An Embarrassing Mea Culpa to Avi Hoffman and South Florida
by Myra Chanin
South Florida is now my official residence, but I still have a Pied-a-terre in Manhattan to which I escape whenever I’ve overdosed on Boca, Delray and Palm Beach sunshine and bliss. How often izzat? It would be every fifteen minutes if the fares from PBI to LGA were as reasonable as senior MTA discounts from Central Park to Coney Island. Can’t I think of anything good to say about Delray Beach? Sure. Hypoluxo is worse. Actually, until very recently, I believed that my new hometown’s only distinction was that the same Indies films that open at the SoHo Angelica play a few days later at the Movies of Delray for nine bucks less.
But that was before I was bowled over by YI ❤ NY YiddishFest, a Nine-Day Celebration of past, present and future Jewish culture, diverse and dazzling enough to have audiences of every shape, size, age and ethnicity packing the seats in whatever theater housed every single event. Now watch me eat my words. YI ❤ NY YiddishFest was conceived, created and produced by South Florida’s Avi Hoffman, the Ashkenazi Don Quixote, whose biography is a timeline of turning lemons into lemonade. To wit, after being told too often that he was too Jewish for roles for which he’d auditioned, Avi unveiled his first Too Jewish One-Man Show: A Mensch and His Music. It’s now celebrating its 20th Anniversary, and begat Too Jewish, Two, and Still Too Jewish After All these Years. His extensive film, TV and theatrical awards include a Drama Desk nomination as Outstanding Actor in a Play for his Willie Loman in the New Yiddish Rep’s 2015 Yiddish production of Death of a Salesman.
Unfortunately, I got back to New York too late to attend all eleven YI ❤ NY YiddishFest sessions, however, I spent four afternoons/evenings at the Theater for the New City marveling at what South Florida’s Avi hath wrought! So many fascinating concerts/readings/tributes and with such limited funding!! Staging? Sets consisted of chairs and lecterns arranged in a semi-circle and a projected slide on the rear wall announcing the name of the event. Costumes? Avi introduced/performed in almost every session wearing a colored long-sleeved shirt and a selection of ties with Jewish stars on them. Other performers brought stuff from home which created a mix and match vista. Ornamentation was unnecessary in events that overflowed with intelligence and truth, sentiment and passion, artistry and craft.
Sixty talented people joined Avi on stage in the flesh. Others, present in spirit, on film clips or in the recollections of their descendants, included Isaiah Sheffer, who turned a grimy Upper West Side movie house into the cultural multiplex Symphony Space and Brooklyn bad boy Yosl Papirovsky, who became Shakespeare in the Park’s and The Public Theater’s Joe Papp, and hired Avi as the artistic director of Papp’s Yiddish Theater which he and Avi’s mother Miriam Hoffman co-founded. I regret having missed Avi’s recreation of Joe Papp’s only public concert, 1978’s Joe Papp at the Ballroom, or Mirl: The Life and Works of Miriam Hoffman by and about Avi’s mother, author, lecturer, playwright and Professor of Yiddish language and culture at Columbia University for 25 years, as well as a reading of Sholem Asch’s God of Vengeance, the basis of Paula Vogel’s Indecent, explored by Sholem Asch’s great-grandson, BBC journalist David Mazower.
Here’s what I attended. The Great Fyvush Finkel, amiable and charming on film and in his son Ian’s memories. The young tuxedoed Fyvush bore an uncanny resemblance to Sid Caesar. He first stepped on stage in 1931 at age 9, won an Emmy for portraying Attorney Douglas Wambaugh in TV’s Picket Fences and completed his last film in 2016, the year he passed at age 94. The tribute included Avi’s incredibly perfect imitation of Menasha Skolnick, the quintessential immigrant shlimazel, who always looked, dressed and sounded like an unlucky jerk expecting unexpected trauma.
Selections from A People by L.M. Feldman was an intriguing dramatic and wide-ranging historical cavalcade which evolved from of a modern woman’s exploration into her own unconventional Jewish roots. Its large, heterogenous cast with a mere three hours of rehearsal easily switched between a multitude of people, places and periods. The players included Actors Equity’s Yelena Shmulenson, who, in an all-Yiddish introduction to the Coen Brothers A Common Man, was so convinced that Fyvush Finkel, was a Jewish Zombie, aka a Dybbuk, that she stabbed him to see if he would bleed, and paid for that by ending up in TV Jail a few years later as Rea Boyle in Orange is the New Black. Also noteworthy were students from Avi’s course in Jewish Culture at the University of Miami, particularly the very compelling Daniel Barrett and Owen Glassberg.
But the best was yet to come. On Saturday night, International music-master, horn virtuoso and bandleader Frank London and his klezmer cohorts Ribs and Brisket’s Paul Shapiro on saxophone and Steven Sandberg on piano and lips – Whatta Whistler! — backed by an unbelievable Caribbean rhythm trio of drummer Tony Lewis, Booker King on a very unusual bass, and the out-of-this-world percussionist Willie Martinez on bongos, bells, and what-have-you revived composer/arranger/pianist Irving Fields’ Bagels and Bongos concept which fused Jewish tunes with sexy Latin rhythms. Fields was the world’s oldest working musician, filling audience requests at Nino’s Tuscany until 2016, the year he died at age 101.
I went home certain nothing could equal Frank London’s sextet but the full orchestra for The Great Ostrofsky did. Avery Corman wrote the book and worked with composer Cy Coleman on the lyrics for Cy’s last score. Ostrofsky is a Boris Thomashefsky-ish Second Avenue macher. Avi’s cast included Equity greats like Lewis Alan Rickman as the theater owner. Avery Corman was present and led the final standing ovation that had everyone leaving the theater smiling and singing one of the certain hits in the show, “It’s Good to be Alive” and it certainly was that week.
To find out more about Avi Hoffman’s upcoming events in New York and elsewhere check https://yiddishkaytinitiative.org/support-1