The Ballad of Monish Reviewed for the Canadian Jewish News

by Rabbi Lawrence Pinsker

In her poem "The Yiddish Muses" Jacqueline Osherow writes: “Yiddish is no language for poetry,” but a young Winnipeg musician, Yiddishist, and local cultural icon named Marty Green has trumped her dour comment. He has taken a long Yiddish rhyming poem by one of the three authors who founded Yiddish literature and transformed it into a tour de force theatrical experience. In his hands, Y.L. Peretz’ poem “The Ballad of Monish,” a bold and (at times) bawdy 19th century reflection on the idealization of 18th century Jewish piety becomes a remarkable musical and comedic exploration of Yiddish culture, Eastern European Jewish culture, Jewish religiosity and spirituality, and popular North American music. Using exhuberant musical motifs and strategies (especially from country-western music!) Marty Green invites us on a creative yet scholarly tour of the world of the shtetl and the yeshiva (religious academies) that were at the heart of Eastern European Jewish civilization.

In two hours Marty Green not only manages to honour Yiddish literature and the the complex mixture of admiration and resentment that existed between secularist and religious Ashekenazic Jews but does so to an original soundtrack of his own composition. Peretz’s story centres on the yeshivabocher Monish, who is “everyJew’s” ideal— a brilliant scholar, steeped in Torah and Jewish ethics, devoted solely to G-d, and destined to be a shaping force in Jewish life and on how Satan determines to test Monish’s mettle. With comic echoes of the Book of Job and a host of subtleties embedded in uniquely Yiddish references to Biblical and Talmudic texts, Peretz brilliantly describes Monish’s world and life and how it is unraveled by Satan.

Green’s performance consists of an illustrated running commentary to his own, recorded performance of the musical setting he has written for Peretz’s epic poem. As Green speaks and sings his English translation of the poem, he pauses, flashes images on the screen that forms the backdrop of the stage, and demonstrates how he has analyzed and organized Peretz’s fertile imaginery for a modern audience while wrestling with the need to preserve the integrity of the poem.

And he succeeds brilliantly. The fictional Monish’s struggles and the real Peretz’s bemused respect for the ill-fated yeshiva student come alive in a way that would be difficult to convey in a simple reading of the text. Marty Green, translator of such country-western hits as “A Boy Named Surele” (by Johnny Cash) convincingly demonstrates the musical and cultural affinity between the spirit of Peretz’s work and the musical legacy of Hank Williams, Merle Haggard, Patsy Cline, and other luminaries of country-western culture. By evening’s end, the audience is humming Green’s catchy music and reflecting on the extraordinary insights that remain long after the laughter and music of the stage show have ended.

The two complaints I heard at the end of Green’s show were, first, that one man wanted to hear the entire performance (the musical recording is available on a CD, minus Green’s commentary) in Yiddish uninterrupted, and, second, that many in the audience wanted more time for questions about Yiddish culture and Peretz’s life.

Years ago Yaakov Glatshteyn said wrote that Yiddishkeit is merely a lullaby for old men whose gums knead soaked challah,” but Marty Green has managed to make it accessible and even to live again with his musical talent, his translator’s love for the language, and his utterly charming and captivating comic spirit. Several non-Jews in the audience remarked that until they had heard Green’s exposition of the text, they had no idea of the rich and subtle nature of Yiddish culture.

The good news is that “The Ballad of Monish” is not going to be restricted only to the Winnipeg audience. It’s only a matter of time before audiences elsewhere experience Marty Green’s talents firsthand.