Living By His Wits: New Play Highlights Eastern European Folk Hero, Joker


Call him the Robin Hood of Eastern European Jewish culture.

Hershele Ostropolyer was an exuberant trickster who roamed the Ukrainian countryside at the turn of the 19th century, playing jokes on the rich to help the poor. The Folksbiene Yiddish Theatre’s new production, “The Adventures of Hershele Ostropolyer,” stars Mike Burstyn as the legendary joker who always has another trick up his sleeve.

Adapted, directed and choregographed by Eleanor Reissa, “Hershele Ostropolyer” is a new musical based on a Yiddish play by Moshe Gershonson that was later adapted by Joseph Glicksman. In the show, Hershele outwits an avaricious rich man, Reb Kalmen (Itzy Firestone) who is trying to prevent a young couple (Nimmy Weisbrod and Dani Marcus) from getting married. The music is provided by a four-piece klezmer band consists of classic Yiddish theater ballads like “Du shayntz vi di zun” (You shine like the sun) and “Lomir zich iberbetn” (Let’s make up), along with some new tunes written specially for this production.

Burstyn is no stranger to the role, having played the character in a 1977 Israeli film, “Hershele,” which won him a Kinor David Prize — Israel’s equivalent of an Academy Award. In this country, Burstyn is best known for his stage work; he appeared on Broadway in “Barnum” and “Ain’t Broadway Grand,” and he starred in the national tours of “The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife” and “Jolson.” He was seen last season in “Lansky,” a one-man Off-Broadway play about the Jewish gangster, Meyer Lansky.

In a telephone interview, Burstyn said that Hershele is a “folk hero, a type of character that Israelis read about in school.” Playing Hershele is like “coming home to the kinds of characters that I used to play in the Yiddish theater,” Burstyn said. “It’s like putting on an old overcoat.” One of the most appealing aspects of the musical, he said, is that it demonstrates that Jews have found ways of maintaining a sense of humor even in the most painful and desperate periods of Jewish history.

The production is a minimalist one, with English and Russian supertitles projected onto the set and a trunk on the stage from which the actors take their costumes. Reissa said that it has a “contemporary was well as classic element. The audience is much more involved than at a traditional Yiddish play, since they need to use their imagination to bring the fable to life.”

By bringing out the fairy-tale aspect of the piece, Reissa is trying to make the play “feel like it’s from another planet; we try to take the audience to another world.”

Since Hershele was himself an actor and master of disguise, Reissa pointed out, a show about him is inevitably about the nature of theater itself. Just like the characters in the play, Reissa said, the actors, who also include Daniella Rabbani, Shane Baker, Edwaerd Furs, Steve Sterner and Lori Wilner, must use their wits to survive. Being a Yiddish actor in New York is not that different, after all, from being an Eastern European Jewish trickster. “We’re poor but creative too,” she noted.

“The Adventures of Hershele Ostropolyer,” which is now in previews, opens on Thursday, June 3 and runs through June 27. Performances are Wednesday and Thursday evenings at 8 p.m. and Sunday evenings at 6 p.m., with matinees on Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday afternoons at 2 p.m. For tickets ($45-$55), call OvationTix at (866) 811-4111 or visit

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