Published: 28 January 2010
by DAN CARRIER
YIDDISH Karaoke sounds like the sort of whacky night out you find in trendy bars in Hoxton and Old Street. But the concept is real, and has an educational aspect – the chance to grab a microphone and practise your Yiddish is one of a host of displays earmarked for a huge new museum due to open in Camden Town in March. As well as being a lot of fun, it sheds light on a genre of theatre that was hugely popular in the 20th century and in turn tells a facet of the story of immigration into Britain.
The Jewish Museum in Albert Street moved out three years ago to temporary premises in Finchley Road, but after a £10million renovation project, the artefacts and exhibitions that will make it the leader of its kind in the UK are being brought in.
One of the displays will give for visitors the chance to get on stage, helped by comedian David Schneider, and learn how to perform in a traditional East End Yiddish music hall.
David, who did a PhD in Yiddish Theatre at Oxford University, is known for his work with Armando Iannucci, is a regular on radio and TV comedy shows and has appeared in a variety of Hollywood films.
His involvement stems from his family’s story: David’s grandfather was the famed Yiddish playwright Abish Meisels, who fled Austria in 1938.
“He and his wife Clara worked for Yiddish theatres in Austria and Czechoslovakia before the war,” said David.
The pair were due to be incarcerated by Austrian Nazis. “Amazingly, they were tipped off by a secretary in the Nazi Party the day before they were due to be arrested,” reveals David.
“Wearing layers and layers of clothes, and pretending they were merely going out for a Bank Holiday day trip, they fled.”
Abish was a member of the international writers group PEN, which campaigned for freedom of speech, and he managed to get a flight via the organisation to London. His wife and daughter – David’s mother – followed soon after. And because of their reputation on the Continent in theatrical circles, they began to produce plays in East End theatres that still performed productions in Yiddish.
They continued working in shows after show during the war– and helped raise morale in an area of London that faced nightly bombing raids, and housed many of London’s Jewish population, who had to face the reality of a Europe dominated by a fiercely anti-Semitic regime.
One of his first big productions after arriving in England was the comedy hit The King of Lampedusa. David’s father wrote the play, and based it on a true story. It tells of the life of Sidney Cohen, a tailor cutter from Clapton, who enlisted in the RAF.
“He was forced to land his plane on the tiny island Mediterranean of Lampedusa,” says David. “The entire Italian garrison on the island surrendered to him – earning him the nickname ‘The King of Lampedusa’. He also translated The Merchant of Venice into Yiddish.”
David speaks Yiddish himself – “I learnt it at Oxford, so it is the Queen’s Yiddish”, he jokes – and believes the museum’s karaoke booth will give others an insight into the complexities and the joy of the language. “It has great irony within it,” he explains. “It is also a very flexible language.”
And many Yiddish words have made their way into the lingua franca of Londoners – like schlep, shmooze and nosh. He believes this is partly the influence of American English.
“Yiddish was used in the States, and became Americanised,” he says. “It has helped it return to London, and find a base in everyday English.”
The karaoke booth at the new museum has classic passages from Yiddish theatre, including Shylock’s famous “hath not a Jew eyes?” speech from the translation by David’s grandfather, and a lament by the matriarch Mirele Efros in Jacob Gordin’s play of the same name.
David acts on a film screen as a prompter, giving a demonstration of the speeches made, before encouraging you to try for yourself. “The idea is you are coached to have a go at speaking in Yiddish,” says David.
Other attractions at the new museum, spread over three floors, include temporary exhibition spaces for art shows as well as permanent features, which includes an East End street scene, a Friday night Shabbat meal and the interior of a tailor’s workshop.
In one area, the religious rites and services of Judaism are explained – and includes an artefact that has been lost for centuries. A synagogue ark, used to house the Torah scrolls.
It was made in northern Italy, and dates from the 17th century and is believed to have come from a synagogue in Venice. It was found in the Northumbrian stately home Chillingham Castle, in 1932 – and was being used to store the jackets of stewards working at the castle.
It was then bought by an antiquarian bookseller who noticed the Hebrew inscriptions carved into the wood – and now it is the centrepiece of the museum’s section on to the rites of the faith.
•The Jewish Museum opens on March at 129-131 Albert Street, NW1. 020 7284 7384. www. jewishmuseum.org.uk