Jewish Theater: A Brokhe A Blessing by Rokhl Kafrissen

This story is about a playwright named Rokhl Kafrissen, and about a new play that she has written, largely in Yiddish, called “A Brokhe A Blessing.” Kafrissen writes a marvelous and sometimes marvelously irritable blog about Yiddish called “Rootless Cosmopolitan,” as well as a film blog I rather enjoy called “Movies Metaphors and Monsters.”

The former blog is instructive to me in a variety of ways. Kafrissen has been a Yiddishist for two decades or thereabouts, having studied the subject at Brandeis, and she has been part of New York’s Yiddish theater scene for almost as long, running English supertitles to Yiddish plays.

It’s hard not to be jealous of Kafrissen’s access to Yiddish from this linguistic desert Omaha, where, as far as I can tell, the last Yiddish play produced was in 1974, when the National Touring Company of Yiddish Theater performed a series of skits at a local college, and the last Yiddish classes were in 1980, offered only once by a short-lived local Jewish organization.

The blog is instructive in that it offers a perspective on Yiddish informed by long involvement in the language. Kafrissen frequently complains about how Yiddish is treated by the media, as an example, where it is endlessly presented as a dying language, where every new course or band or play or youth group in Yiddish is excitedly declared a revival, and where basic misconceptions abound, go uncorrected, and get passed from article to article. Kafrissen is a defender of Yiddish as a language, and rankles at the endless jokey, uninformed lists and online quizzes that present a degraded, unresearched Yinglish as Yiddish.

Kafrissen is also very funny, with a blistering Twitter presence, which is how I first discovered her a few months ago. This was about the same time there was a reading of her play as part of Yiddish New York featuring Ben Rosenblatt and Yelena Shmulenson, both fixtures in NY’s Yiddish theater community. Those of you who have seen the Coen Brothers’ film “A Serious Man” will recognize Shmulenson from the Yiddish prologue, where she stabs the great and recently deceased Fyvush Finkel with an icepick. There is avideo of the reading online, which you may watch, but I will also briefly summarize the play.

Illustration by Jenna Brager
The story is set in Brownsville, a neighborhood of Brooklyn, in the 1950s, and benefits from the tremendous specificity of time and place. This was my father’s Brownsville, and he used to talk of growing up in a largely Jewish and Yiddish-accented neighborhood of aspiring gangsters and Holocaust survivors, as well as an uncommonly large group of Jewish boys who would go on to be pharmacists. 

“A Brokhe” features the first two groups, the aspiring gangsters and Holocaust survivors, and their uneasy relationships. Primarily, it looks at Dora, a scholarly and often-acerbic Polish refugee, and Kas, a small-time hood with oversized ambitions. Kas also has a bit of a yen for Dora, but the play is more about disconnection than connection, as Kas’s life in the underworld is on a crash course with Dora’s family.

The script is smart and classically composed, and brims with period detail, including an obsession with Jewish wrestlers. It also happens to have about 30 percent of its dialogue in Yiddish, and this is why I was interested in the play.

I started writing plays a very long time ago, in the 1990s, when living in Los Angeles, as part of a theater program for homeless teenagers led by actress Shelley Winters, which is, as you can imagine, a very long story. During this time I read “Vagabond Stars,” Nahma Sandrow’s history of Yiddish theater, and started working my way through a series of Yiddish plays in translation.

This affected me a lot. I wrote two plays in that time, one based on Alice in Wonderland, the other a retelling of the 1903 pogrom in Kishinev, which my mother’s family had lived through. Both were, essentially, Yiddish plays written in English, although I continued to work on the Kishinev play when I returned to college to pursue a degree in Jewish Studies, and, as a result, a lot of actual Yiddish started making its way into the script. Both plays have Purim shpiels in them; these were the short comic folk plays performed on the holiday of Purim, which Sandrow identifies as the earliest form of Jewish theater.

And I’m working on a Yiddish play now, or, more properly, a Yinglish play. Yiddish occasionally appears as a language, in complete sentences, but more often appears the way my father uses it, as a (frequently obscene) element in an English sentence. (As an aside, my father does not like that I keep writing about him swearing in Yiddish, but all I can say is maybe he should not have swore in Yiddish so much.)

A lot of playwriting is about solving problems, and one of the central problems in writing a play that uses Yiddish is Yiddish itself. One can, of course, write in Yiddish for a Yiddish audience, and this is still done. English-speaking audiences can still enjoy the play through the use of supertitles, which, as I have mentioned, Kafrissen has a lot of experience with. One can write in English and Yiddish and provide some mechanism for translation, such as my least-favorite trick in the playwrights arsenal, which has a character say something in a foreign language and then immediately translate it into English. One can try to contextualize Yiddish so that translation is not necessary, which is what I do, and is easier to do when writing Yinglish than writing Yiddish.

Kafrissen suggests supertitles for her play, which I am not sure is the best solution, but, then, the playwright need not offer the best solution to a staging problem. To a skilled director, a staging problem is not a problem so much as it is an opportunity. I once wrote a play with no stage directions at all – in fact, the characters themselves were unnamed, and the whole script is just a dialogue, with one character justified right and the other justified left on the page. Not only have directors successfully managed to figure out how to stage this play, it is my most-produced play. However, the question of staging Yiddish is one that keenly interests me, and is a question I will return to. When Kafrissen’s play finds a production, I will be eager to see how her artistic staff handles the Yiddish.

Mostly, I just continue to be thrilled that there is New Yiddish theater. It does not sound like there is a lot of it – in emails, Kafrissen has told me that a lot of what she sees and has worked on are revivals of older plays, and this has been borne out by what I have read about, which recently have included a revival of Sholem Asch's “God of Vengeance” and Yiddish version of both “Waiting for Godot” and “Death of a Salesman.” Kafrissen writes, "Revivals of older repertoire and new translations of world classics are important (and often exciting) staples of contemporary Yiddish theater. However, I would also like to see a commitment to develop and invest in new Yiddish works, like Shane Baker's ‘Big Bupkis,’ and of course, my own humble contribution to the contemporary Yiddish stage."

I will close with this: I used to participate in a lot of new play development projects, and one of the laziest questions that respondents would come up with is “why?” It’s as though they thought there was something profound about challenging every artistic decision. “Why now?” was one of the most popular ones, and is meant to force the playwright to examine what event motivated the action of the play, and why that even was necessary. I am not interested in why questions. There is only one necessary answer to why, and it is “because I wanted to,” and that an entirely valid artistic answer.

I can already tell that there are some meddling dramaturges out there who want to know why Yiddish. And this is a play that offers a solid answer to the question: It is a play about a specific immigrant experience, and this was the language spoken by this group of immigrants, and they were in a neighborhood where the language still had everyday currency, where even American-born Jews could understand and respond, to some extent. It’s a play that Yiddish makes sense in, and wouldn’t make sense if absent.

But, as I said, I am not interested in why questions. You probably have noticed that I am interested in how questions. How do we make a play? How do we stage a scene? How do we communicate something unfamiliar to an audience?

This play has a lot of fascinating hows in it. And the ones that interests me the most right now are the following: How is this play going to get a production? How is it going to have a life beyond that production, which is rare for new plays? And how am I going to get a chance to see it?

Exciting questions. I look forward to learning the answers.

(If you're interested in reading "A Brokke A Blessing," it is available through New Play Exchange.)