Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Shtetl

'Monologues from the Kishke,' touches your heart and other parts; a rare Yiddish play today that celebrates the culture of Eastern European Jews instead of mourning its decline.

The humble fare that evolved in Europe's shtetls has long nourished the Ashkenazi body and soul, but has very rarely caused diners to break out into song. Until now, that is.

This week's reviews conclude with an evening full of joie de vivre and dedicated to Ashkenazi culture with Eastern European Jewish cuisine at its center. The play in question, "Monologues from the Kishke," celebrates the very thing that generations of Jews have defamed as being too stuffy (and not just the cabbage), wishy-washy (matzo ball soup) or amorphous (calf's foot jelly).

Director Yoni Eilat received for his birthday a Jewish cooking book, written by chef and folklore researcher Shmil Holland and comic Nili Osherov. But instead of just preparing the recipes within, he turned the cookbook into a musical-culinary evening produced by Yiddishspiel, The Yiddish Theater in Israel. This was one of the first times that I saw in this theater a play that doesn't lament a bygone Yiddish culture, that isn't offended over the lost pride of place held by the culture of Eastern European Jewry. This play doesn't apologize its sad mourning. It openly and loudly celebrates nostalgia, sentimentality and schmaltz.

It turns out that there are a lot of songs about food in Yiddish. They are about both the food and the language, but above all they are about the way of life connected to that language. They are about the culture of the poor and the rich, the mothers and sons, the grandparents from the old country and the children who are already from the new. For this is an evening planned and executed not by actors and creators who have no choice but to appear in Yiddish, but by young Israelis who either know Yiddish from home or learned it for the sake of the production. They celebrate their Yiddishkeit. All of this is rather exceptional and even enjoyable in a reality where Ashkenazi Israelis have, like in the old joke about Jewish mothers, grown used to sitting in the dark and apologizing for their own existence.

The play consists of about an hour and a half of monologues in Hebrew and songs in Yiddish performed energetically by four young men, of which the production's director is one, and four young women. Everything that you wanted to know about cholent, kugel, kachka, bulbes and gefilte fish (a musical number composed by the American klezmer and jazz singers the Barry Sisters and with excellent choreography by Meital Damari).

The monologue texts were written by (among others) Jonathan Safran Foer, Nili Osherov, Shmil Hollande and Sherry Ansky. One of Ansky's monologues, "Akhalti Rak et Atzmi" ("I only ate myself") succeeds thanks to its very personal and autobiographical nature, connecting a very painful Israeli existence to food in general, and Jewish food (from all its various ethnic subgroups) in particular, reminding the listener of what a pure and simple pleasure can be found in simply eating.

The evening ended with the very Israeli market song by Naomi Shemer, translated into Yiddish by Yitzhak Luden. "Havu Lanu Mashke" ("Bring Us a Drink") or in Yiddish "Mit Abisele Kachka." It was sung by the Kachka Command Choir, in what seems worthy of becoming a hit – if our Jewish brothers of Middle Eastern heritage would be willing to humor us for a moment.

Yiddishspiel presents: "Monologues from the Kishke," a culinary-musical adventure following the Eastern European Jewish kitchen. Arrangement and Direction: Yoni Eilat. Arrangements and Musical DIrection: Lior Ronen. Choreography: Meital (Tula) Damari. Scenery Zeev Levi. Costume Design: Ofir Chazan and Liron Blis. Lighting Design: Misha Chernyavsky.

Moti Milrod