Faced with the choice of a conventional but secure career, and an opportunity for something exhilarating but unpredictable, which would you choose? Yiddish scholar Mikhl Yashinsky was recently faced with that choice, and he went with the latter.
Yashinsky is a Farmington Hills native who graduated from Harvard and then worked at the Michigan Opera Theatre. He's made a career out of his love of Yiddish culture.
He had a job at the National Yiddish Book Center in Massachusetts where he helped create a multi-media Yiddish textbook and then moved to New York City, where he was one of some 700 actors who auditioned for the Yiddish production of Fiddler On The Roof. Yashinsky won a dual role as an innkeeper and a beggar. Some veteran Broadway actors didn’t make the cut because they couldn’t handle the Yiddish.
“He is a truly Yiddish soul,” said Jackie Hoffman, a Broadway veteran who plays Yenta the matchmaker in Fiddler. “He’s like someone who could’ve crept out of the 19th century. It’s like Yiddish is in his blood.”
Yashinsky attributes his love of Yiddish culture to his maternal grandmother, the late Elizabeth Elkin Weiss. She was a Yiddishist, someone devoted to the literature, music and theater of Yiddish.
“[My grandmother] is very much to thank for what I’m doing,” said Yashinsky. “I feel, actually, everything I do in some way has to do with her.”
Weiss was in countless Yiddish theater productions, according to an obituary in the Detroit Free Press. She appeared on the Green Hornet and Lone Ranger radio programs on WXYZ in Detroit. Weiss had an uncanny ability to do different accents and characters, so much so that she came to be known as the woman of 1,000 voices. She did a radio ad for a local Italian restaurant in her Zsa Zsa Gabor voice and customers at the eatery were convinced that the real Zsa Zsa had done the ad.
When Weiss was 88, Yashinsky hired her to recite a poem in Yiddish prior to the start of Brundibar, a children’s opera he directed at the Detroit Opera House in 2014. The poem was delivered as the words of a mother seeking her lost children. Yashinsky never informed the cast of the opera that Weiss was his grandmother.
“He wanted her to stand on her own talent, with no connection to him,” recalled his mother, Debbie Yashinsky. “At rehearsals she would address him as Mr. Yashinsky, and he would call her Mrs. Weiss. Only one time did she slip and call him ‘Darling’ but she quickly recovered and said ‘I call all of my directors Darling!’"
Yashinsky’s grandfather, too, had a showbiz career. Rubin Weiss acted in humorous TV commercials, one for Almaden wine in which he played triplets who are winemakers who acknowledge that their wine is inferior.
In addition to Yashinsky’s mother Debbie, Rubin and Elizabeth Weiss had four other children. One of them, David Weiss, is better known as David Was, the founder of Was (Not Was). A Detroit newspaper described the group as “a sausage factory of funk, rock, jazz and electronic dance music.” The band’s 1987 hit "Walk the Dinosaur" rose to #7 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.
The Yiddish version of Fiddler On The Roof is also a hit of sorts. Staged by the century-old National Yiddish Theater in New York known as Folksbiene, the production received standing ovations before sold-out crowds at virtually every performance this summer. The musical was originally slated to close at the end of August but ended up getting extended through the end of December.
Yashinsky was torn about leaving the show in early September, but he had made a commitment to teach Yiddish at U of M and arrived back in Michigan the day before he was scheduled to start teaching.
The brisk ticket sales and critical acclaim for Yiddish Fiddler resulted in an announcement by two Broadway producers that they would re-boot the musical in February 2019 at the largest off-Broadway theater in New York City.
When Yashinsky came to New York to record the cast album in late November, he was struggling with the decision of whether to accept an offer to return to the cast or continue teaching in Ann Arbor. He wore his grandmother’s ring to the recording sessions. He knows his grandmother would be proud of him for performing in a Yiddish musical, as well as teaching the mama loshen, or the mother tongue, at U of M. He ultimately decided to take a leave of absence from the university but says he’ll miss the students in his Yiddish classes.
“These are people who I feel connected to in our mutual discovery of this language,” he said.
Jeffrey Veidlinger, the director of the U of M’s Center for Judaic Studies, said the center has given its blessing to Yashinsky’s decision to return to the stage.
“We see him as becoming a real prominent Yiddish cultural figure and all that benefits us when he comes back and returns to the classroom,” said Veidlinger. “We certainly expect him to come back and hope he comes back.”
There is already talk of bringing the Yiddish production of Fiddler On The Roof to Los Angeles, Berlin and Australia. Mikhl Yashinsky says whether he stays with the show or returns to the university, he’s determined to make a contribution to Yiddish culture.
"Both careers have something in common and that’s discovering and disseminating and celebrating this culture, the culture of my ancestors, really,” said Yashinsky. “As a teacher, I’m transmitting it in a different way than I’m transmitting it on stage. But in any case I’m helping to add more links to this golden chain of [Yiddish] culture that’s inherited from one generation to the next. And it’s upon us all to just keep adding links to that chain, not to lose grasp of it."
Yashinsky returns to New York next week, where he'll start rehearsals for the Fiddler reboot on Tuesday. The musical opens February 11.