A Yiddish G & S

Isaac Asimov
Isaac Asimov and Al Grand

Isaac Asimov and Al Grand at the 
Di Yam Gazlonim recital
Gilbert and Sullivan operettas are quintessentially British. And not only that: They are quintessentially Victorian British. 

Consider what that means. In the decades when the operettas were written, the British were indisputably the commercial leaders of the world. Behind a navy far larger than one any set of likely enemies could muster, even in combination, the British Isles were invulnerable. And the British crown ruled over one-quarter of the land area and population of the world. 

The ruling British class was wealthy, secure and fully convinced of its own superiority. Even foreigners knew there was nothing like an English "milord" for calm arrogance. 

In fact, the Gilbert and Sullivan operettas are indelible proof of all this, for every one of them is a biting satire on cherished British institutions. Yet they were vastly popular and the British gentry laughed with delight. So unquestioned was their position that they could afford to laugh at themselves openly-the utterly acid test. 

One would suppose, then, that it is hopeless to expect to be cross-cultural in such a thing. Can people of other nations understand the Britishness of it all? I myself have written Asimov's Annotated Gilbert & Sullivan for Americans. The language need not be translated, but the culture is 3,000 miles removed in space and 100 years removed in time and lo, the annotations are nearly as long as the plays. What if the language had to be translated-and the culture one that was not only not British, but not even descended from the British? 

I suppose it could be done; on occasion it has been done. But if we want to really carry such an enterprise to an extreme, just imagine Gilbert and Sullivan operettas translated into Yiddish. 

It's 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. 

It is the difference between the serene masters of the globe and a people who have had to live in the hidden nooks and crannies of the land, waiting always for the blow to fall (and never being disappointed, or finding themselves bored by having to wait too long). Even in ancient Judea or modern Israel, the sense of surround ing and overwhelming enemies was and is ever-present. How, then, fit the words of Gilbert into the Jewish experience? 

And the music of Sullivan - cheerful, bouncy, busy! It is worlds different from the bittersweet minor mode of Jewish music, derived partly from the liturgy of Judaism and partly from the chords of eastern Europe. How, then, fit the notes of Sullivan into the Jewish experience? 

Well, it can be done. Al Grand doesn't change Sullivan's notes; they're all there; every one of them. And he doesn't change Gilbert's words in essence. He changes them into Yiddish, to be sure, but he keeps the rhymes, the lilt and the wit. 

And, as proof, here is a selection from Di Yam Gazlonim, which means, literally, "The Robbers of the Sea," or, if you're willing to go far out, "The Pirates of Penzance." Enjoy! 

Of course, you have to understand Yiddish -- but doesn't everyone?