In 2015, a theater workshop performed Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice with Shylock reciting some of his lines in Yiddish, yielding passages like the following:
To bait fish withal: if it will feed nothing else, it will feed my revenge. He hath disgraced me, and hindered me half a million; laughed at my losses, mocked at my gains, scorned my nation, thwarted my bargains, cooled my friends, heated mine enemies; and far vus? I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, seykhl, affections, passions? fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same vinter un zumer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not lakh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that. If a Jew wrong a Christian, what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian wrong a Yid, what should his sufferance be by Christian example? Why, rakhe. The villainy you teach me, I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction.
Nahma Sandrow, who served as the translator, reflects on the experience, noting that this was not the first attempt to render the words of English literature’s most famous Jew into Yiddish. The earliest known translation of the play into Yiddish was completed in 1894, and it appeared on the New York Yiddish stage more than once. And that’s not all:
In 1903, [the great Yiddish actor and producer Jacob] Adler appeared in an uptown English-language production speaking his lines in Yiddish—an experiment so successful that it was revived two years later. “American” critics praised it. The New York Herald concluded, under the headline “Mr. Adler Scores in Shylock Role,” that bilingualism “interfered but little with the general enjoyment of [Shylock’s] important scenes.”
Downtown, Yiddish-speaking Jews watched these ventures anxiously. Shakespeare in Yiddish was more than an aesthetic venture; it asserted to the world Yiddish theater’s claim to have become an institution of Western high culture. Thus the critics from [the newspapers] Di yidishe gazeten and Di idishe velt called Adler’s success proof that Yiddish “can be classic, that it sounds good, and that it can convey even Shakespeare’s imagery,” and proclaimed that “It is simply a pleasure to hear how [smooth and beautiful] a Yiddish monologue sounds on the English stage when it comes from the mouth of a great actor.”