The gospel according to Mandelbaum

The gospel according to Mandelbaum

New Yiddish Rep director talks about Yiddish, repertory, and life

The cast of “The Gospel According to Chaim” — from left, Mikhl Yashinsky, Melissa Weisz, Sruli Rosenberg, and Joshua Horowitz. (Tatiana Stolpovskaya)
The cast of “The Gospel According to Chaim” — from left, Mikhl Yashinsky, Melissa Weisz, Sruli Rosenberg, and Joshua Horowitz. (Tatiana Stolpovskaya)

The day I interviewed David Mandelbaum, the New York Times published a front-page story about the financial difficulties that off-Broadway theaters were having post-covid. Attendance is down, and donors are increasingly difficult to find.

Mr. Mandelbaum hadn’t seen the article.  But he didn’t have to. He’s been living it. He is the co-founder and artistic director of the New Yiddish Rep, a company widely praised for several groundbreaking Yiddish productions: “Waiting for Godot,” “Death of a Salesman,” and “God of Vengeance,” among others.

But while these classics helped pay the bills for a while, the NYR’s mission is to produce new works from young authors who work primarily in the mamaloschen, and that has proven a lot less remunerative.

It is one of those works, the NYR’s newest offering, “Di psure loyt chaim” (“The Gospel According to Chaim”)  that our conversation was ostensibly about, at least at first.

The play is by Mikhl Yashinsky and is based on a true story. Chaim (Henry) Einspruch was an Eastern European Jew who later in life found Jesus. He decided to translate and publish a Yiddish edition of the New Testament but had difficulty finding a printer. So he decided to print the book on his own.

While he was a fellow at the Yiddish Book Center, Mr. Yashinsky discovered Mr. Einspruck’s printing press and type, which had been donated by his widow. She believed her husband would have been pleased that generations of Jewish children might use his type.

David Mandelbaum (New Yiddish Rep)

Mr. Yashinsky’s reimagining of the events fascinated Mr. Mandelbaum, who co-founded NYR with his wife and business partner, Amy Coleman, in 2007.  Fittingly, his personal story is as interesting as his productions, a sort of Kafkaesque Waiting for Donors.

Mr. Mandelbaum, 76, is the son of Holocaust survivors. His parents, who lived in Poland, came from Orthodox families. How Orthodox? David recalls a story his mother used to tell about his parents’ courtship:

“When she started seeing my father, his family wasn’t religious enough for my mother’s family. So whenever he saw the two of them together, her father would throw stones at my father.”

Still they married, sadly just six months before Germany invaded their homeland. After Hitler’s non-aggression pact with Stalin split Poland in two, the couple managed to make it to the Soviet zone.

They spent two years in Siberia. After their release they briefly landed back in Poland, then in Germany, where David was born, and eventually the U.S. They were sponsored by an uncle by marriage who’d managed to escape before the war and had established a thriving real estate business.

The family settled in Washington Heights. Young David attended Ramaz day school through high school, and then he went to CCNY.

David Mandelbaum and Shane Baker in “Waiting for Godot.” (Ronald L. Glassman)

Despite his family’s largely observant background, despite Ramaz, Mr. Mandelbaum went in a different direction.  It was the ’60s, after all. There were drugs everywhere and a war to protest. “That was the counterculture at the time, and I was very much involved,” he said. “I spent a lot of time going to demonstrations.”

He even managed to get arrested once, at a 1970 D.C. rally in front of the Justice Department (along with 1,000 others).

He held various jobs, but eventually his father called and asked him to help with the family business, making embroidery trims for the garment business.  He did that for about 20 years.  “But all along I was involved in downtown theater,” he said.

He landed some minor roles in films, appeared in a couple of Folksbiene productions and in some works produced by the Theater for the New City. During this period, perhaps most famously, he adopted Zvi Kolitz’s one-person Holocaust classic, “Yosi Rakover Speaks to God.” He says he wanted the Folksbiene to produce the show, but when there was no interest, he put it on himself at the Upper West Side JCC.

The show was so successful, he was invited to perform it at the Montreal International Yiddish Theater Festival.  There it was so well received he was asked to return to Montreal and perform it again.

“That’s when I decided I can do this for myself and keep going,” he said.

That was 2007, a pivotal year for Mr. Mandelbaum: It’s the year he decided Washington Heights had become too gentrified and became a Jersey-ite.  “The local luncheonette became a gourmet so-and-so,” he said.

He moved to Weehawken, once the embroidery manufacturing capital of the world — or so it claimed — and a city he knew from his family business. It was diverse and full of bodegas like the stores that used to dot every Washington Heights corner.

His early Yiddish productions turned out as successful as his move to New Jersey — they were favorably reviewed, filled the house, and turned a profit. “I thought well, now we’re going to attract some donors.” It didn’t happen. “We’ve never been able to attract the kind of financial support that would make it less of a struggle. Unless something radical happens, this” — “Chaim” — “may be the last production.”

Wow, the conversation suddenly took a dark turn.

“One has to be realistic,” Mr. Mandelbaum said. “At this point, I’m pessimistic. “We’ll see what happens. If people really want a vibrant Yiddish theater, they will come. It’s the first new Yiddish drama written by a young playwright, in what?  Since the late ’50s. I’m hoping by producing this it will inspire more young people to write in Yiddish, because there is this venue that can present their work.”

“The Gospel According to Chaim” (in Yiddish with English supertitles) runs from Dec. 21 through Jan. 7 at the Theater for the New City, 155. First Ave.  Tickets are $25-$46 and can be ordered at newyiddishrep.org.

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