Interview with Saul Reichlin
Saul Reichlin is one of the major exponents of Sholom Aleichem’s writing having already toured ‘Sholom Aleichem, Now You’re Talking!’ for five years to rave reviews and sold out houses. His new show SHOLOM ALEICHEM IN THE OLD COUNTRY is a new collection of Aleichem’s stories dramatized for the stage. Opening the conversation with Saul it should not be surprising to find out that his voice is so plummy. It is easy to hear how the beautiful rich tones will suit the translation of the Yiddish vernacular.
It isn’t long before it becomes clear that Saul is impassioned about the works of Sholom Aleichem. He cannot understand why no one else has done a similar show since the middle 60s. “Sholom Aleichem is one of the most adored writers in the Jewish community. The Fiddler on the Roof was one of the biggest musicals of 20th century. It is impossible to understand why no one else has done more of this man’s work. William Morris agency wanted to tour my show but when they came to see it they thought it was too niche. The first eight producers who were offered The Fiddler on the Roof didn’t take it on for that reason, then it became a blockbuster.”
Having received such a brilliant reception for his first show, his reception from new audiences has been similarly positive. He did the show a couple of times in New York and it had a wonderful review. “It’s a showcase and very different from the first show”, says Saul. “The reception was very warm and encouraging, so I can only hope … “
Having performed his shows featuring Aleichem’s stories all over the world, something that really surprised him is that it is so cross culturally popular, from Long Island, New York to a Judeo-Christian fund raiser in Manchester for St Marys hospice and WIZO which sold out twice. “Its appeal is enormous” says Saul. “Aleichem is a folk hero in China and in India, where they see him as writer of the masses. The performances at the King’s Head Theatre resulted in the show being nominated for an EMMA, Ethnic & Multicultural Media Award (won by Denzel Washington). People have always told me they assumed that it’s their own culture being shown.”
The stories are based on Sholom Aleichem’s real-life experiences, about the trials and tribulations of the Jewish people in a small ghetto town in Russia. Saul has an interesting story. “David Kossoff (a writer and performer of Jewish stories and material including Sholom Aleichem) told me a story about the Japanese actor playing Tevye in Japan. After the opening night of Fiddler on the Roof in Tokyo the actor said how amazed he was that a story about a Japanese village should be so popular in America’”.
Saul’s own personal favourites are also his audiences’ favourites. “Tevye and Menachem Mendel have become my favourites” he says. “It's hard not to become fond of the biggest characters, the crowd pleasers, there is nothing nicer than having the crowd falling about with laughter. But I have become very fond of other stories, I just love doing them for their humour and warmth. Aleichem wrote the stories to give people something to smile about in their troubles.”
Saul gives a flavour of a dialogue from the show. He seamlessly becomes the characters. “There’s this man looking for a restaurant”, he says. “(In the book he goes back home), he checks into his hotel and goes to look for something to eat, Aleichem had a very typical almost caricatured view of men and women in his stories:
Woman ‘What will you have?’
‘What have you got?’
She says, ‘What would you like?’
He says, ‘Some borsch would be nice.’
‘Borsch at midday, what are you talking about? Do you like Jewish sausage?’
‘Yes, I love Jewish sausage.’
‘Do you like Warsaw sausage.’
‘Yes, I love Warsaw sausage.’
‘Then you’d better go to Warsaw if you want Warsaw sausage.’”
“It’s witty repartee and banter”, explains Saul.
The script is funniest heard. It is a direct translation from the Yiddish. At the time the stories were written Yiddish was criticised because it is a mixture of languages including 70 percent German, the rest is mainly Russian and Hebrew. It wasn’t a language of literature but of the people. "Yiddish has a unique flavour, you have to use the Yiddish words” Saul explains. “I speak enough and understand enough to understand what I’m saying, but the classes I went to were too academic, I don’t want grammar or to write it down, just conversation, but I learnt enough to know what I’m saying.”
There is no substitute for its sounds on the ear and a lot of the actual humour is people’s attitude to each other rather than out and out jokes. Saul gives another example. “There’s a man, he wakes up to hear some bells ringing and someone calling fire! Fire! A cottage nearby is burning. A gathering of spectators is speculating on what caused the fire and whose house. One man said, ‘it’s an inside job’. ‘How do you know?’ ‘It was insured.’ ‘How do you know?’ ‘Its burning isn’t it, a house doesn’t set itself on fire.’” Saul’s voice rises and falls, with just the right pauses to bring out the humour but there is an edge. “There’s an implied criticism”, adds Saul.
Yiddish is fairly unique, it’s sparse. In many ways it’s the opposite of English which has a very broad vocabulary, with twenty words to say one thing. Yiddish has one word which can mean 20 things. “There are nuances of meaning” says Saul. “It’s how you say it and how you express it. How you use it and how it is said."
It is clear that Saul’s solo show must be a lot of work for his voice. There must be some skill attached to looking after it properly. “It depends” says Saul. “I do develop stamina from doing narrative for audio books. I sit in the studio in front of a microphone to do it so it’s not the same projection. Talking to an audience you have to project. It’s tiring on the throat, the voice and body. I do develop stamina and fitness, so it feels less demanding. I hardly drink anymore.” He adds as an aside that he stopped drinking alcohol when he became diabetic, but he admits to having “a glass of wine, or half a lager, to settle after a show”. He has an incredibly demanding schedule, performing Tuesday to Saturday and twice on Sundays.
Saul’s interest in Aleichem really began when he visited his cousins in Johannesburg on his way to visit his mum in Cape Town. He spotted a book of Aleichem’s short stories in translation in a bookcase and asked to borrow it. He explains” my mum wanted me to get involved with Aleichem’s work, but I always resisted because it was in Yiddish. I looked inside the book and there was an inscription from my mother ‘I commend these wonderful stories to you’. After 25 years, she had put it in my hands in this way. It changed my professional life. Aleichem and my mother were both born in the Ukraine.”
Sholom Aleichem was born in 1859 when it was still the Russian Empire. He grew up in shtetl, a small town with a large Jewish population. The writing is inspired by this very small town which had a history of persecution. Hundreds of thousands left Russia and landed in New York, including Aleichem and his family. “Others landed in Cork in Ireland having been told it was New York”, adds Saul. “They went to Australia, and ironically to Germany because of the new enlightenment.”
Saul is clearly moved by the plight of these people and how much Aleichem’s writing captures the resilience in the face of adversity as well as the humour. “I appear to be only one in the world with a show dedicated to Aleichem’s writing besides The Fiddler on the Roof. I remain amazed about that.” For the last 15 years, it’s been hugely popular at Edinburgh Festival, it sold out at Kings Head (in Islington), off Broadway, throughout 25 cities in America and around the world.
It’s back in London, spread the word!
SHOLOM ALEICHEM IN THE OLD COUNTRY
Lion and Unicorn Theatre 30 October – 25 November 2018
Times of shows: Tues – Sat: 7.30pm; Sun: 3.00pm & 5.00pm
Running times 75 mins, no interval
Ticket prices: £14; Concs: £12