Gilbert and Sullivan Go Yiddish

March 21, 2013 | By

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There’s nothing inherently Yiddish-y about Gilbert and Sullivan‘s body of work. But that hasn’t stopped Al Grand, a retired New York City schoolteacher, from making a name for himself by penning Yiddish interpretations of the pair’s renowned operas.

Though Grand isn’t the first to pair Yiddish with Gilbert and Sullivan, he is the first to translate an entire opera from start to finish, and is perhaps best known for Di Yam Gazlonim—that is, The Pirates of Penzance.

In his essay “Ikh Bin Der Major General,” sci-fi legend Isaac Asimov, who loved Grand’s work, wrote: “It is hard to think of differences more extreme than those between the Victorian British and the Jews of any time or place in the last 2,000 years… The music of Sullivan—cheerful, bouncy, busy! It is worlds different from the bittersweet minor mode of Jewish music.”

And yet, as Asimov himself would be the first to admit, Grand has managed to artfully blend the two worlds. He retains the material’s giddiness while peppering his interpretations with Jewish jokes and Yiddish cultural references. As anyone who’s been lucky enough to catch one of his sporadically-staged productions can attest, the combination is irresistible—and rather strange.

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