Too Jewish star insists there is no such thing

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Is it possible to be too Jewish?

Never, retorts theater's Avi Hoffman, who is staging an assault on that notion even as we speak.

Hoffman created and stars in "Too Jewish? — a Mensch and his Musical," now performed at New York's Westside Theatre (Downstairs) after a long sold-out run at the John Houseman Theater.

It's a one-man show with one principal reason for being: to show pride in being a Jew.

Pride in heritage, it turns out, is a growth field.

"When I was growing up in the Bronx, being Jewish was a great source of pride," says the 37-year-old star of TV, film and stage.

"For some reason, that seems to have diminished among Jews in the past 20 years."

But it's coming back. The third generation of American Jews — eschewing their parents' propensity for assimilation — is picking up where their grandparents left off.

"That third generation is now American through and through," Hoffman says. "But they're still looking for an identity, which explains the resurgence of interest in Yiddish and Jewish theater."

At the root of the success of "Too Jewish?" is that revival.

"The success of my show can be attributed to a great need among audiences to reconnect to the soul of the Jewish faith," says Hoffman.

Hoffman never lost that connection, and keeping the faith has been a musical mantra of sorts for him. Yet he hesitated when he was approached to do a one-man show by Eric Krebs at the Houseman.

"Eric said I should do a show about my life, and I thought, `Who would want to see that? Who cares?'"

The answer was provided long ago by audiences who have swarmed to see Hoffman perform in a variety of Jewish-oriented plays, such as the Joseph Papp production of "Songs of Paradise," "Finkel's Follies" and "The Rise of David Levinsky."

Ultimately, Hoffman rose to the challenge by doing a musical "that would reinforce and reinstate and reinject a sense of pride in audiences to be Jewish.

"I wanted to remind them that we as Jews have more to offer than neuroses" despite the Hollywood stereotype, he said.

For instance, Hoffman said, "There have been great composers, comedians, medical pioneers who are Jewish."

"Too Jewish?" may be just what the doctor ordered for today's Jewish audience. While "there is very little Yiddish used in the show — and what there is is translated — there is still a tam, a taste, of Yiddish to the production."

There is bite, there is wit, there is nostalgia. "You learn that Menasha Skulnik was — comedically speaking — the great-grandfather of Jerry Seinfeld," says Hoffman.

And that is one great lesson to offer audiences. "I say let me show you where it all started," said Hoffman.

The Bronx-born entertainer grew up with a familiarity for Yiddish that began at home. His mother, a professor of Yiddish at Columbia University, helped instill a love of language in the mother tongue.

Yiddish has always spoken to Hoffman's soul. He has never felt a language barrier in both American and Yiddish theater.

"I'm a young guy who grew up in a rock 'n' roll environment — I had a rock band at the age of 16 — who also knew Yiddish songs," says Hoffman.

While producing material drawing upon on his religious background, Hoffman has won praise for his Jewish side ("The Golden Land") and his American side (TV's "Law and Order").

Upcoming works reflect his dual interests: One project is a film thriller, another is a movie he'd like to star in and direct about the first Yiddish troupe to go to South America.

Then there's "Too Jewish Two: The Next Generation."

But isn't "Too Jewish?" too Jewish a title?

"The reason I used that title is because many [Jewish] people in the business would hear my name and say, `No, he's too Jewish' for this or that role.

"And I would think, `Am I really? Is a talent Jewish or non-Jewish?' You never hear Italians say of other Italians that they're too Italian, or Vietnamese say someone's too Vietnamese. But Jews are unique that way."