When I was a camper at Camp Ramah in the Berkshires, we were always performing plays that had been translated into Hebrew, or an approximation of Hebrew. This was a lovely gesture toward the national language of our people, but the reality was most of the kids did not speak Hebrew, and were forced into memorizing their roles phonetically. That left the Hebrew speaking kids (like me) to become de facto voice coaches, not because we were musically skilled, but because we knew which letters were “ccchhhhh”s and which ones were “hhhh”s. If we had been denied a plum role, even with our Hebrew skills, in favor of casting a kid who could sing a little better but couldn’t speak Hebrew, acting in this supplemental role was adding insult to injury. Plus, the lyrics were usually insufferable: either too complicated for little kids to learn but accurately translated, or poorly translated to begin with.

When I was a counselor, I was determined to make camp theater more kid-friendly. So a few friends got together and we translated some plays, making the language easier and more pronounceable; never using difficult grammatical constructs, or using a “chhhh” word when another one would do. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory was the first one I did, and then I dabbled in other songs for other plays, as well. It was always a challenge and always rewarding when non-Hebrew speaking kids didn’t mess up their lines…

But I digress…the point is, that The Producers is playing to packed houses in Tel Aviv…and I’m sure the translation is stellar.

[Translator Dan] Almagor and director Micah Lewensohn have made a few adjustments. The swastikas and Nazi regalia are less in-your-face than in productions elsewhere, and each time the producers utter the name Hitler they add a familiar Hebrew curse — Yimach shemo vezichro” (may his name and memory be obliterated), followed by “tfu tfu” — a Jewish way of connoting spitting. [spelling error belongs to MSNBC…hah!]

Although the show’s doing gangbusters business, there’s still the subject matter that comes through, especially for Holocaust survivors:

During intermission, Hilia and Aharon Hirsch, an elderly Israeli couple approached by a reporter, were less than thrilled. She lost her entire family to the Holocaust in Poland; he spent World War II in a forced labor camp in Romania. They said they came simply because they like musicals, but had no idea what they were about to see. “The first quarter was enchanting. It was happy, it was joyful. And the moment the subject of Hitler appeared it began to be an emotional problem,” Hilia Hirsch said.

“It’s hard to laugh at it. It doesn’t pass,” said her husband. “It raises memories you don’t want to see. The subject itself is portrayed in a very exaggerated way, as total craziness. But because of that craziness, a lot of people lost their lives.”

All I have to say is one thing, a sight gag, that gets me every time. A sign for Max Bialystock’s play:
A Streetcar Named Murray. Murray. I love that.

About the author

Esther Kustanowitz

For more posts by Esther, see EstherK.com, MyUrbanKvetch.com and JDatersAnonymous.com.

4 Comments

  • While I agree, those show signs are great, the one I always laugh at is a reference to a number of other Mel Brooks movies, predominately History of the World Part I, in “The King of Broadway”:

    Max: I used to be the KING…

    Bums: The King?

    Max: The king of old broadway…

    Blind Violinist: It’s good to be the king!

    Running gags, gotta love ’em.

  • So it was my job for a few years to direct those Hebrew plays, although at a different Ramah…. Let’s see your versions!

  • Re the Producers, you’d think that there would be some sort of “Warning, Holocaust Content” sign somewhere, especially in Israel. How hard is it to show a little consideration?

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