Yiddish Translator Nahma Sandrow Talks About Bringing a 19th-Century Masterpiece to a Modern English-Speaking Audience

Jacob Gordin's 'Mirele Efros'—known as 'The Jewish Queen Lear'—is the first full production by Theater J's Yiddish Lab

It took a little over 120 years. But—thanks to Theater J—Jacob Gordin’s wildly popular Yiddish drama, celebrated as The Jewish Queen Lear, has made it onto the English-language stage.

Mirele Efros (Valerie Leonard) and her sons and daughter-in-law (L-R: Christopher Warren, Healy Knight, Charlie Trepany) in Theater J’s production of THE JEWISH QUEEN LEAR, playing at Georgetown University’s Davis Performing Arts Center through April 7. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.
Mirele Efros (Valerie Leonard) and her sons and daughter-in-law (L-R: Christopher Warren, Healy Knight, Charlie Trepany) in Theater J’s production of ‘The Jewish Queen Lear,’ playing at Georgetown University’s Davis Performing Arts Center through April 7. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

The play, whose official title is Mirele Efros, is a tale of a parent scorned. In this telling, the Lear of the popular title is a widow. Overly proud and wealthy to boot, she presents her business to a son and daughter-in-law who manage to squander it all.

Mirele has been translated into English by Nahma Sandrow, a widely respected playwright, scholar, and lyricist, whose book, Vagabond Stars: A World History of Yiddish Theater, is a classic. First published in 1977, it is now in its third edition. (A musical adaptation won rave reviews when it was produced Off-Broadway in 1982.)

According to Sandrow, it’s a mystery why Mirele was never previously done in English. “It’s been done so often, in so many other languages,” she told me, speaking over the phone from New York, where she and her husband now live.

“Russian, Hungarian, Polish, Ukrainian, German, Italian, Spanish and Hebrew,” she said, listing just a few of the languages in which Mirele is performed. “And it’s often revived in Yiddish,” she added, pointing out that she herself has seen three versions in the last few years.

There have also been two movies, both in Yiddish. One was produced in 1939 by Josef Berne, a gifted filmmaker of the time; it is still shown at art houses and museums. The other was a silent film made in Russia in 1912.

So why now?

The answer is Theater J, and its enterprising artistic director, Adam Immerwahr, who chose it as the first selection for the theater’s brand new Yiddish Lab. (Immerwahr, despite his interest, does not speak or read Yiddish himself. Instead, he relies on good translations.)

Sandrow, on the other hand, did know a smattering of Yiddish. Growing up in Woodmere, one of the “five towns” hugging the border between New York City and Long Island, she had studied Hebrew, and so could understand Yiddish—which is written in the Hebrew alphabet but contains a lot of German—when she visited her grandparents, who lived in Philadelphia.

She was very close to her grandmother, who loved poetry and theater. Together, they used to read aloud the ‘Advice to the Lovelorn’ column in the Daily Forward, the leading Yiddish newspaper of the time. And they went to the Yiddish theaters in downtown Philadelphia.

“We saw Maurice Schwartz, one of the great actors of the Yiddish stage, in Tevye, the Yiddish play that preceded Fiddler on the Roof,” she reminisced. “We had one big handkerchief which we shared back and forth. We all wept. It was very powerful, and I was completely drawn to it.”

She knew she wanted a career in theater, preferably adapting the Yiddish classics for a modern American audience. But first, she needed to go back to school.

“The minute the contract was signed,” she said—referring to Vagabond Stars, her first compilation of plays—she enrolled at the Yivo Institute, which was then based at Columbia University, and began to study the language in earnest.

At the time—this was the early 1970s—Yiddish was rarely taught. In fact, the language was frowned upon in some circles. In the battle for a single ‘Jewish’ language, Yiddish had lost out to Modern Hebrew. (Nowadays it’s making a comeback, and is taught at universities around the world.)

But Yiddish is more than a language. It’s a culture. “When I translate from the words of a Yiddish character, I’m in the character. It’s like a trapeze, you leap right into it,” Sandrow said.

“One of the challenges in Mirele,” she added, “was that the characters kept quoting from the Hebrew Bible or the prayerbook.” Audiences at the time recognized those passages, but modern audiences—and translators—can find them bewildering.

“For example, there’s a funny scene, in which one character is drunk,” she explained. “He quotes from the Bible and mixes up place names. However, I did not realize that what made this so funny was that these places were all mentioned in Exodus, and that they were all in the desert. The original audience would have known that, but I didn’t.”

(Later, when she learned what the place names meant, she and her husband performed the scene, with its drunken litany of names, after a reading of that chapter of Exodus at their synagogue.)

Writing style is another challenge for the translator, Sandrow pointed out. “Contemporary theater is ironic in tone, but in the 19th century, when most of these plays were written, the emphasis was on the emotional.” These plays, in other words, were meant to be tear-jerkers.

On the other hand, this play is more than a tearjerker. “Mirele, the heroine, is a strong woman, not just a victim. The play is about a human being whose tragic flaw is pride,” she added, reinforcing the connection to Greek drama and the role of hubris.

Frank X, Christopher Warren and Valerie Leonard in Theater J’s production of 'The Jewish Queen Lear,' playing at Georgetown University’s Davis Performing Arts Center through April 7. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.
Frank X, Christopher Warren and Valerie Leonard in Theater J’s production of ‘The Jewish Queen Lear,’ playing at Georgetown University’s Davis Performing Arts Center through April 7. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Gordin, like many of the immigrant writers of the time, openly adapted the classics. His aim was to draw on the guilt and sorrow of audiences who had left their own parents behind. And, according to Sandrow, he was a great believer in women’s rights.  Mirele was a widow, but she ran a highly successful business, and did it on her own.

It’s true that mothers, in this genre, were treated sentimentally. But while mothers were the focus for guilt, on the part of those who left, they also embodied the traditions that had been lost.

Mirele Efros, like Fiddler, is about the importance of tradition. But it’s also a good family drama,” she concluded.

A graduate of Bryn Mawr and the Yale School of Drama, Sandrow wrote the book for Kuni-Leml—a musical that won the Outer Circle Critics Award in New York when it opened in 1984—and the libretto for Enemies: A Love Story, an opera produced in 2015.

Drawing on her knowledge of Yiddish theater history, the author described its beginning, in Romania in the late 1870s, when all of Europe was in upheaval. The Jews of Eastern Europe were setting out on what would become one of the greatest waves of mass immigration in history.

The refugees were escaping poverty and abuse. They carried the Yiddish theater with them, along with their books. The playwrights and actors followed.

By the turn of the century, there were whole blocks of theaters in every city where Yiddish-speaking people lived. Everywhere—in Paris, London, New York, Montreal, Philadelphia and Buenos Aires—actors played to packed houses.

By the 1940s, immigration had declined. The once-eager audience fled to the suburbs. The actors who could make it, made it to Broadway, while the rest hustled off to Hollywood.

Now, according to Sandrow and Immerwahr, who is also the director of this play, there’s little left. “That’s why we created the Yiddish Theater Lab. It’s dedicated to preserving this all-but-forgotten past by bringing it to an English-language audience.”

Mirele Efros—or The Jewish Queen Lear—is the Lab’s first full production. It is also the final presentation of the theater’s year in exile. Next season, Theater J will return to its longtime home inside the newly-renovated DCJCC.  

Running Time: Two hours and 15 minutes, including one intermission.

The Jewish Queen Lear (Mirele Efros) is a Theater J production, playing through April 7 at Georgetown University’s Davis Performing Arts Center in the Gonda Theatre, 37th and O Streets NW, Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at 202-777-3210 or purchase them online.