NEW YORK (Nov. 30)
As the Yiddish theater in Argentina was drawing its last breath some 20 years ago, Jackie Jacob began reviving tired Yiddish show tunes with his Latin-American beat.
Jacob’s reasoning was quite simple. With the decline of the Yiddish language in Argentina and the rest of the world, the only way to save the songs and culture was to attract a younger audience. The best means of reaching that group was to break the stereotype of the slow, sentimental Yiddish song and back it with a dance-inspiring rhythm.
During the 1960’s, Jacob began experimenting with this Spanish/Yiddish flavor in his native Montevideo, Uruguay. He first introduced his combination in a different culture in 1969 when he played basketball for Uruguay in the Maccabee Games in Israel.
He recalls his friends persuading him to sing one night at a club in Jaffa. When he informed the band that he wanted to perform Yiddish songs and then requested a Latin beat, they were a bit confused. “Everyone thinks Yiddish songs are for the old and to make you cry,” Jacob said. “But when they hear the new rhythms, people dance.”
Jacob impressed the audience and owner of the nightclub so much that he was asked to sing regularly there and he wound up staying in Israel for six months.
A REVOLUTION IN JEWISH MUSIC
“I was a big success,” Jacob, 46, said with a heavy Spanish accent. Even though most of his selections were traditional Yiddish songs or from Yiddish musicals, Jacob’s updated sound was what he called the “first revolution about Jewish music.”
After his stint in Israel and a brief sidetrip to perform on a cruise ship in Greece, Jacob settled in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Here he found Yiddish theater on its deathbed, as it was in the rest of the world. Gone were the days of the fierce competition in Argentina’s Yiddish theater, when the four major playhouses, the Mitre, Excelcior, Soleil and Ombu presented shows simultaneously, each starring famed American and European Yiddish actors and each selling out their 1,500-seat auditoriums.
In 1974, Jacob landed a job entertaining in Yiddish at a small club near Buenos Aires. Between 1974 and 1985, Jacob performed in 22 plays for the Jewish/Spanish theater– speaking Spanish and singing Yiddish.
A SUCCESS IN THE U.S.
After achieving success in Argentina, including sold-out shows along the Corrientes, the Broadway of Buenos Aires, Jacob was contacted last year by Hebraica, the Jewish-Latin American Institution based in several major cities in the U.S.
Jacob was asked to perform in Miami and found it difficult to gather enough Yiddish-supporting actors. Instead, he taught the Yiddish songs to non-Jews who, he said, chanted a “perfect Yiddish.” His performance in America turned out to be the catalyst for his permanent move.
Right after Florida, Jacob was contracted to entertain at the Hebraica in Houston. Much to his surprise, the Hebraica planned two shows, one in Spanish and the other completely in Yiddish.
“I never do shows in Yiddish,” Jacob said. ‘I only speak a street Yiddish. But the show was already sold out and Jacob had to spend eight hours translating the Spanish into Yiddish.
He explained to the audience that he did not speak a word of English and only a broken Yiddish. When the show was finished “they upped,” Jacob said, gesturing with his hands. “I thought they will kill me,” he continued, but they had risen to give him a standing ovation. The scenario was repeated in Beverly Hills and after the second show Jacob phoned his wife to tell her to pack.
A TEARFUL FAREWELL
It was not easy for Jacob, his wife and two sons to leave Argentina. While he was preparing to emigrate, he sold out three farewell shows, finishing each with his own rendition of “My Way” in a few languages.
“People cried,” Jacob said. “They said ‘please we don’t want you to go.’ I cried. But I am a professional and there are more opportunities in the United States.”
When he first moved to the U.S. and settled in Miami he had no producers or promoters and began performing a one-man show at hotels in the Miami area. After earning some money, Jacob coordinated his international Jewish revue called “L’Chaim to Life,” and performed to some 35,000 people between January and March in various theaters in Florida.
Now “L’Chaim to Life” is in the hands of Broadway professionals, at the Town Hall theater. The revue, which features Jacob and New York Yiddish theater stars Leon Liebgold and Mina Bern, comprises sketches, a variety of old and new Yiddish songs, a dramatization of a work by Martin Buber about a Hasidic rabbi, Yiddish rock and-roll, Rumanian dancing, acrobatics and a Yiddish tango.
Jacob, who has learned an almost fluent English in his first year here, hopes his show will be a hit on Broadway but delights in just being there. “I feel like a boxing champion,” he said.
He is also optimistic he can revive a dormant Yiddish theater. In America, Jacob believes Jews are hungry for a Yiddish theater, but there is no food. “I have the food,” Jacob said, “and this is the right country.”