‘The Sages of Chelm’ is Montreal’s fresh take on a classic play from the Dora Wasserman Yiddish Theatre

The hilarious tales of the foolish dwellers of the Polish shtetl of Chelm are among the most popular of Eastern European Jewish folklore.

The musical play The Sages of Chelm is among the most beloved of Montreal’s Dora Wasserman Yiddish Theatre’s (DWYT) repertoire since it premiered in 1970. It was written by Abraham Shulman, a humour columnist for The Forward, with a score by Montreal’s Eli Rubinstein, who was from Romania.

A fresh interpretation of this classic has been undertaken by 31-year-old Trevor Barrette who is not a Yiddish speaker or even Jewish. He is director of the DWYT’s latest The Sages of Chelm at the Segal Centre for Performing Arts main stage from June 19-26.

With only a slight tweak of the original text, Barrette promises an iteration that will please both the DWYT’s traditional audience and those who have never heard of the Chelm stories.

“This is going to be an homage to tradition, as well as an introduction for those who are brand new to it,” said Barrette. “It’s a Chelm those who know it will remember, with a few surprises.” Most of all, he hopes people will just have fun watching these eccentric characters who mistake their narishkeit for wisdom.

The action-packed show runs about two hours, including intermission. “Audiences will need a breather, and a drink,” joked Barrette, who is also choreographing.

Making the old new again has been helped by the happy coincidence that British actor Sacha Baron Cohen is developing and will narrate an animated special Chelm: The Smartest Place on Earth for HBO Max. The creator of the ultimate village idiot Borat has an open invitation to take in a DWYT performance.

The Sages of Chelm was to have closed the Segal’s 2019-2020 season, but of course was a casualty of the pandemic lockdown. When the director of that production was no longer available, the DWYT turned to Barrette who is no stranger to the Segal.

The John Abbott College professional theatre program graduate has directed three of the Segal’s amateur You Be the Star musical fundraisers and teaches at the Segal Academy for kids.

The Sages of Chelm is a romantic comedy about star-crossed lovers: Shoshane (Jeanne Motulsky) who has a crush on Menakhem, an outsider who comes to town with different ideas, despite her being betrothed to someone else.

“What excited me was how current the story still is,” said Barrette.

The multigenerational cast of volunteer performers, who range in age from 12 to almost 80, is emblematic of blending past and present. They include DWYT veterans and griners who are learning the mama loshen on the job, under the tutelage of six Yiddish coaches, just as Barrette is doing.

Stan Unger, who was Menakhem (now played by newcomer Jake Cohen) in the 1980s and ‘90s, now plays Reb Yoysef Loksh. Perennial DWYT favourite Sam Stein, who was the rabbi in the DWYT 2008 50thanniversary production, is back as Shakhne Getsl.

Musical director Nick Burgess, incidentally, played Menakhem in 2008.

The cast also has different generations of families: Rabba Rachel Kohl Finegoldand daughter Kinneret; and DWYT co-president Jodi Lackman, a past Chelm chorus member, and son Bram. 

Although The Sages of Chelm will have English and French supertitles, Barrette thinks the beat of the acting, singing and dancing will allow everyone to follow the narrative thread most of the time without them.

Rabba Finegold plays Shoshe Dobe, the mother of the bride, and 12-year-old Kinneret is Blima, younger sister of Raizel the Florist. They were in the DWYT’s last big production, A Bintel Brief, in 2018-2019.

Rabba Finegold acknowledges her daughter’s Yiddish is better than hers; Kinneret has played in YAYA, DWYT’s young people’s troupe. Her mother heard the language spoken by her grandparents and parents, but never became fluent herself. Active in theatre in high school and college, Rabba Finegold has put her stagecraft to use, in a practical sense, as a member of the clergy.

The New York native is familiar with the Chelm tales. “Growing up, my grandparents used to get The Jewish Press. I would run and get the middle section where different stories were run each week.”

Rabba Finegold appreciates how this The Sages of Chelm deals with “the question of balancing modernity with (Jewish) tradition, something I do every day in my work.” Director of education and spiritual enrichment at Congregation Shaar Hashomayim, she was one of the first women ordained in the Orthodox movement.

She lauds Barrette’s deft hand. “How do you take something that is canonical and beloved and make sure it does not become stale and ossified… The play itself asks how do we move forward, and each Chelm has been a little different over the years. (Barrette) has been very respectful in finding that balance.”

Her daughter’s participation speaks to generational progression.

The Grade 7 Hebrew Academy student describes Blima as “a smart, tough girl who is softer on the inside.” She modestly says she understands Yiddish better than speaks it, but is looking ahead confidently to being in the spotlight for a few moments.

“I think the play will definitely interest young people,” said Kinneret, the youngest in the cast by several years. “It’s been pulled into the 21st century—it’s something like a rom-com, but people who saw it 30 years ago can still enjoy it.”