Gimpels not so simple, actor says

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

Actor Howard Rypp always believed his stage adaptation of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Yiddish tale “Gimpel the Fool” had universal appeal.

How universal? Two years ago he played it before a sold-out crowd in Cairo, Egypt.

He’s also taken the one-man show to Russia, Armenia, England, Austria, Scotland, Mexico and the Czech Republic, not to mention Israel, where Rypp created the show for his Tel Aviv–based Nephesh Theatre.

Now it’s the Bay Area’s turn, as Rypp performs “Gimpel the Fool” on Thursday, Feb. 9 at the Oshman Family Jewish Community Center in Palo Alto.

Howard Rypp plays Gimpel the Fool photo/lee wexler

Though it employs plenty of theatrics — from a klezmer-influenced score to voice-overs and sound effects — the heart of the play is the narrative itself. And for that Rypp remained faithful to Singer’s text, as translated into English by the late American novelist Saul Bellow.

“I’ve always been a huge fan of Singer,” says the Canadian-born Rypp, who moved to Israel some 30 years ago. “He’s always fascinated and inspired me. This story, although done as a musical with a big cast, really lends itself to a monologue.”

Singer’s 1953 short story tells the tale of Gimpel, a poor shtetl baker who serves as the butt of ridicule for his gullibility and trusting ways. The villagers trick him into believing a cow flew over his roof, that a rabbi gave birth to a calf and that the Messiah has come.

But the greatest trick played on Gimpel was his ill-conceived marriage to Elka, a harlot who spends her marriage deceiving her idiot husband. The cuckolded Gimpel endures all — even the revelation that his children are not his own — with preternatural grace.

“It’s a challenge to play Gimpel because he’s both a simpleton and a saint,” says Rypp. “When is he being foolish and when is he being wise? Singer was influenced by the Holocaust and the horrible things that happened to the Jewish people. That’s what drove me to do it.”

Playing Gimpel for the last five years has been a joy for Rypp, in large part because he gets to act; for most of his three decades in theater, he served as a producer and director.

A native of Winnipeg, Rypp grew up in the small but vibrant Jewish community in the Manitoba capital. He later moved to Ontario, where he co-founded the Nephesh Theatre in 1978 (then the only Jewish theater in Canada).

A few years later, he was lured to the thriving theater scene in Tel Aviv. He moved Nephesh there, where the company has grown ever since, mounting productions in Hebrew and English that have toured around the world.

Bringing “Gimpel the Fool” to Egypt as part of a bilateral cultural exchange was a peak experience for Rypp. He found that his Egyptian audiences could relate to the poor Jews of Frampol (Singer’s fictional Polish shtetl).

After the performance, Rypp dined with some of the theatergoers. At the restaurant, one Egyptian woman turned to him and said, “I’m Gimpel,” Rypp recalls. “She said she’d been married to a man for two years and had no idea he had two other wives and other children. I’ve done the play in places where there wasn’t a Jew in the audience. But Gimpel is an archetypal figure.”

As true as this has been for non-Jewish audiences, Rypp says Jewish audiences have a special affinity for the play, which recreates a lost world before the Holocaust and modernity eradicated it forever.

“I play [Gimpel] for older Jewish audiences,” Rypp says, “and they get it the most. It’s very cathartic for them.”

“Gimpel the Fool”
plays 8 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 9 at the Oshman Family JCC, 3921 Fabian Way, Palo Alto. $15-$20. www.paloaltojcc.org.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.