New Jewish Play, ‘The Last Yiddish Speaker,’ Coming to Philadelphia

The cast of “The Last Yiddish Speaker” at the Proscenium Theatre at the Drake in Philadelphia. (Courtesy of The InterAct Theatre Company)

The InterAct Theatre Co. is bringing a Jewish play, “The Last Yiddish Speaker,” to The Proscenium Theatre at the Drake in Philadelphia starting March 29.

Here’s the premise:

“In the years following a successful Jan. 6 insurrection, a white supremacist regime has come into power. Paul and his teenage daughter, Sarah, live under the radar in a small town upstate as Christian-passing, despite being Jews who fled New York City. When an ancient Yiddish-speaking woman arrives on their doorstep, Paul and Sarah are forced to decide between fleeing again or fighting for their faith, their heritage and their identity.”

The play will run until April 21. InterAct, which puts on new plays, is billing this one as a “world premiere,” according to an email from the company.

InterAct’s artistic director, Seth Rozin, who is Jewish, found it through a friend at the National New Play Network, an alliance of theaters. Deborah Zoe Laufer, a Staten Island-based playwright, came up with the story and wrote the script.

“I read it, and it immediately struck me as something timely and important,” Rozin said.

The artistic director thought it explored important themes.

“How cultures evolve and then die and what’s at stake when a language is under threat of dying out,” he said.

Rozin also felt the play captured a question that Jews have been facing for “most of their history.”

“Fight, flight or assimilate,” he said.

While the story uses a right-wing threat to portray that conflict, Rozin and Laufer see similar danger from the left post-Oct. 7.

“The war between Israel and Hamas has brought additional light and intense politicization to Jews and the world,” Rozin said. “It’s led to a rise in antisemitism.”

“Oct. 7 made this even more possible,” Laufer said.

The idea to explore the death of cultures and languages was partially inspired by Laufer’s own life. Her grandparents were Orthodox and spoke Yiddish, but her parents stopped speaking the language. By the time Laufer was a girl, she only heard phrases.

“I was raised without a religious upbringing by my parents,” she said.

Today, Laufer calls herself an atheist.

“It’s not in my nature to embrace what I consider magical thinking. I’m very science-based,” she said.

At the same time, “I worry a lot about the survival of the Jews,” Laufer added.

Deborah Zoe Laufer (Photo by Tripp Street Studio)

Even though her family wasn’t religious, Laufer experienced antisemitism growing up. When she was 8, the family moved to White Sulphur Springs, New York.

It was only eight minutes from her old town. Yet several of her classmates “thought I grew horns at night,” she recalled.

“It was scary when I was just starting fourth grade,” she added.

Laufer always felt this connection to her Jewish identity. She also always felt connected to the Yiddish part of that identity.

The playwright felt “a certain loss and guilt that I didn’t learn Yiddish from my grandparents when I might have,” she said.

“I think Jews out of self-preservation wanted their families to assimilate,” she added.

From the phrases she knows, Laufer finds Yiddish to be “expressive.”

“I do wish I spoke it,” the playwright said. “But then, who would I speak it with?”

Laufer had another play translated into Hebrew for production in Israel. She asked if it would be translated to Yiddish as well.

“I had just assumed that Yiddish was spoken in Israel,” she said.

She learned that there were only one or two Yiddish theaters in Israel.

Laufer’s last play, “Rooted,” featured an amateur botanist as its protagonist. During her research for it, she learned that “every day, 150 species die,” she recalled.

“As the Earth is struggling, I’m just very moved by that loss,” Laufer said.

“The Last Yiddish Speaker” will also premiere at The Oregon Contemporary Theatre in Eugene and The Theatre Lab in Boca Raton, Florida.

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