How a YCDS Alumnus Evokes 'Tradition' in Yiddish 'Fiddler' Off-Broadway
For Moshe Lobel (formerly Wigder), being a performer was inescapable. Though he entered Yeshiva University about seven years ago with the intention to study and pursue psychology, he couldn’t shake his nagging passion for the performing arts. It took a chance run-in with the then-president of the Yeshiva College Dramatics Society (YCDS) during his first week on campus to get Lobel to audition for “1776”, his first show with the society.
“As soon as I got on that stage, I felt very much at home, like that was kind of where I belonged,” said Lobel about his first acting experience with YCDS. “After doing that show, there was no way I could not do it again.”
Now starring as Mordcha in the critically acclaimed National Yiddish Theater Folksbiene production of “Fiddler on the Roof,” Lobel’s career has blossomed since his time with YCDS. But like Tevye’s profound connection to his traditions, Lobel also recognizes the way that his roots – YCDS and its artistic director Lin Snyder – helped him reach success in the field.
“I’m continually surprised by how well prepared I was by Lin for the professional world,” said Lobel. “Her approach was to prepare, to do things the way they are done in a professional environment.” For actors, that meant signing in for stage management at every rehearsal – a ritual usually reserved for union productions – and warming up two-hours before a performance.
YCDS lineage notwithstanding, working in this entirely Yiddish production of “Fiddler” brought out another part of Lobel’s personal tradition and heritage. His role as the eccentric, emceeing innkeeper doesn’t mark the actor’s first rodeo with the almost extinct German-Hebrew tongue; Yiddish was Lobel’s first language. He grew up chassidish in Boro Park, an ultra-Orthodox community in Brooklyn, but mostly abandoned the language after leaving the insular society.
“I felt it was suppressive and I didn’t enjoy it at all,” remarked Lobel.
Ironically, Yiddish eventually became Lobel’s golden ticket to landing some of his most important auditions and roles, including those for Yiddish “Fiddler.” He was cast in “Awake and Sing” at the New Yiddish Rep in 2017 and got a role in “High Maintenance,” an HBO show that was seeking Yiddish speakers. When “Fiddler” came around, he went through a few rounds of auditions before he was cast as a replacement.
Lobel is currently the only resident of the Folksbiene’s Anatevka who can speak Yiddish offstage as well as onstage, though it isn’t evident from the audience’s perspective. The other actors maneuver through the intricacies of the language superbly well.
“There definitely is a personality that comes with the language,” said Lobel. “There is a culture that doesn’t come out in English.”
In “Fiddler”, that personality is suddenly evident. In hearing the Sabbath Prayer sung as it must have sounded in the shtetl, in watching Tevye recite Kaddish for his estranged, intermarried daughter (a gut-wrenching addition I had never seen done onstage before), the emotion, humor and chutzpah of “Fiddler” is magnified, finally at home in its native tongue. And non-Yiddish speakers need not worry. The show is presented with English and Russian supertitles.
The scene-focused nature of Joel Grey’s direction could be partly responsible for the success, Lobel pointed out. Many of the rehearsals were initially done in English to ensure that each scene was fully developed and explored. The Yiddish was often added in after the fact – and it shows in the acting.
“There are non-Jewish people in our cast who are very connected to the material just because of the way it is approached,” said Lobel of Grey’s direction. And while rumors of a Broadway transfer are not yet confirmed to be true, the production’s enormous impact has certainly extended beyond the Jewish community.
Performing in this historic, Shabbat-friendly production of “Fiddler,” Lobel has not forgotten where he started. For many participants, YCDS is a club. For Lobel, it was the start of a successful career. And for fledgling actors in YCDS looking to take it further, Lobel offered some advice:
“If you want to do it professionally then go into it,” he said simply. “Dive into it 100 percent.”
Fiddler On The Roof in Yiddish is running at the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene through October 25. To purchase tickets, visit http://nytf.org/.
Photo Caption: TRADITION: Steven Skybell and Ensemble
Photo Credit: Victor Nechay/ProperPix