Avi Hoffman’s one-man show, “Too Jewish?,” subtitled “A Mench and His Musical,” takes us on a stroll through the Yiddish-filled New York of his youth. Hoffman begins with his childhood surprise that, unlike his neighborhood in the Bronx, the whole world did not actually speak Yiddish.
The current production is special to Hoffman and Broward Stage Door because the production first opened in the same theater in Margate twenty years ago, and gave Hoffman, a relatively unknown performer at the time the opportunity to develop his own show.
The production has gone on to win awards and enthrall audiences around the globe. Hoffman won the Los Angeles Ovation Award for Best Actor in a Musical in 2001 as well as Performer of the Year 1995 from the New York Press Magazine. The twenty years may have slowed Hoffman’s delivery a bit from the early days, but they have added a depth to the meaning of the play.
The show is best described as a play with music. Hoffman is the consummate story-teller and a bit of a stand-up comedian. He plays with his audience, asking them to identify the English name for famous Jewish performers and to explore the Anglicization of their own names from Yiddish (or Hebrew) to English. He shares Hamlet’s soliloquy in Yiddish and renders Shylock’s final speech with a powerful gravitas that leaves the audience wishing Hoffman was performing "The Merchant of Venice" on alternate nights.
Still, the production is certainly a musical. Hoffman deftly uses music to introduce themes of the Yiddish stage. Under the brilliant musical direction and engaging piano accompaniment of Michael Larson, the song numbers add energy, zest, and an important context to the stories Hoffman shares about the great performances from New York’s Second Avenue Theater, including Menasha Skulnik, Boris Thomashefsky, Maurice Schwartz, and FyvushFinkel as well as the literary geniuses like Shalom Aleichem and Isaac Bashevis Singer.
Although most of the script is played for laughs, the show does not lack the pathos required for a proper Yiddish tribute. In one transcendent lullaby, Hoffman sings “Der Alef-Beis” about children learning their “Alef, Beis” (their ABCs). Hoffman sings and translates the lyrics – “Now you learn your Alef, Beis/When you grow older, children, you will know for yourself/How many tears have filled those letters.”
The New York Times once wrote that “the precious truth about Mr. Hoffman is that his shows rest on a solid foundation of scholarship. But like so many sages, he disguises his lessons as entertainment.” In fact, Hoffman tells the audience of the work of his mother, Professor Miriam Hoffman, who served as Professor of Yiddish Literature at Columbia University. Together they have recently founded the Yiddishkayt Initiative, with the purpose “of reintroducing the depth of Jewish culture.”
Most of Hoffman’s songs and stories let both the audience and the story-teller have fun, laugh, and sing throughout the evening. But each also shares an important lesson about both the past and the future. Although Hoffman did not translate the final stanza of“Der Alef-Beis,” the poem perfectly captures the heart of his show – “When you, children, will bear the Exile and will be exhausted/May you derive strength from these letters/Look at them!”
Twenty years later, audience goers will still enjoy “Too Jewish.” Hopefully, they will consider taking their grandchildren as well. Everyone will be glad they did.
"Too Jewish" continues at Broward Stage Door through the beginning of August. Additional performances may be added based on growing demand. For more information, contact Broward Stage Door at 954-344-7765. The theater is located at 8036 West Sample Road, Margate, FL 33065.