By LAURA COLLINS-HUGHES NOV. 10, 2015
Before he was a salesman, Willy Loman was a peddler on the Lower East Side.
You won’t find any proof of that in the script of Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman,” but it makes intuitive sense to Avi Hoffman, the actor playing Willy in New Yiddish Rep’s Yiddish-language production. In the back story Mr. Hoffman has settled on, Willy is a Jewish immigrant who came to the United States in 1910 or so, fleeing pogroms in Russia. He learned a little English and started hawking wares.
“Buttons, buttons! Pots and pans!” Mr. Hoffman cried, demonstrating with aplomb over kreplach soup the other afternoon at Fine and Schapiro, a kosher restaurant on the Upper West Side. Switching back to his regular speaking voice, he said Willy “worked his way up, he made a couple of bucks, he met Linda.”
None of this is actually on the Castillo Theater stage, of course. Directed by Moshe Yassur, the production (which runs through Nov. 22) uses Joseph Buloff’s Yiddish adaptation, “Toyt fun a Salesman,” interspersed with occasional English words and sometimes whole passages taken directly from Mr. Miller’s 1949 text. From its opening moments, when the visibly exhausted Willy comes home to his wife, Linda, after an aborted sales trip, these are recognizably the Lomans, a Brooklyn family that in this instance happens to speak Yiddish.
To Mr. Hoffman, a 57-year-old Bronx native who had never acted in a Miller play before but has performed in Yiddish theater since the age of 10, “Death of a Salesman” is a Jewish play about a Jewish family, written by a Jewish playwright about his Jewish relatives.
He hears Yiddish in the structure of Mr. Miller’s dialogue, as when Willy’s girlfriend asks when he’ll be back in town and he says, “Oh, two weeks about.” Ditto Linda’s famously awkward immortal line, “Attention, attention must be finally paid to such a person.”
“Who talks like that?” Mr. Hoffman asked, the question rhetorical. “That’s Yiddish.”
Detecting traces of Jewishness and Yiddish in the world around him is something he just does, offstage and on, including in his well-received solo shows “Too Jewish?” (1995), “Too Jewish Too!” (1998) and “Still Jewish After All These Years” (2013). When there was such a thing as the Joseph Papp Yiddish Theater, Mr. Hoffman was its leader.
The son of Yiddish-speaking Jewish atheist immigrants who dedicated their lives to preserving the culture Hitler tried to destroy, Mr. Hoffman was steeped in Yiddish early on. (His mother, Miriam, is a longtime columnist for the Yiddish edition of The Forward newspaper, a lecturer in Yiddish at Columbia University and a playwright.)
The first Broadway show he saw was “The Megilla of Itzik Manger” (1968), a musical partly in Yiddish. He waited at the stage door, got his Playbill signed and declared he wanted to be an actor. His made his debut in a comedy with the Folksbiene Yiddish theater, “Bronx Express, 1968.”
Suzanne Toren, who plays Linda in “Salesman” and will go so far as to admit that she is “five minutes older” than Mr. Hoffman, also grew up in the Bronx, the child of Yiddish-speaking Jewish immigrants. Funny story: Early in her parents’ life together, her mother met the feminist anarchistEmma Goldman, who told her where to get contraception. “It didn’t work, because here I am,” Ms. Toren said.
Her parents, too, bucked the assimilationist tide to pass knowledge of Yiddish on. Ms. Toren’s father, Ahrne Thorne, an anarchist journalist from Poland, had such reverence for Yiddish language and literature that he decided he and his wife shouldn’t converse in it at home, lest they degrade it into “kitchen Yiddish.” But Ms. Toren studied the language, and when her parents spoke endearments to her, they were in Yiddish.
So when Ms. Toren performs in Yiddish, often in readings rather than fully staged productions, there is for her “an intimate warmth” to the language that she doesn’t find in English — though most of her work has been in English, much of it for audiobooks and with regional theater.
She feels “the embrace of the family” in Yiddish words, yet she isn’t a proselytizer, the sort who would “go out and fight for Yiddish at all costs,” she said. “But personally, it’s how I behave. If anybody invites me to do anything in Yiddish, I will say yes, because I’m preserving it for myself.”
She and Mr. Hoffman said that interest in Yiddish was rising, particularly among young people unburdened by the heavy stigmas their forebears endured.
In Mr. Miller’s 1987 autobiography, “Timebends,” he writes of being acutely aware of his Jewishness, and of struggling in adolescence “to identify myself with mankind rather than one small tribal fraction of it.”
In those same pages, he acknowledges his uncle Manny Newman — a traveling salesman in Midwood, Brooklyn, who often preferred fantasy to truth — as a model for Willy Loman and describes Manny’s wife, Annie, as “a most moving woman who bore the cross of reality” for a family nurtured on hope and delusion.
The Newmans, who spoke with a rural twang from their days in upstate New York, were strikingly well assimilated, possessing “an untroubled self-acceptance as ordinary Americans, their Jewishness having somehow lost any power to separate them,” Mr. Miller writes.
A playwright has only so much control, though. It’s on the stage that a play comes to life. There is no overt indication in New Yiddish Rep’s “Salesman” that the Loman paterfamilias came to Brooklyn from another country, just as there was no obvious echo of the Holocaust in the company’s “Waiting for Godot,” in which Mr. Hoffman played Pozzo two seasons ago. But those intentions informed the performances.
Mr. Hoffman sees the Lomans as somewhat alien, foiled in navigating the American dream because Willy can’t read a culture that isn’t his. The play, Mr. Hoffman said, “is the story of this immigrant family trying to make its way in a world it can’t quite grasp, and that doesn’t quite grasp them.”
“Death of a Salesman” runs through Nov. 22 at the Castillo Theater, 543 West 42nd Street, Manhattan; 866-811-4111, castillo.org. Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes.
A version of this article appears in print on November 11, 2015, on page C2 of the New York edition with the headline: Hearing Yiddish in the Language of ‘Salesman’