One joke that Christopher Massimine has heard more than once since joining the National Yiddish Theatre—Folksbiene is that he was the “right goy for the job.”
Massimine, 31, is an Italian-born Roman Catholic, and first joined the 104-year-old, longest consecutively producing Yiddish theater in the United States—and the world’s oldest continuously operating Yiddish theatre company—as its marketing communications director. Massimine is now its CEO, overseeing productions including this summer’s much-anticipated U.S. premiere of Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish.
Sitting in the NYTF’s offices within the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Manhattan’s Battery Park, Massmine said that Fiddler in Yiddish has not been staged professionally since its world premiere production in Israel more than 50 years ago.
The production is based on the Tevye the Dairyman vignettes by Yiddish author Sholem Aleichem, translated by Shraga Friedman in 1965.
Friedman, a native Yiddish speaker, was born in Warsaw and escaped Europe with his family, making their way to Tel Aviv in 1941.
Friedman was well acquainted with Aleichem’s works, Massimine said, and used his translation to infuse Fiddler with literary references to the original Tevye stories as well as other stories by the beloved author (“If I Were a Rich Man” is translated into Yiddish as “If I Were a Rothschild”).
This musical, like the theatre company’s others, will come with English and Russian supertitles above the stage, and will be directed by Broadway star Joel Grey.
Informed by Friedman’s experience, the production will be set directly “after the war,” Massimine said, the Holocaust a long, dark shadow over the action, and while there would be moments of levity it would be a tougher and darker piece than those familiar with the 1971 movie, starring Topol.
“I was almost crying,” Massimine said of a recent read-through of Friedman’s translation. “One of the staff joked, ‘We’re all holding it together. Only the non-Jewish guy can’t keep it together.’ This is historic. We’re going to do something that is so meaningful. It’s really going to connect this musical to the culture in a special way.” The theater has also just commissioned a production of Paddy Chayefksy’s The Tenth Man, whose estate would allow only one linguistic translation—into Yiddish.
The company and its 400-seat theater has been based at the Museum of Jewish Heritage for three years. Before that, the Folksbiene (meaning “people’s stage”) was itinerant; its first production in 1915 was Ibsen’s Enemy of the People, and Massimine is proud that it is now housed “across from the Statue of Liberty—there is no better home, especially now.”
An only child, Massimine was born in Italy, and came to America at 8 months old, his parents—mother a nurse, father an accountant—settling in Somerset, New Jersey. He was an artistic child, painting outside on an easel, and creating plays with friends. When he was 5, he saw his first stage production, Oliver, at the State Theatre New Jersey.
“The first thing I remember is the magic of the curtain coming up, then the spectacularly designed set,” he recalled, with a wide smile. “It was scary a little bit, being set in an orphanage but it was an incredible set. It moved toward the audience. For me that was magical. By the end of it, all I thought was, ‘I want to be on that stage. I want to be part of the magic.
“And then—and this is what did it for me—my father picked me up when the applause happened and the kid playing Oliver waved to me. After I went up to meet with him. He thought I was someone he knew. I asked what he was doing, and he told me acting. I wanted to know how I could part of the show.”
In the car ride home, young Massimine asked that he would like to see his new friend, Dan, again and he would like to be more involved in the theatre. His first audition was for Annie (“I couldn’t be mean for the dog”), and got his first round of applause aged 7, playing Tiny Tim in the production of A Christmas Carol.
Then came more young-kid parts on Broadway in Beauty and The Beast and Les Misérables. “It was amazing, being in this special place where people could forget what else was bothering them. It elevated the spirit. It’s the kind of magic you can’t put a price on.”
Massimine got his first-hand experience of producing in his senior class, when he oversaw a production of the Rocky Horror Picture Show. At NYU, he first studied science, before switching to dramatic literature and comparative literature. He also oversaw a production of Cabaret, and after university went into a career of marketing and advertising—as well as production jobs on both Jersey Shore and Boardwalk Empire—before being approached by the NYTF to join the organization.
