PO­ETIC JUS­TICE AT ASHKENAZ FEST

Avi Hoff­man per­forms a solo show about lesser-known Yid­dish poet It­sik Manger

NOW Magazine - - STAGE - By DEB­BIE FEIN-GOLDBACH

RE­FLEC­TIONS OF A LOST POET: THE LIFE AND WORKS OF IT­SIK MANGER by Miriam Hoff­man. Pre­sented by Ashkenaz Fes­ti­val at Har­bourfront Cen­tre The­atre (231 Queens Quay West). Satur­day (Septem­ber 1) at 6 pm. Fes­ti­val runs to Septem­ber 3. $25-$30. ashkenaz.ca.

Ac­tor Avi Hoff­man’s par­ents over­came in­cred­i­ble odds. His fa­ther made it out of Auschwitz and his mother, born in a slave labour camp in Siberia, en­dured the war and then spent time in a dis­placed per­sons camp.

The ex­pe­ri­ence shook their re­li­gious be­liefs – Hoff­man grew up athe­ist – but his par­ents were stead­fast about pre­serv­ing the Yid­dish lan­guage and cul­ture that Hitler and the Nazis tried to de­stroy.

A na­tive speaker of the lan­guage, in 2016 Hoff­man brought his Drama Desk-nom­i­nated Willy Lo­man to Toronto’s Ashkenaz Fes­ti­val in the of­fBroad­way Yid­dish ver­sion of Arthur Miller’s Death Of A Sales­man.

He no­ticed some­thing when he vis­ited two years ago.

“I was in­cred­i­bly im­pressed with the Yid­dishkeit [Jewish­ness] of Toronto. I feel like, in many ways, Toronto and Mon­treal re­ally kept that flame alive.”

Hoff­man is speak­ing to me from his car on a high­way in Co­ral Springs, Florida. His lilt­ing voice has a slight ac­cent that hints of a life that be­gan in the Bronx, and in­cludes liv­ing in Is­rael and Florida, as well as trav­el­ling the world.

At this year’s Ashkenaz Fes­ti­val, au­di­ences will have no less than five chances to see Hoff­man. He’ll be in a staged read­ing of the play Ad­dress Un­known; star­ring in the Yid­dish film She­hita; and ap­pear­ing twice with his mother, Miriam Hoff­man: once to read ex­cerpts from her mem­oir, A Breed Apart, and also to read chil­dren’s sto­ries by Rud­yard Ki­pling and Dr. Seuss trans­lated into Yid­dish by Miriam.

And he’ll be per­form­ing Re­flec­tions Of A Lost Poet: The Life And Works Of It­sik Manger. Writ­ten in 1981 by Miriam, her­self an award-win­ning playshows wright and au­thor, the solo show is their trib­ute to a man Hoff­man de­scribes as “one of the most beloved of Yid­dish po­ets.”

“I’ve per­formed it lit­er­ally thou­sands of times all over the world,” says Hoff­man. “Re­flec­tions Of A Lost Poet the beau­ti­ful and ten­der and won­der­ful and lov­ing and hor­rific and tragic life of one of the great­est Yid­dish po­ets who ever lived.”

Manger never be­came a house­hold name like his con­tem­po­rary Isaac Ba­she­vis Singer, who lived longer and had a num­ber his sto­ries turned into Hol­ly­wood films.

“It­sik Manger was born in 1901 and be­came part of the in­cred­i­ble cre­ative pe­riod of Yid­dish au­thors, po­ets, com­posers and writ­ers in the world of War­saw be­fore the war,” ex­plains Hoff­man, adding that in the 1930s War­saw was con­sid­ered the cen­tre of Yid­dish cul­ture and cre­ativ­ity.

Manger wrote lyri­cal love sto­ries, songs and po­ems highly in­flu­enced by folk­lore and the Bi­ble. Peo­ple strongly iden­ti­fied with his work, but sadly he died alone in 1969, a pen­ni­less al­co­holic.

“He lost his world in the Holo­caust and never re­cu­per­ated from that trauma,” says Hoff­man.

Through­out the years the Hoff­mans have cre­ated three ver­sions of the work. At Ashkenaz he’ll be bring­ing back the orig­i­nal all-Yid­dish ver­sion, first per­formed at the Bronx Jewish Home for the Aged, where pretty much every­one in the au­di­ence un­der­stood ev­ery word. For a while it seemed that the lan­guage was dy­ing off al­most as quickly as those sil­ver-haired se­niors who spoke it.

But Hoff­man com­pares to­day’s Yid­dish the­atre to opera.

“You don’t have to un­der­stand be­cause there are su­per­ti­tles that trans­late every­thing.”

Hoff­man now sees his au­di­ences get­ting more di­verse, in­clud­ing all ages, Jewish and non-Jewish.

“Even if they don’t un­der­stand ev­ery word, as long as they hear the sounds and get the gist of how beau­ti­ful it is, maybe that will en­cour­age peo­ple to want to know more.

“It’s a whole new fron­tier,” he ex­claims. “A Yid­dish re­nais­sance all over the world.” stage@nowtoronto.com | @so­many­dreams

“Even if peo­ple don’t un­der­stand [the Yid­dish], as long as they hear the sounds and get the gist of how beau­ti­ful it is, maybe that will en­cour­age peo­ple to want to know more.”

Avi Hoff­man has per­formed Re­flec­tions Of A Lost Poet thou­sands of times all over the world.

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