Laura M. Togut ’08 definitely has chutzpah. “A Little Night Yiddish,” written and directed by Togut, features traditional Jewish songs in their original Yiddish book-ended by scripted English sequences that she authored. This work has been the culmination of Togut’s Yiddish studies at Harvard as well as her passion for Jewish culture. “I feel like I am going out with a bang,” she says.
Togut began studying Yiddish her freshman year in part to satisfy Harvard’s language requirement. “Before I went to college, I decided that I had a language requirement to fulfill,” she said, “and I was sick and tired of Spanish so I would take Yiddish.” Surprisingly, Togut’s Yiddish leanings came not from a familial familiarity with the language, but rather from her love of Jewish culture in general.
Though Togut insists that she doesn’t like language classes in the slightest, she thoroughly enjoyed her time spent studying Yiddish. This interest peaked in a summer spent abroad in Lithuania, in which Togut’s interest in Yiddish music began to blossom.
“When I was in Lithuania, every Friday we had Shabbas Kiddush where we all go to the Jewish center,” she says. “A good friend of mine had a book of Yiddish music, and we would all crowd around the piano, and we would sing all of these songs after dinner. I learned a lot of the folk songs that are in the show in Lithuania.”
The idea to incorporate these songs into a single cohesive play has been percolating in Togut’s mind for a long time. “I started writing the script for the show my sophomore year, probably because I started finding all these wonderful Yiddish songs,” she says. “I started thinking to myself, ‘It would be great to have some way of sharing these songs with other people because there are very few people who still know Yiddish or study Yiddish and the music is so great. I started playing around with the idea of some sort of performance with these songs, and [as] I learned more about Yiddish theater I just sort of drew up this outline of the show.”
“It was basically just me picking out my favorite songs and finding a way to put those together and give those to people in a way that gave them a context and taught them a little bit about Yiddish and Yiddish theater, but it was more about just sharing the songs with them.”
Though Togut has never written or directed any other plays, she imagines that the writing process for “A Little Night Yiddish” was truly unique. “It was different than writing any other kind of play, because it was not about the plot at all,” she says. “I am trying to say something, but I’m not really trying to tell a story. I only feel like I half-wrote it because I took all these wonderful songs that I love and then I just wrote something around them.”
Those who go to the play thinking that they will only be hearing traditional Yiddish music are in for quite the surprise. Togut has chosen to end her production with a version of “Bohemian Rhapsody” translated in its entirety to Yiddish and altered slightly to fit the Jewish subject matter.
“When I started writing the script ages ago, I was sitting and thinking that it would be really fun to translate some random song into Yiddish and I came up with ‘Bohemian Rhapsody.’ It’s a really fun, crazy song that has a sort of cult following,” she says. “It is the grand finale of the show.”
Now that the writing and directing processes are reaching their conclusions, Togut hopes that her play will find a wide audience. “It was very important for me that this show could bring Yiddish music to people who otherwise would not hear it,” she says, “that anyone could go to this show and appreciate everything, whether it was an older person from the Boston community who knew all these songs growing up and is now reminiscing over them, or someone who doesn’t know the first thing about Yiddish or Jewish music and can still sit down and enjoy the show.”
This entire process, which began over two years ago, has been extremely rewarding to Togut. “The most enjoyable thing is just seeing this come to life. Ages ago this was just a concept in my imagination that wasn’t even close to being put on. I didn’t even now I would put on the show when I started writing it,” she says.
“Now I’ve got this script that I wrote which is very personal to me, and I see other people bringing it to life and it’s going to be performed, and just seeing this very personal thing which I have created and having that become something greater than myself, that’s just really amazing.”