Among lovers of literature, if the name Itzik Manger doesn't ring the same bells as Sholem Aleichem or Isaac Bashevis Singer, Avi Hoffman wants to change that.
"Itzik Manger was one of the most beloved poets in Yiddish literature," says Hoffman, who is perhaps best known for his "Too Jewish?" series of one-man shows.
Through Dec. 24 at J-CAT (The J's Cultural Arts Theatre) in North Miami Beach, Hoffman stars in "Reflections of A Lost Poet," a solo show examining Manger's life. The show, performed in Yiddish with supertitles in English and Spanish, was written by Hoffman's mother, Miriam, a renowned Yiddish scholar and playwright.
As a child actor growing up in the Bronx (his Mom wrote a play for him when he was 4 years old), Avi Hoffman was left awestruck by the Broadway show, "The Megilla of Itzik Manger," a Yiddish-language musical re-imagining of the Old Testament's "Book of Esther," based on Manger's writings.
"I was flabbergasted. It was the greatest thing I'd ever seen," says Hoffman. "Happy, joyful, full of love and longing."
While working together on "Reflections . . ." in the 1980's, Hoffman and his mother would discover the sad reality of Manger's life. Born in 1901 in what is now Ukraine, Manger earned his early success in Warsaw, Poland. He managed to flee the city before the onset of World War II (thereby escaping the Holocaust) to begin a restless life of self-exile, moving first to Paris, then to Marseilles, Liverpool, London, New York and then finally to Israel, where he died in 1969.
"He became an alcoholic," says Hoffman. "He lost everything. His language, his culture, his family. He lost his world — and he could never reconcile with that."
In the early 1950's when Miriam Hoffman was a young student at the Jewish Teachers Seminary in New York, a remarkable chance encounter sparked her own fascination with Manger. One day, while dining in a Manhattan cafeteria, a disheveled, visibly drunk man staggered in, with a bottle of whiskey in his pocket and a cigarette dangling from his mouth. The professor she was with told her the man was Manger.
"My heart fell," says Miriam Hoffman. "From then on I said, 'I'm going to write about him,' " she says.
If You Go:
"Reflections of A Lost Poet" starring Avi Hoffman
In Yiddish with supertitles in English and Spanish
Dec. 13-24, 2017
J-CAT Cultural Arts Theatre
(Michael-Ann Russell Jewish Community Center)
18900 NE 25th Ave.
North Miami Beach
For more information, please visit: JCCTheatre.com