David Mandelbaum, artistic director of the New Yiddish Rep Theater company, adapted “Yosl Rakover Speaks to G-d” into a one man show, in which he stars.
Staff Writer Mary Feddeman spoke with Mandelbaum about his inspiration for the show
and what he hopes people will take from his performance of it Sunday.
Daily Tar Heel: What led you to want to work on this show?
David Mandelbaum: I was given this production about 12 years ago, and I thought it would make a wonderful stage show. That was it. I started working on it. It was actually the first production of New Yiddish Rep, which is my theater company. And we’ve just gone from there. It was a natural progression.
DTH: Where did your inspiration for this production come from?
DM: When you read it, it’s natural.
First of all, it’s a great show for an actor. It’s also wonderful Yiddish. And it didn’t really take much to see that a stage production would be a good way to reach audiences.
I started working on it, and over the span of a couple years, we just kept honing it down and honing it down, rearranging it, cutting — and the piece we have now is one we’re very satisfied with. It really wasn’t a long search for something. It just sort of came together organically.
DTH: Are all productions of New Yiddish Rep Theater company actually in Yiddish?
DM: Right now, we are concentrating on Yiddish because there’s less and less Yiddish theater being done. The things that are being done are mostly musicals and nostalgic reviews.
So, we are concentrating right now on presenting serious Yiddish theater. By serious I mean not necessarily tragedies … but we’re concentrating on stage productions that are uninterrupted by music — more “staged shows” than actual plays.
DTH: Beyond the story, what is the show really about? What greater themes does “Yosl Rakover Speaks to G-d” explore?
DM: Well, the story itself is considered a classic of Holocaust literature. It’s about a Jewish man who goes through the murder of his entire family and finds himself the last remaining person fighting in his bunker.
He is aware that that there is no escape, and he decides he’s going to make himself into a human bomb to attack the Germans. Before he does, he writes a letter to God, in which he affirms his faith in God. That’s the crux of the story, so the theme really centers on the question of why God lets bad things happen to good people.
It’s very existential, and it’s very strong material. It also happens that this time of year is an appropriate time to show it. Next Friday is the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.
DTH: Why do you think this is an interesting and relevant story to be exploring, particularly for students?
DM: I don’t know what in particular will appeal to them, but what I’m happy about is the opportunity for them to hear Yiddish and to hear it as a millennial language of artistic expression.
That’s what I am primarily pleased about, and I’m very pleased that the sponsors of this event have given me the opportunity to do that. I expected them to want me to do it in English, but they surprised me, and I’m very happy about it.
DTH: Was Yosl Rakover a real man living in the Warsaw Ghetto, or is the story a work of historical fiction?
DM: It was originally thought that Yosl Rakover was a real person, but actually the author, Zvi Kolitz, wrote the story in Argentina at the request of a Yiddish daily. It was then sent to Israel without attribution and without his name on it, so people there assumed that it was a real testament.
The story has, since then, been the subject of theological papers and philosophical essays, and it’s only recently that people managed to get his name back on it.
DTH: What are some of the things you hope the audience will take away from the production?
DM: If one young person walks out of there with an interest in finding out more about Yiddish — Yiddish culture and Yiddish language — then I will be very happy.
And I think I’d be even happier if even one young person walks out thinking, “I would like to learn how to be a Yiddish actor.” That would be, to me, an immense achievement. Because without Yiddish actors, there’s not much of a future for Yiddish theater.
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