My secret passion, known only to my wife and kids and now you, the readers of Powells.com, is — get ready for this — Hebrew musicals. Not English musicals, certainly. My principal reaction to musicals in English is why is that person singing? Perhaps it's my inclination toward realism. Or maybe it's musicals' affinity for puns, when there's nothing I like less than a pun (puns are cleverness that's too obvious, cleverness that's preening and proud of itself), the only exception coming in an occasional Elvis Costello song. I was once dragged by a family member to watch a showing on Broadway of Urinetown. Was everyone around me, in fact, whooping it up? Was I so hopelessly out of touch? Had someone actually paid 85 dollars for my ticket?
Hebrew musicals, however, are something else entirely. I'm not talking about musicals written by Israelis and performed in Israel, about which I suspect I'd feel pretty much the same way I feel about English musicals. I'm talking about English musicals translated into Hebrew. I'm talking My Fair Lady in Hebrew, Guys and Dolls in Hebrew, and even (more on this later) The Rocky Horror Picture Show in Hebrew. The Hebrew musical provides that extra shot of camp, which to my ear makes it... well... delightful.
My relationship to the Hebrew musical came about thanks to the summer camp I attended, which was a Jewish summer camp and, purportedly, a Hebrew-speaking summer camp. Purportedly, because it's hard to be a Hebrew-speaking summer camp when no one at the camp speaks Hebrew. Camp Ramah in the Berkshires wasn't really in the Berkshires, either. It was probably located closer to the Catskills, but that's another story. It was a wonderful camp, but it was filled with children who were sent to Hebrew school by their parents (in fact, you couldn't attend Camp Ramah in the Berkshires unless you'd been sent to Hebrew school by your parents), and anyone who's been to Hebrew school knows you don't learn Hebrew at Hebrew school. You throw spitballs, you place whoopee cushions on the seats of unsuspecting classmates, you read about Sandy Koufax, Hank Greenberg, and other famous Jewish athletes, but you don't learn Hebrew.
And so, the rub.Campers and staffers who couldn't conjugate a Hebrew verb were deposited at a summer camp where all the nouns were in Hebrew. You didn't sleep in a bunk but in a tsrif. You didn't sit on porch but on a mirpeset. You didn't get candy at the canteen but at the chanutiya. And you didn't eat in the dining hall but in the chadar ochel. The lake was the agam and the bathrooms were the shayrooteem, and when you didn't know the Hebrew, as in "pagoda," you simply said it with a Hebrew accent.
Alas, nouns go only so far, especially when those nouns all revolve around summer camp. Nonetheless, the camp administration insisted that all plays be done in Hebrew — performed by campers who couldn't speak the language, for campers and staffers who didn't understand it. For this reason, it was not surprising that, when I was 16 and my division performed Carousel, the male lead, who had a good voice but whose Hebrew, even by camp standards, was atrocious, spent the entire play reading a newspaper, on the inside of which were his transliterated lines.
Because I went to Jewish day school instead of Hebrew school, my Hebrew was passable — proficient, even, by camp standards. And so I came to memorize all the lyrics of the musicals that got performed every summer. Ha' barad yarad bi'tsfon sepharad ha'erev. Translation: The hail came down in northern Spain this evening. AKA: The rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain.
And when I was a counselor, and, miraculously, we got the camp administration to approve a performance of The Rocky Horror Picture Show by our 16-year-olds, it fell upon me and another counselor to translate the lyrics. We didn't do a particularly good job, but nobody knew: they couldn't speak Hebrew.And now, when I find myself doing the "Time Warp" (more often than I care to admit), it's in Hebrew that I do it, and when my wife and kids hear me singing in the shower, it's as likely to be "Luck Be a Lady" as anything else. But always, always in Hebrew!
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Joshua Henkin is the author of the novels Swimming across the Hudson (a Los Angeles Times Notable Book) and Matrimony (a New York Times Notable Book). His stories have been published widely, cited for distinction in Best American Short Stories, and broadcast on NPR's Selected Shorts. His latest novel is The World without You.
Books mentioned in this post
Joshua Henkin is the author of The World without You