A Yiddish Kitchen-sink Drama

The new play 'Monologues from the Kishke’ takes great relish in putting Ashkenazi food at center stage.

Cookbooks fly off the shelf and onto the stage in a new production from the Yiddishpiel Yiddish theater, “Monologues from the Kishke.” Don’t fret. This is not the intestinal counterpart to Eve Ensler’s “The Vagina Monologues,” which ran Off-Broadway. As Yiddishpiel describes it, the play is a “musical-culinary journey in search of Eastern European Jewish cuisine.”

The play, performed by the young ensemble cast of Yiddishpiel in a mix of Yiddish and Hebrew, with Hebrew and Russian surtitles, is a collection of short monologues inspired by cookbooks, along with old songs that give the production a vibe bordering on New York-style musical and choreographed radio show. It is the first production directed by Yoni Eilat, who claims that it is also the first time cookbooks have been adapted for the stage. Kishke, for the uninitiated, is the stuffed beef intestine Jewish delicacy, but “Monologues from the Kishke” has a double meaning, in that it can also be construed as speaking “from the gut.”

The project began two years ago when Eilat turned 35 and received two separate copies of “Schmaltz,” a Hebrew-language cookbook of Eastern European Jewish cooking, written by Shmil Holland and Nili Osherov (published by Karpad-Modan). “It’s not because I am a great amateur chef, but because everyone knows that I am interested in Eastern European culture,” Eilat says. I have been acting at Yiddishpiel for eight years, but my activity extended beyond that theater. I developed one-man shows in Yiddish and performed them around the world. I recorded an album in Yiddish. The language took over my life.”

Over the past two years, he combed cookbooks for old wives’ tales, mounted a search for songs to go with them, and attempted to assemble them into a coherent whole.

“At the beginning, everything took place in my head, and the theater didn’t get what it was all about because it was not a show with a beginning, middle and end,” Eilat recalls. But then he teamed up with composer Kobi Luria, who presented a large number of songs to him and insisted on sorting through them, leaving out the traditional wedding songs.

It was also decided that everyone involved in the production be between the ages of 20 and 30, and that the monologues themselves be in Hebrew although the songs are in Yiddish, with simultaneous written translation over the stage. Some of the songs are also familiar to Hebrew speakers from their Hebrew versions, and others will invoke nostalgic memories from those who know the original Yiddish songs.

The eight members of the cast take the stage on a set resembling a 1950s kitchen, with an old refrigerator and peeling wallpaper. And the monologues are peppered with nostalgia. One example is from a cookbook by Sherry Ansky with recipes for cholent, the slow-cooked traditional Shabbat stew: “Making cholent on the first week of winter is like putting on last year’s sweater again for the first time. It seems to me that, of the 10 measures of pleasure from food that descended to Earth, cholent took nine of them.”

Osherov, the coauthor of the “Schmaltz” cookbook, expressed her approval for the texts on which the monologues were based. “Food has a deep and more significant place from a cultural standpoint,” she says. “The combination of food, tasting and music in this show manages to touch on the basic aspects of our identity.”

Yiddishpiel’s CEO and artistic director, Sassi Keshet, himself a veteran singer and actor, said it took guts to entrust such an undertaking to Eilat, whom he called “a very young guy who had never directed.” Nonetheless, he said, he gave Eilat his “full backing” on the production. And the audience reaction has been great, he adds.

The reaction has not been uniformly positive, however. One angry woman fumed in a comment on Yiddishpiel’s Facebook page: “Why are they called Yiddishpiel if most of the show was in Hebrew ... and when they spoke Yiddish, it was not understandable.”

In a conversation with the cast after the show, one of the performers, Yuval Rapaport, said he thought some of the reaction would be negative but adds: “You have to remember that this show really speaks through the second and third generations. And what do you want? This generation doesn’t speak Yiddish today. Maybe they have heard it at home. If we had done the production [completely] in Yiddish, it would have turned out artificial, so the combination is very delicate and very precise, and very natural.”

Eilat himself acknowledges that some members of the audience complain about the Yiddish accents. “When I started to speak Yiddish, my grandmother told me, ‘Ir redts Yiddish vi a goy.’ (‘You speak Yiddish like a non-Jew.’),” Eilat says. He countered that she has been living in Israel for 70 years and still speaks Hebrew with an accent. “I understand this,” he says. “Her Hebrew is based on Yiddish. There’s no way around it, but she also needs to understand that I am a Hebrew speaker from deep inside, and that’s how I sound.”

Rapaport says that for Yiddishpiel’s regular productions in Yiddish, the management auditions actors who don’t speak Yiddish to see how they express themselves in the language without understanding it. “If they pass muster, they take an intensive university Yiddish course,” he explains. Eilat takes exception to Rapaport’s description, however, saying that most of the young actors at Yiddishpiel had cultivated an appreciation for the language at Yiddish classes first, and only then joined the theater.

According to Eilat, noted cookbook author Ruth Sirkis told him that the show had reestablished the honor of Ashkenazi food. “It doesn’t have a good reputation in Israel, but it is an accomplished cuisine that prompts nostalgia and tastes of childhood,” says, in defense of the food. “There’s no disputing this. And when Australians expound on the virtues of Marmite, there is no disputing that, either. If even before this we didn’t apologize over our love of Jewish food, we certainly won’t now.”

Yiddishpiel will perform “Monologues from the Kishke” at Tel Aviv’s Tzavta on July 30, August 10 and 11, September 17 and October 12 and 13, with further dates in Modi’in (Aug. 17), Givatayim (Sept. 22) and Eilat (Oct. 28).

Yanai Yechiel