POETIC JUSTICE AT ASHKENAZ FEST
Avi Hoffman performs a solo show about lesser-known Yiddish poet Itsik Manger
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.” email@example.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.