He has not felt isolated or ignorant within the NYTF. “The culture, camaraderie, brotherhood and sisterhood, the emphasis on artistic culture—all clicked. It’s similar to my background. I come from a very Italian family, it’s really kind of wonderful. Yiddish is guttural and expressive, and people largely don’t understand the impact of Yiddish culture on our country, let alone the world. Here, we’re using Jewish culture as a bridge to other cultures and identities.”
He smiled. “I was so bent on being the next [genome pioneer] Craig Venter, working to use genetics to rebuild arms and limbs. My father said, ‘It’s funny you got here. You were thinking about rebuilding limbs once upon a time, now you’re rebuilding culture.’”
Only one or two actors in a typical production can speak Yiddish fluently in a typical cast, he said; they get extra rehearsal time and are also taught a battery of phrases alongside the words on the page. “It’s a whole body experience, it gets committed to muscle memory.”
Those actors come from diverse backgrounds, Massimine emphasized. He is proud that the company’s operational budget has risen from an annual $750,000 when he joined to around $3 million today. “Being here has changed me,” said Massimine. “It has opened me up to the excitement and possibility of other cultures.” (Last year, the National Yiddish Theatre was one of 50 organizations which converged for a summit, out of which was born the Immigrant Arts Coalition.)
Before World War II, 100 percent of the theatre’s visitors were Yiddish-speaking, Massimine said. The use of the language declined in the wake of World War II, and the association of Yiddish with Nazi persecution and the Holocaust, he added.
Today, non-Yiddish speakers far outnumber Yiddish speakers in the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene's audience, Massimine said, although the theatre had noted a resurgence in recent years in a Yiddish-speaking audience; the language is being rediscovered and reclaimed by a younger audience he said.
“The current percentage for Yiddish speakers as of end of this past February is 20 percent in fluency and those who speak a ‘bisl’ or ‘a little/bit’ is now at 18 percent—and that increase seems to be consistent in the age ranges of 25-30 and 30-35,” Massimine revealed.
“So now at the three-quarters way through our season (our season is July-June based on our fiscal calendar) it does indeed look like those numbers of Yiddish speakers are continuing to increase with the trend that the millennial generation is reengaging with culture and heritage, which is really rewarding to learn.”
To attract millennial audiences, the theatre is planning a series of adverts to play in New York City taxis, and a ghastly sounding plan to originate a Yiddish translation app in people’s cellphones, which would mean the NYTF would presumably encourage people to have their phones on during performances, which sounds horrifying on every level.
“There are some still kinks to iron out in it,” said Massimine. (This theatregoer pleads: Please drop the idea.)
After Fiddler will come more challenging productions, Massimine said: “Sharp things start to dull if don't keep them sharp!” One upcoming play is When Blood Ran Red, mapping the shift, in Massimine’s words, “of Russian sentiment from helping those fleeing genocide to causing massive genocide.”
The play will feature the character of Solomon Mikhoels, the artistic director of the Moscow State Jewish Theatre who was assassinated by Stalin under disguise of a traffic accident. Mikhoels was good friends with the black singer, actor and activist Paul Robeson (another character in the play), himself blacklisted—and his passport revoked—for having Communist “sympathies” in the 1950s.
In his office, Massimine has the Tony Award of a friend whom he declines to name, who died and bequeathed it to him. He also has a little electric piano, which he plays (beautifully). He himself is in the process of completing a novel and musical Beyond The Lines of Glory, set in World War II; his first musical, Lovers, was performed in 2010 off-Broadway, and it’s clear composing is his first love. Massimine assures me that he loves producing, but his eyes dance when he talks about his own musical.
A few floors down, in the spacious theater itself, Massimine talked of two popular recent plays, The Golden Bride (in Yiddish, Die Goldene Kale) and The Sorceress, both Yiddish theatre pieces “almost lost to history.”
The theatre is now collaborating with institutions including UCLA and the Library of Congress to help restore such pieces, “note by note and line by line.” For the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene, the history and future are inextricably intertwined.