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Yiddish Opera Opens in Israel

April 29, 1999

BEERSHEBA, Israel (AP) _ The world’s first original Yiddish opera opened in this desert town to ringing applause from an audience of elderly Jews, thrilled at the revival of a language that all but died in Hitler’s Europe _ and that Israel’s founders took pains to bury.

A standing-room crowd of Yiddish speakers from around Israel flocked Wednesday to the performance of ``The Dybbuk″ _ which means ``The Demon″ in English _ at Ben-Gurion University in Beersheba. Those who couldn’t find seats perched on steps in the aisles.

For Rachel Michaeli, the director of Opera Nodedet, the evening vindicated what Israelis once referred to as ``the language of the weak″ _ and assuaged her own guilty memories.

``When I was young I thought Yiddish smelled of death,″ she said. ``I refused to speak to two of my grandparents because they didn’t know Hebrew.″

Thom Segev, an author who has written extensively on Israeli reactions to the Holocaust, attributes that attitude to the desire of Israel’s founders to create a new man, who was Hebrew rather than Jewish, linked directly to the heroes of the Bible.

``Yiddish was viewed as the language of the pathetic Jew who didn’t stand up for himself and went like a lamb to the slaughter″ at the hands of the Nazis, he said.

But since then, the children of the founders have sought their roots, leading in recent years to a revival of Yiddish and other Jewish dialects, at least on an academic level.

``Israel is becoming a more Jewish country and people are becoming reconciled to their Jewish past,″ Segev said.

Although Italian operas have been translated into Yiddish and a few Yiddish operettas survive, performed by semiprofessional companies in homes for the elderly in Israel, ``The Dybbuk″ is the world’s first original Yiddish-language opera.

The opera is based on a play written in Russian and Yiddish by S. An-Ski, a Russian Jew, that debuted in Moscow in the 1920s.

An-Ski drew his inspiration from a folk tale set in the shtetl, the old Jewish village communities of Eastern Europe _ a vanished world of piety, poverty, mysticism and superstition.

It is the story of Leah and Hanan, betrothed before birth by their fathers. Years later, Leah’s father has forgotten his promise and instead pledges his beautiful daughter to a wealthy man. But she has fallen in love with Hanan, a promising young Jewish scholar who dabbles in the mystical Jewish traditions of the Kabala.

He dies of grief when she spurns him, heeding her father’s wishes. At her wedding, she is possessed by a ``dybbuk″ _ the soul of her beloved Hanan _ and begins to speak in his voice.

The ``dybbuk″ is exorcised by a rabbi, but Leah dies before she can return to her wedding.

The cast of Opera Nodedet _ which means Wandering Opera in English _ are all young, enthusiastic performers, not one of whom speaks Yiddish.

Camilla Griehsel, 33, the soprano who plays Leah, is a Swedish non-Jew who lives in London.

``I felt I just had to do this part,″ she said. ``It was so challenging to be two people at once.″ When she is possessed, she mouths her lines, and the leading tenor, Yossi Aridan, sings behind a screen that becomes a mirror.

Aridan, 23, of Beersheba is the son of Iraqi Jews who speak no Yiddish.

``It wasn’t easy to learn the text, and the music was also tough, but we all have a sense of accomplishment,″ he said.

Composer Solomon Epstein, of Savannah, Ga., said composing the opera was his response to the Holocaust.

``I wanted to show the murderers _ those who are still around _ that although they killed so many of the people, they can’t kill the soul,″ he said.

The opera, written for a full company and orchestra, was performed Wednesday in a shortened, chamber version, with only six singers and a piano. Epstein hopes that success will lead to performance of the full-length opera.

Nehama Lifschitz, herself a Yiddish balladeer, recalled seeing the play when she was a child in Kovno, Lithuania.

``It was so moving to see it tonight as an opera, with those young people putting so much effort into it,″ she said.

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