Death of a Salesman in Yiddish

Yiddish is SEXY again! An interview with DOAS’s (Toyt Fun a Seylsman), Avi Hoffman

We’re nearing the one-month countdown to the 2016 Ashkenaz Festival! As things start to fall beautifully into place, this week, with much excitement, ticketed events for this year’s #AshkenazFest were announced. Such events include, The Klezmatics, Lucidarium Ensemble, Muzsikás, Semer Ensemble and We Keep Coming Back. One ticketed event I’d like to highlight in this week’s blog post is the Canadian premiere of the Yiddish-language adaptation of Arthur Miller’s seminal American classic, Death of Salesman (Toyt Fun a Seylsman).

Ashkenaz, in association with the Joseph Papp Yiddish Theatre, is pleased to present the new Yiddish-language production of the iconic play at this year’s Festival. This Canadian premiere production, presented with English supertitles, will feature members of the original New York cast, originally directed by Moshe Yassur.

This week, I connected with renowned Yiddish actor and Death of a Salesman (Toyt Fun a Seylsman) lead, Avi Hoffman. Hoffman received a 2016 Drama Desk nomination as Best Actor for his portrayal of Willy Loman, the NY production also received a Drama Desk Award Nomination for Best Revival of a Play. Another fun factoid, Avi is the third Hoffman to play Willy Loman, following Dustin and Philip Seymour.

 

Q: Why Death of a Salesman in Yiddish? How does the Yiddish adaption of this play in particular help us interpret the lives of Arthur Miller’s characters?

A: Arthur Miller based Willy Loman and the characters in DOAS on his uncle Manny and those around him, mostly immigrant Yiddish speaking Jews, trying to pursue the American Dream. In 1949, when first produced, being Jewish was not considered a positive attribution, and so the characters were assimilated and Americanized to Willy, Linda, Bif and Hap. By restoring the Yiddish immigrant quality we are actually staying true to Arthur Miller’s intentions.

Q: Does one need to understand Yiddish to come to this production and understand/appreciate it?

A: Absolutely not. The supertitles clarify the literal meaning of the words, but the highly charged emotions in this powerful piece are made even more profound by the Yiddish language and immigrant experience it brings to the work.

Avi Hoffman and Suzanne Toren

Avi Hoffman and Suzanne Toren

Q: Do you and all of your co-actors share the same passion for the preservation of Yiddish-language and culture? If so, what is the atmosphere/dynamic like between you and your fellow co-actors on-stage and off-stage?

A: I can not answer for all the actors, but many of us feel that we are on an important cultural mission to preserve, not only a language, but an entire history of Yiddish theatre that has largely been ignored in the history books. Before Broadway and Hollywood there was a popular and thriving Yiddish theatre community which laid the foundation for most of what we now enjoy as mainstream American and world culture. Don’t even get me started….

Q: What are you most looking forward to about bringing this iconic Yiddish adaption to Canada for the first time and to the Ashkenaz Festival in particular? As someone who works tirelessly to preserve Yiddish culture, what are your feelings about the Festival?

A: I have performed at major Yiddish Festivals around the world, and I am incredibly psyched to finally perform at the Ashkenaz Festival. I applaud all those who have persevered in keeping the tradition of Yiddish alive. Bravo!!!

Q: If you could do a translation and reinterpretation of any play in Yiddish, which one would it be and why?

A: That is too complex a question to answer without serious contemplation, but Joseph Papp’s dream in establishing the Joseph Papp Yiddish Theatre was to perform Hamlet and Merchant of Venice in Yiddish. We have our work cut out for us.

Q: What is the current state of Yiddish theatre, is it on the rise or decline? Is it evolving in new ways or is there continuity in the tradition from its heyday in the early 20th century?

A: Yiddish theatre today is more vital than it has been in the past five decades that I have been involved with it. I began my professional career at the age of 10 in the Folksbiene production of ‘Bronx Express 1968’ and have watched the Yiddish theatre scene deteriorate, almost to extinction. But Yiddish is the language of survival and the past few years have seen a great renaissance of Yiddish theatre worldwide. From the Yiddishpiel – National Yiddish Theatre of Israel, presenting the Joseph Papp Yiddish Theatre modern musical ‘Songs of Paradise’ to Montreal’s Dora Wasserman Yiddish Theatre group’s recent production of Mel Brooks’ The Producers in Yiddish,’ from the New Yiddish Rep’s productions of ‘Waiting for Godot’ and ‘Death of a Salesman’ to the Folksbiene’s recent award nominated production of ‘The Golden Bride’, and many other Yiddish productions around the world, Yiddish is SEXY again! Constantly evolving and rising from the ashes to delight audiences with its emotional depth.

Q: What is the favorite role you’ve ever played?

A: Many different roles have been my favorite for different reasons, but Willy Loman is, by far, the most complex character I have ever had the privilege to portray.

Q: You were recently inducted into the Bronx Jewish hall of fame. Can you tell us about this honor and what it means to you?

A: I have to admit that I was quite shocked and humbled to have been chosen for this honour, especially compared to the others inducted with me. When I asked what I had done to deserve this recognition, I was told that I was being recognized for my accumulated accomplishments for past 50 years working to preserve the beauty and depth of Yiddish and Jewish culture. I couldn’t be prouder and I am so happy that my mother could be there to share the honour with me.

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Death of a Salesman (Toyt Fun a Seylsman) runs from Aug. 31 to Sept. 10 at the Toronto Centre for the Arts.  Order your tickets here: http://bit.ly/2amJJTr