Yiddish making a comeback, as theater group shows

Rumors of the death of Yiddish have been greatly exaggerated, according to Buni Cooper, director of a Yiddish theater group at the Berkeley-Richmond Jewish Community Center.

"It was ailing a little, but it was never dead. Now it's coming back," says Cooper, an Oakland resident who grew up in Chicago with Yiddish-speaking parents.

Cooper's part in this burgeoning Yiddish renaissance has been helping to guide the BRJCC's Yiddish Art Players Theater.

The group made its debut in a one-night performance on June 28 at the Berkeley center. Before a sold-out crowd, the players presented three one-act plays — "Yiddish On Off Broad-vey" and "Kasrilevke Restaurants," by Sholom Aleichem, and "Mrs. Rivkin Grapples with the Drama," by Ethel Rosenberg.

Cooper, who says she is "entering her 70's," has a long history with both Yiddish and theater.

It is a Cooper family myth, she says, that her first words were Yiddish ones. Her parents joke that while teething, she said "Nem mich arayn in hoyz gib mir ah bayndl," (take me into the house, give me a bone).

The daughter of a kosher butcher, she went to Hebrew school where Hebrew text was translated into Yiddish.

"[There was] an intense Yiddish life in Chicago," including a Yiddish newspaper and lively Yiddish theater, she says. As a child, she read Shalom Aleichem in Yiddish and sang Yiddish songs.

Heavily involved in singing and theater as a youth, by the age of 15 she had her own Yiddish program sponsored on Chicago radio. On the show, she sang Yiddish songs and told Yiddish stories.

Later, she attended Juilliard, and as an adult, she performed with the Chicago Lyric Opera and the San Francisco Opera Repertory.

Cooper says the recent resurgence in Yiddish has to do with a newfound pride Jews have in Israel.

"In the beginning, Israelis didn't want to know from Yiddish. They thought it was the language they had to speak because they didn't belong anywhere. You had to be cleared of whatever kept you back from Yiddish."

In the past, she says, children were ashamed of parents' accents. "Now, practically every university has a Yiddish department."

Cooper's theater group actually performed "Yiddish On Off Broad-vey" entirely in Yiddish with key phrases being translated into English. The other two plays were performed in English but were peppered with Yiddish phrases.

Cooper says that three or four people in the 10-member cast — most of whom are retirees — had a Yiddish background.

The four-month rehearsal process started with improvisation, breathing and body work.

"You just let the body relax, and then the body can be used as your instrument," says Cooper.

In the second stage of the rehearsal process, scripts were passed out and characters were developed.

"You learn a lot about yourself. It's very healing. It's very good for your health to be somebody else for a while."

Cooper last month attended Klezkamp near Petaluma with her daughter Adrienne, who has an album of Yiddish songs, "Dreaming in Yiddish." She found the experience of speaking only Yiddish for five days exhilarating.

"It's a Yiddish you can practically taste."

Now, Cooper is back to work on her theater group. Because their debut was such a success, the Yiddish Theater Players are planning two performances in 1999. Cooper is currently looking at scripts, and can be reached at (510) 893-3573.

Reflecting on the success of their first performance, Cooper says it's healing, especially for Holocaust survivors, to hear Yiddish.

"It somehow gives life to the voices that were stilled during the Holocaust. This was their language."