Yiddish Puppet-based Film at Emory
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Yiddish Puppet-based Film at Emory

New bilingual show demonstrates the relevance of a 1935 Yiddish children’s story.

Chana Shapiro is an educator, writer, editor and illustrator whose work has appeared in journals, newspapers and magazines. She is a regular contributor to the AJT.

Jake Krakovsky manipulates puppets made by Ryan Bradburn.
Jake Krakovsky manipulates puppets made by Ryan Bradburn.

Yiddish seems to be making a recent comeback among the nation’s university students, a phenomenon that might amaze their predecessors. Past generations loved Yiddish, but undoubtedly did not equate the mama loshen (mother tongue) with languages studied in edifices of higher learning.

“Labzik: Tales of a Clever Pup” is an original Theater Emory puppet production, livestreaming from May 24 to June 5. The show adapts a 1935 children’s book of the same name by Yiddish writer Chaver Paver, who developed curricula for shules, Yiddish-language after-school programs.

The book’s publisher, International Workers Order, was a New York City communist-affiliated mutual-aid society that ran these shules for children of Jewish working-class families during the Great Depression.

Jake Krakovsky with central puppet film character Labzik.

Emory grad Jake Krakovsky adapted the script and directs the production. “This non-stereotypical shtetl image offers an alternative to romanticized myths about Yiddish speakers and their lives. The puppy and his family encounter labor struggles, peaceful protest, racism, police brutality, even an episode involving a terrible airborne disease. The stories also present secular Jews putting Jewish values into practice.”

Krakovsky is an Atlanta actor, director, playwright and puppeteer who is a teaching associate working with professor Miriam Udel in a new seminar at Emory University, Yiddish Political Theater. They first met in 2014, as participants on a Theater Emory-hosted panel at which Krakovsky performed an excerpt from his one-act solo play “Yankl on the Moon,” based on a comic Yiddish folktale.

Miriam Udel teaches Yiddish Political Theater seminar at Emory.

“Professor Udel liked the play,” Krakovsky explained, “and I performed readings of it for her classes on Yiddish children’s literature. I first heard about the Labzik stories in a 2019 seminar series and admired her research on modern Yiddish kid lit, which she translated and presented in her book, “Honey on the Page: A Treasury of Yiddish Children’s Literature.” We agreed that they would make a great puppet show.”

At a Yiddish Book Center summer program, Krakovsky gained Yiddish language competency and a passion for Yiddish literature and culture. Subsequently, Udel and Krakovsky revisited the idea of a Labzik adaptation. Krakovsky presented the idea to Theater Emory, and Udel received support from the Tam Institute for Jewish Studies and Emory German Studies department, who agreed to co-sponsor a new class, Yiddish Political Theater.

Krakovsky adapted Paver’s Yiddish stories using Udel’s English translation for a bilingual puppet film, involving seminar students in the show’s production, narration and marketing. Krakovsky manipulates the film’s puppets, designed and fabricated by local artist Ryan Bradburn. The original Yiddish dialogue, with subtitles, is spoken by professional Yiddish actors, and student narrators voice Udel’s English translation.

The 1935 children’s book “Labzik: Tales of a Clever Pup” is the basis of the new puppet film.

“It is uncanny how aptly these stories from 1935 speak to concerns of our time, and in lively language that our children can understand,” said Udel, associate professor of Yiddish language, literature and culture in the German Studies department with a co-appointment in the Tam Institute. “Jake’s screenwriting skill and puppetry chops bring these fun, instructive stories to life.”

In addition to being an Emory alum, Krakovsky has strong university roots. “My oldest and deepest link to Emory is my great-great-great uncle Rabbi Tobias Geffen. My grandmother, mother, aunt, sister, and a couple of first cousins are alumni.”

In 1919, Rabbi Geffen convinced the Emory administration to enable religiously observant Jewish students, including his own children, to matriculate without penalty for missing classes on Jewish holy days or Shabbat. According to online sources, Geffen played a catalyst role, which led to today’s large Jewish enrollment. Perhaps the Yiddish Political Theater seminar is a result of Rabbi Geffen’s imprint on Emory 100 years ago.

“Labzik: Tales of a Clever Pup” is an original Theater Emory puppet production, livestreaming from May 24 to June 5.

Watch a free screening of “Labzik: Tales of a Clever Pup” at www.theater.emory.edu/home/shows-events/current-season/labzik.html. The on-demand streaming video will be available from May 24 to June 5.

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