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Actress Jackie Hoffman on the success of ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ in Yiddish

An interview with Yenta on why this production is so much more than just another 'Fiddler'
(c) Matthew Murphy
(c) Matthew Murphy

Actress Jackie Hoffman had a feeling that “Fiddler on the Roof” in Yiddish, now running at Stage 42 in New York City, would be successful, but she had no idea just how successful the play would actually be.

After having its start at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Battery Park last year, this little show has made its way uptown to Stage 42 where a set of actors, many Jewish and some non-Jewish, have learned all their lines in Yiddish. Audiences are flocking to see what the show is all about, with its English subtitles and all. In a review of the show, The New York Times called the show “often thrilling” with “a kind of authenticity no other American “Fiddler” ever has.” Why? Because it’s in Yiddish.

There have been many incarnations of “Fiddler” since its Broadway premiere in the 1960s, but this is the first time a Yiddish-language adaptation has been performed in the U.S. It is directed by the actor Joel Grey, who directed the work for a sold-out (the show was extended four-times) run at the Museum of Jewish Heritage and features musical direction by Zalmen Mlotek. He collaborated with New York’s Folksbiene Theater. The show is set to run through Sunday, September 1st, 2019.

We recently sat down with Hoffman, who plays Yente in the current production of the Yiddish “Fiddler.” She was recently nominated for an Emmy Award for her role in FX’s “Feud: Bette and Joan.”  She has also appeared in a slew of other TV shows and films including “Kissing Jessica Stein,” “Legally Blonde 2: White and Blonde,” “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” and “Difficult People.” This is hardly her first time on the NYC stage, with previous roles on Broadway in “Hairspray,” “The Addams Family,” and very recently “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” Jewish humor has been a part of her shtick for many years as both a solo artist and as part of the three-women comic team behind “The J.A.P. Show, Jewish American Princesses of Comedy,” at the Actor’s Temple.

Hoffman had a lot to say about her role in “Fiddler,” how she learned Yiddish, and the impact she hopes the show has on the audience members who experience it.

HRF: Mazel tov on the success of “Fiddler on the Roof” in Yiddish. How does it feel now that the show is a hit?

JH: It’s always great to be a part of a hit. I’ve been in shows that were bigger but not as critically acclaimed, so that’s something different that I haven’t experienced in a while. And it’s so great to be in something so deeply personal and so Jewish in a world where anti-Semitism never went away and is now way up. It feels very important and incredibly meaningful.

HRF: Yes, it feels even more important, in particular, because this play is in Yiddish. Does that part of the show’s success surprise you at all?

JH: The Yiddish is everything. Without it, it would be an emotionally well-acted “Fiddler” but it would also be just another production of “Fiddler.” The Yiddish is what we’ve got. And because it’s so shockingly, unashamedly a Jewish language, I’m just thrilled that it’s been so well received. The few gentiles I know who have seen it are equally as moved by it as my Jewish friends.

HRF: Tell me about your Jewish upbringing. You grew up on Long Island. Did you know much about the show?

JH: Of course. We had the yellow album, the Broadway cast vinyl. I hadn’t seen it until I was around 15 or 16 when there was a later Zero Mostel revival. That was the first time I had seen it aside from seeing it in yeshiva productions, and I remarkably have never been in it ever in any incarnation, professionally or personally, not even in the synagogue productions. I knew all the songs growing up, I knew the characters. It was a bastion of Jewish culture.

HRF: Did you grow up with any Yiddish at home?

JH: I grew up with Yiddish at home. It was what my mother called “kitchen Yiddish.” I visited her the other day, and I told her that I tell every interviewer that I know “kitchen Yiddish.” My mom actually came to see it. My husband got her here in a wheelchair, and she’s also watched a video from the show over and over again. She recently told me, “Your Yiddish is very fancy. We didn’t have words like that.”

HRF: I read that you learned the language phonetically. Is that the case?

JH: I did. I wish I did learn the language, but I did not learn the language. I learned my dialogue with coaching from the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene in New York, and it’s a mouthful! I learned my dialogue phonetically and by hearing it. They made recordings which were valuable and they drilled us to death. And they still do.

The company of “Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish” (c) Matthew Murphy

HRF: I guess all the cast members learned the language that way?

JH: They did. I had a little bit of a head start growing up around the language because I grew up going to yeshiva. Our translation is by Shraga Friedman who is Israeli, so there are a lot of Hebrew words and I knew all of those. We have, g-d bless them, goyim in the cast, who came from no background whatsoever and they took to Yiddish like they’re on fire. It’s such a joy not to just see young people in the play but young, gentile people.

HRF: The role of Yente is such a good fit for you. How were you cast in this particular role?

JH: I think it was a conspiracy between Joel Grey and my manager to cast me as Yente, which I later found out from other people. Joel asked other people to play Golde, and I thought why not me?

But I think Joel knew from the get-go he wanted me to be his yente. He had me read for it to make sure I would get the sounds of the Yiddish down properly. They were nervous about my Yiddish… as was I!

HRF: What’s it like working with Joel Grey and the rest of the cast?

JH: Joel’s involvement has been like a loving, stern parent. It’s his baby. He remarkably does not speak Yiddish but grew up with a very friendly Yiddish background with his father. He had us approach each scene in English so we would get the emotional context of the meaning of each scene. I think he did a beautiful job because everyone comments what a tremendous emotional impact our show has on them.

TOI: What has the response been like to the show?

JH: Our theater is located on the edge of Port Authority and its entrance ramp. It’s not a stage door where people congregate.  Once in a while, you see someone, but people tend to congregate in a civilized area outside. I was actually just outside and it’s wonderful to meet people and hear their thoughts right after the show. People just adore it.

HRF: Why do you think the play is resonating with audiences like it is?

JH: I think that the play brings you way down and cuts you very deep and gets back you up. People are leaping to their feet by the end and are thrilled by what they have experienced.

HRF: What’s it like returning to your roots so to speak as a Jewish actress and appearing in this play?

JH: I grew up in an Orthodox household and went to yeshiva for nine years. I spent a lot of college and adult time kind of technically transferring away but always being held by a leash made of guilt, knowing it would destroy my mother if I ever gave up on Judaism. This is the happiest time of her life that I’m doing this. She hasn’t been this happy since I was a member of an Orthodox youth group called the National Council of Synagogue Youth. That was her other happiest time.

It has kind of forced me back into my Jewishness, but I never really left it. I’ve eaten trayf and worked on the Sabbath and dated goyim, but I never really left my neshema {or “soul” in Hebrew}. This is kind of like pulling a rubber band back in.

HRF: The film’s score probably stayed with you your whole life, like it has with all of us who have seen it countless times growing up.

JH: I love the film. It’s an incredible score. Sheldon Harnick, the film’s composer and lyricist, is 96 now, and he’s been a big part of our process, which has been thrilling for all of us.

HRF: Has this version of the play been performed in Israel and what is the likelihood of this show landing there?

JH: That would be amazing. I know that it started there. It was done there first in 1965 but lasted only a few weeks. At the time, it was interesting because they didn’t want to know the old people’s language. It was a new modern country and they were turned off by that aspect.

Maybe now that they’ve gone full circle with the play, it could be successful again in Israel. It would definitely be interesting to find out.

“Fiddler on the Roof” in Yiddish is now running Off-Broadway in New York City at Stage 42. To purchase tickets, CLICK HERE or call 212-239-6200.

About the Author
Holly Rosen Fink is a writer and marketing consultant living in Larchmont, New York with her husband and two children.
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