I recently attended a lovely and poignant theatrical production at the 14th Street Y entitled “The Mar Vista” (Spanish for “view of the sea”) written and choreographed by Yehuda Hyman of the Mystical Feet Company. The acting/musical/dance performance showcased the story of how Yehuda’s parents – two Jews from widely varying European backgrounds – ultimately met and married, in Cincinnati, Ohio, of all places.
Part of my interest in attending Yehuda’s production stemmed from the fact that I had gotten to know a bit about his family’s saga through translating some of his grandfather, Leibl Chait’s badkhones – or wedding jester lyrics. These somewhat off-color, humorous, and rhyming verses are among the few tangible items that Yehuda has to this day from his father’s family, which hailed from Ratno, Poland.
Sadly, all but Yehuda’s father, Srul Chait – later, Charles Hyman, in the United States – perished in the Holocaust. Yehuda’s father said very little during his lifetime to Yehuda and his two siblings about his own history. According to Yehuda, it must have been “incredibly painful” for his father to speak about the difficult events of his life. Ironically, most of what Yehuda learned of his father’s background ultimately came from his mother, Sara – portrayed throughout “The Mar Vista” as a Gypsy Jew – following the death of his father, in 1981.
Srul Chait/Charles Hyman was a tailor by trade, just like his father, Leibl the badkhen (wedding jester). As the story goes, Srul met an older woman named Minia from the United States who was visiting Ratno, only a few years prior to World War II. She asked Srul to marry her, he consented, and she arranged to bring him and another family member to America in 1938. Hence, Srul and his father Leibl boarded the ocean liner, the MS Piłsudski, in 1938 at the port of Gdynia. But at the last minute, a family member came to fetch Leibl and return him to the family. Something had happened, although to this very day, Yehuda does not know what that was. As a result, Leibl returned home to Ratno, where he remained at the time when Germany invaded Poland in September 1939, only one year later, and Srul continued on – alone – to the United States. It was the last time he would ever see his father or any other immediate family members again. It was presumably Srul who had kept the badkhones all those years as a token by which to remember his father, the badkhen. And only after his own father’s death, did Yehuda himself see these Yiddish lyrics and other, related Yiddish-language documents that his father had hidden away from view.
That is where I very tangentially entered into this family saga. A few months ago Yehuda contacted me and asked me if I would attempt to translate some texts that he had from his grandfather and namesake, Leibl, as he hoped to use some of the verses in his forthcoming theatrical production, “The Mar Vista.” Prior to approaching me, Yehuda informed me that he had not done anything with these materials for years – namely, because he had previously attempted to have them translated in the 1990s by native Yiddish speakers who found the off-colored nature of the lyrics a bit too disconcerting for their taste.
Here is a small sampling of the badkhones piece, in the vernacular Yiddish, in Romanized (transliterated) Yiddish, as well as in translation:
איך האב ליב צו שפילן, סע איז א גוטע זאך.
Ikh hob lib tsu shpiln; se’ iz a gute zakh.
I love to act; it’s a good thing.
איך האב ליב צו שפילן, סע קאסט קיין סאך.
Ikh hob lib tsu shpiln; se’ kost keyn sakh.
I love to act; it doesn’t cost a lot.
איך האב ליב צו שפילן, סע איז פעסט געשטעלט, ווייל שפילן שפילט די גאנצע וועלט.
Ikh hob lib tsu shpiln; se’ iz fest geshtelt, vayl shpiln, shpilt di gantse velt.
I love to act; it’s established/a given, for acting, the entire world acts.
As for how Yehuda’s father, the tailor from Ratno, Poland ended up meeting and marrying his mother, who hailed from Tumruk (or Temryuk), Russia – a mountainous region in southern Russia, and grew up in Istanbul, Turkey – that is another story entirely.
The two did not meet and marry until the early 1950s, at which point Srul Chait – now Charles Hyman – was living in Cincinnati, and Sara Gutmacher (Güver) was passing through the city on a nearly expired US visa. Thanks to the intervention of Rabbi Eliezer Silver (1882-1968), a leading figure in the American-based Jewish rescue efforts of Jews in war-torn and post-WWII Europe, the two were introduced. It was understood that if Sara did not find some way of remaining legally in the United States within three weeks’ time, her visa would expire and she would be subject to deportation. As a result, the two married almost immediately, eventually making their way to California, as Sara dreamt of living near the sea. Subsequently, Yehuda and his two siblings were raised there, in a suburb of Los Angeles known as “Mar Vista.” Hence, part of the rationale behind the production’s title.
I highly recommend this and other forthcoming performances by Yehuda Hyman and his talented acting and dancing troupe, Mystical Feet Company. What’s more, I look forward – I hope – to working with him further as a Yiddish translator and dialect/pronunciation coach, as well.