Yiddish version of 'Fiddler on the Roof' comes to Southfield synagogue for special concert

Maureen Feighan
The Detroit News

Yiddish isn't just a centuries old Jewish language with a few "cute" expressions to actor and Yiddishist Mikhl Yashinsky who grew up in Farmington Hills. It's a key part of his identity.

So when Yashinsky, an actor, playwright and director now based in New York who also teaches and translates Yiddish, heard that the iconic musical "Fiddler on the Roof" was going to be put on in an all-Yiddish format, he knew he had to audition for it. He did, landing two parts.

Yiddish is "a major part of my life," said Yashinsky who played both Mordcha, the innkeeper, and Nokhem, the beggar. "Getting to do this show, this beautiful show that I've always loved in this language, for audiences that are a part of this community and for a lot of people who were just passersby through New York, it was really special."

Mikhl Yashinsky, left, a Farmington Hills native, performs as Nokhem, a beggar, in "Fiddler on the Roof" in Yiddish, which ran for nearly two years in New York.

The show ran for a year and a half in New York before it closed in January of 2020 and COVID squashed plans for a national tour. But on Sunday, several actors from it, including Yashinsky, will gather at Southfield's Congregation Shaarey Zedek for a free concert, "L'Chaim: The Miracle of 'Fiddler' in Yiddish," at 3 p.m.

The 90-minute show will share the story of the how the Yiddish "Fiddler" came to be, featuring Zalmen Mlotek, the National Yiddish Theater Folksbiene's artistic director who conceived the New York production, and the performers who played Tevye and Golda, Steven Skybell and Jennifer Babiak. The concert, which also will have several songs and screens with English subtitles, is part of the Irving and Beverly Laker Concert Series.

“It is an honor to host such outstanding performers in a setting where they can present the unlikely story of a Yiddish musical taking Broadway by storm for nearly two years,” said Hazzan David Propis, Congregation Shaarey Zedek’s music director. “The large space of our sanctuary provides an optimum venue for their soaring voices and enduring music.”

"Fiddler on the Roof" is already one of the most beloved classics on Broadway. The Yiddish version started as a summer run by the National Yiddish Theater Folksbiene, selling out crowds at the Museum of Jewish Heritage before moving to a larger theater off Broadway, Stage 42.

Farmington Hills native Mikhl Yashinsky will be part of "L'Chaim: The Miracle of 'Fiddler' in Yiddish."

Being a part of the show and seeing the audience's emotional reaction to it, "it really was quite a ride," said Yashinsky. "We could tell from stage that people were weeping and there would be audible gasps at climatic moments... People were excited to experience this very unique thing with us."

Yashinsky said the show was supposed to go on a three-city tour in China along with a national tour when COVID-19 hit.

"None of that happened because of the pandemic and that's been a bummer," he said. "But it's really exciting now that some of us are able to reunite."

Yashinsky, a graduate of Hillel Day School and Frankel Jewish Academy, credits his maternal grandmother, Elizabeth Elkin Weiss, an early radio and TV pioneer on shows such as "The Lone Ranger" and "The Green Hornet," for introducing him to both acting and Yiddish. Weiss and her husband, Rubin Weiss, were both radio and TV performers. She also was a Yiddishist. In fact, both grandparents spoke Yiddish.

"It was really from her that I learned about the wider world of Yiddish that was more than just some cute, amusing phrases here and there," said Yashinsky, who went on to study at Harvard and went on to work for three years at the Detroit Opera House, working as both an assistant director and director.

Today, Yashinsky teaches and translates Yiddish along with performing. He said he's seen the power the Yiddish version of "Fiddler" can have on others.

"I've actually had a number of people in my (Yiddish) classes who said they went to see the 'Fiddler on the Roof' in Yiddish and it inspired them to take the language," he said. "...Now they actually want to make it part of their lives."


'L'Chaim: The Miracle of "Fiddler" in Yiddish'

3 p.m. Sunday at Congregation Shaarey Zedek, 27372 Bell Road, Southfied.

Free but registration is required. Go to www.shaareyzedek.org/events/fiddler/.