It would be a presumptuous statement to claim that integration and assimilation for new arrivals in a new land is an easy, seamless process. These are, after all, individuals, couples, and entire families that are brave enough to cope with a difficult voyage from their lands of origin and take a chance to stake their claim in a land they likely know little about, save for the anecdotes and folktales that they’ve heard along the way. Yet many do take that chance and try and carve out a niche for themselves and their loved ones in the New World, as has been the case for the better part of two hundred years in North America. The Jewish community especially has burgeoned in the Western hemisphere as a result, and nowhere could that be more succinctly illustrated than in New York City at the turn of the 20th century. Though many European Jews escaped government and societal persecution in their homelands to sail toward a new hope and a new beginning, one’s troubles cannot simply be packed away in sturdy luggage with other artifacts and mementos of a life left behind.
Enter the Forward, New York’s premier Yiddish newspaper – launched in 1897 for a swelling Lower East Side immigration population in the future Big Apple. These European immigrants often felt the need to pour open their hearts, sometimes outright desperate to do so, but being far from home and sometimes virtually alone in the New World, they sought counsel in the comforting pages of the advice column begun in 1906 in the Forward, affectionately known as A Bintel Brief. Not so different than our world today, the issues people faced truly ran the gamut from the trivially sublime to the horrifically heart wrenching and everything in between.
As a nod to the celebration of six decades of superlative Yiddish theatre now under the majestic umbrella of the Dora Wasserman Yiddish Theatre, the Segal Centre is bringing back the laughter and the tears, not to mention the music, of A Bintel Brief to some of the descendants and associated enthusiasts of the people that wrote the Forward for advice all those years ago, as well as devout theatergoers in general. Experiencing life through the eyes of these optimistic, yet often bewildered and sometimes disillusioned, people, every emotion on the human spectrum will get a workout of its own in this enthralling, charming, and bedazzling production. You’ll hang on every word, try to decipher every subtle motivation of some of the more unscrupulous characters, hum and sway to every delightful musical number.
This Yiddish production, crisply written – often in brief staccato masterpiece form – by Abraham Schulman, is presented with English and French supertitles, making the brilliant dialogue and occasional monologue palatably fluid for those not versed in the traditional language of European Jewish populations, and enable all to catch all the hilarity, insight and verbal nuances that unabashedly make this a show not to be missed. Watching jaw-dropping instances of culture shock and integration struggles unfold from afar teaches us not to forget where we ourselves came from, that people –and the human struggle to fit in and rise up – are essentially universal themes, and that the cycle, ironically – and sometimes hilariously – repeats itself all over again.
Michelle Heisler has effortlessly outdone herself directing this soul stirring tour de force that easily puts modern talk shows, advice columns and blogs to shame. Nick Burgess helms the amazing music that elevates an already fantastic story (and with a live musical section in the balcony, one easily becomes spoiled with the thrilling level of interactivity), and Jonathan Patterson keeps the characters moving intensely gracefully during the magnificent musical numbers. And speaking of numbers, what Jewish number could be luckier than eighteen (18), and that is the number of talented actors and actresses with which we are blessed, as they effortlessly propel the Brief from the (newspaper) page to the stage.
Seize the opportunity to sail into the New World with all the excitement, hope, hardships and inevitable heartbreaks that follow, playing at the Segal Centre until October 21st. Visit segalcentre.org for more information or call the box office at (514) 739-7944 .