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Actor expresses lifetime love for Yiddish theater

Cause Celeb interviews television, film and stage character actor Fyvush Finkel about his work on behalf of the The National Yiddish Theatre - Folksbiene.
Image: Fyvush Finkel
Fyvush Finkel, backstage at the National Yiddish Theater -- Folksbiene.Giacinta Pace/NBC NewsWire
/ Source: NBC News

Q: Could you tell me a little bit about the National Yiddish Theatre – Folksbiene and its mission?

A: The Folksbiene Theatre is now the only theater around that is really doing Yiddish material full time.

Q: And how did you get your start with Yiddish theater?

A: Who me? I was a child 9 years old. We lived in Brooklyn, and about a block away from my house was a Yiddish theater … and I was a soprano and they needed a boy to sing “Oh Promise Me.” Of course there was a wedding ceremony on stage that was in the play, you know, in the action. So to make a long story short, that was me! I stopped the show and I got a dollar a night. That was pretty good money in those days! To bring home eight dollars a week!

Q: How long have you been involved with this organization and what is your role?

A: I was in the Yiddish theater from 9 years old till I was 43. … The Folksbiene Theatre always existed, longer then I was an actor. They existed for close to a hundred years now. … Now I make appearances for them, I try and promote their events, you know, to keep them going, as much as I can do for them.

Q: Having been involved with Yiddish theater and the Folksbiene Theatre for so long, have you witnessed any changes in the organization over time?

A: There’s a big change. … First of all now they have a lot of dignitaries coming and a lot of people are helping them financially now. … In the old days, they did their own work, they did their own plays and … (it) had nothing to do with commercial theater. … They did it for the art theatre so to speak, and their actors were… dilettantes. They never got paid; they did it because they enjoyed it!

Q: What is your favorite part about being involved with this organization?

A: Oh, my favorite part is that the way they treat me as though I’m an old legend! Ha-ha!

Q: What do you feel makes this organization special?

A: It’s keeping going the Yiddish beautiful language. And they have singing and concerts — they do a lot of wonderful work. Theodore Bikel and I, we did… the "Sunshine Boys" in Yiddish…and the audience screamed with laughter—they loved it! They really loved it! And then they did the “Pirates of Penzance” in Yiddish! Gilbert and Sullivan! Things like that they do … wonderful concerts, recitations, Sholem Alechem and everything really.

Q: Have you had any particularly moving moments working with the Folksbiene?

A: I appear at Town Hall. They have their yearly event and I appear with my sons Ian and Elliot... and I do, you know, I talk to the audience and they know my age and I start singing and dancing and they make me feel 10 feet tall.

Q: What are your hopes for the future of this organization?

A: Oh my god! They’re going to continue long, long, long, long after I’m gone.

Q: What inspires you to work with nonprofit organizations like The National Yiddish Theatre - Folksbiene?

A: Well why not? Doesn’t a doctor go to a clinic!?

Q: Why do you believe the existence of Yiddish theater is so important?

A: It’s very important. First of all, the language is becoming more popular every day. You go to these colleges that have courses in Yiddish … they’re sold out! I keep telling them … learn the language, it’s a beautiful language, you don’t have to know the dirty words! ... It’s poetic, it is fun, it is really something when you sing those songs … and, you know, the humor is actually based on the tragedy that we have experienced, and that kept us going all the time. That really kept us going. And since time began, and since time is going on, it’s going to live. The Yiddish theater with the Yiddish language will never fade away. Hey, I’m beginning to sound like General McArthur!

Q: Is there anything you would like to add?

A: This is an organization that should be helped as much as people can. The governor helps them, the celebrities from the American theater and television … because they do great work.

Interviewed by Jessica Pologruto, NBC News