customer who can't find anything to eat in a Sholom Aleichem skit. Yiddish, English, whatever, he sets a funny pace.
If one good turn deserves another, the many good theater turns of "Those Were the Days" amount to the ultimate good turn, a musical mitzvah.