April 11, 2024
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Fyvush Finkel: A Bissele Yiddish in the Berkshires

Editor’s note: Fyvush Finkel passed away Sunday at the age of 93. He is remembered fondly as a talented, award-winning Broadway and television actor who never forgot his roots in the Yiddish theater. Barbara Wind’s article, which was turned in several weeks prior to his death, is presented for our readers here.

As I was driving to see Fyvush Finkel’s performance, I remembered that the last time I saw him he wasn’t the least bit funny. Nor should he have been. He appeared on a panel at Fordham University’s David Wyman Conference on America’s Response to the Holocaust.

Last night, however, he was funny, very funny. When he rose from his wheelchair to ascend the stage with the help of his son Elliot, he looked frail, no longer the tall, elegant man he was a few years ago at the conference. However, when he greeted the audience with his expressive, somewhat mischievous, smile, it was obvious that he had not lost any of the charm, charisma and tremendous talent that propelled Pesach Burstein to champion the 20-year-old’s entry into the closed Yiddish Actors’ Union. To think that a man in his 90s can still entertain and captivate audiences is wonderfully amazing. Fyvush was performing a cabaret act with his two sons, master musicians who were responsible for the musical part of the evening. He admitted that he was schepping nachas—“The lessons paid off.”

Indeed they did. Both sons are classically trained (Juilliard and Mannes School of Music). The band, under Ian’s direction, was astonishingly good. Who knew a xylophone could be so wonderful? But Ian is a magician, coaxing gorgeous sounds out of an instrument that one generally associates with children. Hearing him play, one gains enormous appreciation and respect for the xylophone. At times he played with two mallets in each hand. He’s also a music arranger. Elliot, the pianist, is not merely a brilliant pianist (classical and jazz) but a composer. He composed the music for “Finkel’s Follies,” a tribute to vaudeville. Vaudeville in the Yiddish theaters was where Fyvush the young boy got his start.

Born in 1922 to European immigrants living in Brooklyn, Philip Finkel became a child performer, but was also practical and attended a vocational school to learn the fur trade. He would have been the funniest furrier in the world but opted, instead, for a life on stage. He found immediate and long-lasting success in his calling and was a rarity in that he transcended Yiddish theater to appear on and off Broadway. He was in the cast of the original Fiddler on the Roof and eventually landed the role of Tevye. He also appeared in a large variety of television shows and films including “Picket Fences” and The Little Shop of Horrors, a current production of the Berkshire Theatre Group. His performances earned him fame, fortune and numerous awards, including an Obie and an Emmy. Yet, he admits that the stage is what excites him most. He loves live audiences and they love him. Last night they repeatedly rose to their feet to applaud and cheer. Abi Mit Dir, (As Long As I’m With You) says it all. From “Finkel’s Follies,” it’s one of the songs he sang, his voice still strong, bringing a bit of Yiddish to Pittsfield, Massachusetts.

Heralded as the “The face that launched a thousand shticks,” Fyvush is a brilliant entertainer who really knows how to put on a show. The only semi-somber moment came when he, as a serious thinker concerned about the upsurge in anti-Semitism, read teacher, writer and humorist Sam Levinson’s Response to an Anti Semite: “It’s a free world; you don’t have to like Jews, but if you don’t. I suggest that you boycott certain Jewish products such as the Wassermann Test for syphilis; digitalis, discovered by a Dr. Nuslin; insulin, discovered by Dr. Minofsky…”

“Good! Boycott! Humanitarian consistency requires that my people offer all these gifts to all people of the world. Fanatic consistency requires that all bigots accept syphilis, diabetes, convulsions, malnutrition, infantile paralysis and tuberculosis as a matter of principle.

“You want to be mad? Be mad! But I’m telling you, you ain’t going to feel so good!”

Fyvush’s sons have inherited his talent and also their mother’s. Gertrude Lieberman, who died in 2008, was a playwright, as is Elliot. He wrote a play about George Sand and her lover, Polish concert pianist and composer Frederic Chopin. “A century ago, she waged the battle for Women’s Rights that is still being fought today.”

Although Fyvush sang a number of songs between his jokes and banter, Elliot and Ian, along with the band’s three other musicians—guitarist Robbie Kershaw, drummer Tony Tedesco and bassist Ed Sterbenz—made the crowded room rock with their exuberant jazz renditions of American Song Book classics and show tunes. This included a Gershwin medley that shone a new light on George Gershwin’s brilliance and made his death at 39 of a brain tumor painfully poignant. Their rendition of Summertime from Porgy and Bess was profoundly nuanced, expressing the fleeting joy of a season of abundant food and warmth, especially as it was experienced by African Americans before the Civil Rights era. One can only imagine what Gershwin would have produced had he lived to his lyricist brother Ira’s age of 87, or to Irving Berlin’s 101.

The Barrington Stage Company, founded and directed by Julianne Boyd, is everything a theatre should be. Its productions are marvelous, both of new work and revivals. It supports the work of emerging playwrights, lyricists and composers and fosters young audiences. Its cabaret is a small space within the Linden Avenue theater. (The much larger main stage is on Union Avenue.) This cabaret is named for William Finn, the creator of the two Tony Award–winning Falsettos. Finn, who teaches a master class at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, has been associated with Barrington Stage for years and hosts many of their productions along with lyricist Deborah Abramson.

Fyvush is celebrating his 93rd birthday (“I’ve lived half of my life”) and invited the audience back to celebrate his 98th. One hopes that we can all celebrate Fyvush’s 98th at Barrington’s much larger theater or at the grandly restored Colonial, another theater in Pittsfield. Maybe then the performer will be toasting L’Chaim with champagne instead of water. As he joked, “Jews don’t drink. It interferes with their suffering.” The only thing last night’s audience suffered was that the joyous love fest of a show didn’t go on and on and on.

Barbara Wind is the director of the Holocaust Center of Greater MetroWest.

 

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