Arts, culture & judaica | Purim shpiel with a twist: Poetic Yiddish musical comes to Berkeley

In Israel, Yiddish had long been a linguistic stepchild. That is, until Polish-born poet Itzik Manger’s “Di Megileh” came along.

Manger’s radical Yiddish-language retelling of the Purim story, set in an Eastern European tailor’s shop and later scored by Israeli composer Dov Seltzer, became a hit when it premiered in 1965, helping to rehabilitate the Mamaloshen in Israel.

Naomi Newman (center) narrates the Yiddish Purim musical “Di Megileh.” photo/andy muchin

Now, “Di Megileh” makes its West Coast premiere with a production from the Yiddish Theater Collective in collaboration with KlezCalifornia and the Jewish Music Festival. It runs Thursday, March 6 to March 10 at the Jewish Community Center of the East Bay.

“ ‘Di Megileh’ broke the taboo of performing in Yiddish in public,” says Laura Rosenberg, a co-founder of the locally based Yiddish Theater Collective. “There was this unofficial ban on using Yiddish in public life because the government wanted to promote the use of Hebrew as the national language.”

Actors will speak and sing mostly in Yiddish. English supertitles will be projected for the audience.

The production came about thanks in large part to Achi Ben Shalom, an Israeli-born musician who for years has been making music in the Bay Area. He grew up in Israel attending performances of “Di Megileh” on Purim, and had always wanted to stage it here.

Enter the Yiddish Theater Collective, a newly formed organization consisting of Ben Shalom, Rosenberg, dramaturg Laura Sheppard and choreographer Bruce Bierman. The latter is directing the show.

The production features a host of well-known local music and theater arts figures, including musician Gerry Tenney, actress Joan Mankin, Cantor Linda Hirschhorn and actress Naomi Newman.

Newman plays the narrator in this Purim shpiel with a twist — a couple of new characters and a decidedly Ashkenazi backstory blend with the tale of Esther, Haman and Mordechai  that is read on Purim.

Newman, co-founder of the late Traveling Jewish Theater in San Francisco, knew Manger personally. The Yiddish poet was a frequent Shabbat dinner guest in her home when Newman was growing up in Detroit.

Poets and other literary figures often dined in her Yiddish-speaking household, but Newman especially remembers Manger “perhaps because he was so handsome, his wavy hair falling in his face, too drunk for my father’s taste but deliciously romantic for mine.”

Newman points out that the Purim shpiel constitutes the “origins of Jewish theater.”

“It was sort of like a Punch and Judy show,” she adds, “really rooted in the culture and humor, and intense interaction between the characters.”

Newman loves the Manger/Seltzer score, calling it “a wonderful adaptation, and kind of wild.”

Manger’s biography is a quintessentially 20th-century Jewish story. Born in what is now Ukraine, he thrived as a poet in Warsaw’s prewar Jewish community.

He fled Poland in advance of the Nazi invasion, first to Paris and later to London, where he rode out the war. He made aliyah to Israel in 1958 and lived there until his death in 1969 at the age of 68.

Manger was an alcoholic, never able to reconcile the loss of his beloved Jewish world in Warsaw. But he did live long enough to see his poetry lionized and “Di Megileh,” originally written in 1936 as a poem cycle, sweep Israelis off their feet.

“He spoke of himself as writing modernist poems inspired by the oral Torah,” Rosenberg notes. “The Torah lives through reinterpretations by artists down through the generations. Recasting the stories and giving larger voice to characters he felt unjustly neglected, or creating new characters, he felt he was being true to the intent of the Torah.”

The producers hope this production will be the start of an annual staging of the piece.

“Di Megileh” plays March 6, 8, 9 and 10 at the JCC East Bay, 1414 Walnut St., Berkeley. $20-$22.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is J.'s news editor. He can be reached at