Something for Everyone in ‘Tevye Served Raw’
Whoever said that Yiddish was a dying language must have never visited New York. From the National Yiddish Rep to the critically acclaimed, Off Broadway-bound Yiddish “Fiddler on the Roof,” the Big Apple has made a name for itself as a hub of Yiddish language appreciation, especially in the performing arts.
“Tevye Served Raw,” or the dramatized tales of Sholem Aleichem, is the latest of these special manifestations to hit New York. And it’s dripping with trademark Yiddish-ness. The website’s advertisement was correct in its proclamation of, “You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you'll krechtz.” The hour and a half runtime flew by in a blur of Yiddish aphorisms, insults, love letters and songs. And true to its name, Tevye, the beloved dairyman from the Aleichem-inspired “Fiddler on the Roof,” made a few noteworthy appearances.
But “Tevye Served Raw” is more than vignettes from the stories of one of the greatest Jewish writers of all time. As my plus one for the evening put it, much of the show was like a director’s cut of “Fiddler on the Roof,” arguably one of Aleichem’s greatest contributions to the global theatrical canon. The audience—mostly Yiddish-familiar (judging by the timing of the laughs) — was treated to what can only be described as the “Fiddler” scenes that never made it onto the stage: Tevye and Golde’s meeting with the priest after they discover that their daughter, Chava, has converted to Christianity, Tevye’s extended monologues with God before he is evicted from his village—the story we thought we knew is imbued with a fresh texture, making for a heavier take on the tale often regarded as kitschy caricature.
To be sure, “Tevye Served Raw” has its fair share of kitsch. The majority of the show is funny and plays around with exaggerated Jewish stereotypes. In one particularly funny sequence entitled “A Stepmother’s Trash-Talk,” a disgruntled woman (a shrill and captivating Yelena Shmulenson) and narrator (hysterically portrayed by Allen Lewis Rickman) engage in a spitfire alphabetically organized edification of Yiddish insults, from “Shabbos goy” to “A tailor that limps.”
The actors articulated the historic language with what seemed like professional ease. It was no surprise to discover that the entire three-person cast speaks the language fluently. For the audience, however, the action alternates between being performed in English and in Yiddish-with-English-supertitles.
The audience’s average age was about 50—and my guest and I brought down the average significantly. Age aside, my guess is that most people in the small black box theater felt something close to what I felt that night: intense pride in my Jewish tradition and culture. “Tevye Served Raw” is just what its name implies: a genuine, heartfelt and uncooked staging of tradition that often gets watered down in the Broadway glitz and glam of today.
And let me be clear: I don’t think you have to be Jewish or even Jewishly inclined to enjoy what this touching and hilarious show has to offer. “Tevye Served Raw” has something for everyone, Jewish, Yiddish-speaking or none of the above. Beyond tradition, as a celebration of the things that make us human, “Tevye Served Raw” succeeds.
Performances of “Tevye Served Raw” continue through Feb. 13. Tickets are available through TevyeServedRaw.com or by calling (800) 838-3006.
Photo Caption: Allen Lewis Rickman, Yelena Shmulenson and Shane Baker in “Tevye Served Raw” at the Playroom Theater
Photo Credit: Jonathan Melvin Smith