"THE NEW FACE OF YIDDISH THEATER"
ARTICLE FROM THE JERUSALEM POST
- September 7, 2005:
Written by Kelly Hartog
"In an up-market area of the Beverly/Fairfax district of Los Angeles, a trendy cafe is packed with lunch hour patrons and would be screenwriters tapping away at their laptops. But just about everyone stops what they're doing and turns as Lisa Fishman bounds into the space. Fishman is hardly an A-list celeb. The only reason we're meeting is to discuss her involvement in the theater - and not just any theater - Yiddish musical theater.
But Fishman isn't your average Yenta - in fact she's no Yenta at all. Rather she's a bright, vibrant effusive "thirty- something," who may be the new face of Yiddish theater in the United States. Tall, blonde ("it's from a bottle") and blue-eyed ("those are real"), Fishman certainly doesn't fit the mold of one you would expect to be performing on the Yiddish stage. But come October you can find her starring in the Folksbiene Yiddish Theatre's production of “On Second Avenue.” The show is a musical review - a romp through the history of Yiddish theater from its birth in Romania through to its heyday on New York's Second Avenue. Having received rave reviews last year, the show is back by popular demand this October for a minimum two-month run. Now in its 90th season, the Folksbiene Yiddish Theatre also recently received a grant of $1.5 million from the city of New York, which the company hopes will help it to finally secure a permanent home. And with the young, appealing Fishman as part of the ensemble, the company is definitely riding high on Yiddish revival and the injection of youth into its repertoire.
The revue-style of the show is right up Fishman's alley. "I've always seen myself as a triple threat - an actor, singer and dancer," she reveals, in between slurps of a cappuccino. So you'd think with all that talent and all that raw energy, Fishman would be steeped in Yiddish tradition. Especially when you already know her e-mail address begins with "OyItsFish.” But you'd be wrong. Fishman's love of music definitely harks back to her childhood. However, her leanings were squarely in the folk and pop vein, with nary a Yiddishe Mama in sight.
Born and raised in Highland Park, Illinois, Fishman had a minimal Jewish education. "But I had a Bat Mitzva," she says, "and that was the only Hebrew I knew." So how did a fairly secular Jewish kid with scarcely more than a rudimentary grasp of the Aleph Bet end up becoming one of the most in demand Yiddish musical performers? In one of those impossible- to-script twists of fate, "I was just out of college, still trying to figure out whether to pursue music or theater, and my second cousin asked me to perform at her wedding," Fishman recalls. She goes on to say that her cousin had hired a Klezmer band for the wedding, but that Fishman “shouldn't worry because they can play anything, so just bring along some music." Fishman confesses to not even knowing what a Klezmer band was at the time. "When I heard the band play I was completely blown away by their music," Fishman recalls. "I just felt an immediate connection." That evening Fishman chatted with the leader of the band and before you could say "Gesundheit," Fishman had become a bona fide member of the Maxwell Street Klezmer Band.
Her career took off from there, and she began phonetically learning Yiddish songs and performing with the band in the U.S. and abroad. As a result of her work with the band, she was approached not long after to participate in a play in Germany which was to be performed half in Yiddish and half in English. "I was very worried," Fishman recalls. "It's one thing to sing in another language, but totally another to act in it. I needed to know what I was saying and to mean what I was saying." And so, the 22-year-old put herself to the task of learning the language for two years. While Fishman says she has a real affinity for Yiddish theater, she does not wish to be pigeon-holed. "The Yiddish theater is just one of several niches I have. I am good at it, and I do love it, but I do other things as well." Those "other things" include an album of folk music she's currently recording and a cartoon sitcom she's been busy putting together. She's also spent the last five years performing a whole slew of non-Yiddish leading roles in musical theaters around the country.
For now, though, Fishman is more than delighted to bask in the glory of the Yiddish theater. And she believes there could well be a trend towards bringing younger people into the Yiddish theater world. And if she has become the poster child for the new generation, she's happy to hoist the flag. "I think it's clear that there's a whole young hip audience for Klezmer music," she states. "And that's where my love of Yiddish came from. I think the only way to be able to bring in younger audiences to Yiddish theater is to find ways to make it more modern," she says. The Folksbiene Yiddish Theater has done just that with their show by incorporating both Yiddish and English into its production. "I also think, particularly in New York, there is real potential to grow as long as we continue to reach out to an English speaking audience." She suggests subtitles or even the revamping of some of the melodies into a more modern setting. Fishman says with “On Second Avenue,” once people see the show, they love it. "It's just getting them in the door that's tough," she reveals. "Because the stories are definitely universal." And though Fishman is determined not to be stereotyped and will continue to forge ahead in other areas in the industry, she does have that twinkle in her eye and that spring in her step which makes you realize that if the The Folksbiene Yiddish Theatre knows its kop from its kishkes, it'll retain Fishman to ensure that she brings Yiddish theatre high-kicking into the 21st century."