Spoken-word poet Ariel Luckey
Spoken-word poet Ariel Luckey

Performance pair remixes Yiddish tales and poems for new audiences

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In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the Yiddish language enjoyed a flowering of expression in poetry, literature, journalism and theater as Eastern European Jews built new communities in America.

At that time, Yiddish had been a written language for only 50 or so years, said Bay Area spoken-word poet Ariel Luckey. “It was mostly an oral tradition back in Europe,” he said. In fact, to write words in Yiddish, “they had to borrow the Hebrew alphabet.”

Luckey learned this while researching the life of his great-great-grandfather for a performance piece he’s developing called “Amnesia.”

“I discovered the rich heritage of Yiddish poetry and literature,” said the 38-year-old, who was born and raised in Oakland. “I didn’t know about it when I was growing up.”

When Luckey’s research took him to master storyteller Corey Fischer, cofounder and artistic director of the now-defunct Traveling Jewish Theatre, he learned that storytelling is a time-honored tradition in the Jewish community.

Now Luckey is betting that there are people in the Bay Area — including members of his peer group in the under-50 crowd — who will enjoy discovering some lesser-known aspects of their heritage when he performs in “Story/Mayse: A Night of Jewish Storytelling with Corey Fischer and Ariel Luckey.” Mayse is the Yiddish word for tales or storytelling (often part of the phrase bubbe mayse, or meise, an old wives’ tale or cockamamie story).

The debut performance is set for 8 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 12 at Congregation B’nai Tikvah in Walnut Creek. Part of the Under One Tent arts festival run by the Contra Costa JCC, the show will be followed by a talkback session, moderated by Rabbi Rebecca Gutterman, so that audiences can ask questions and share their own stories.

Luckey said the show “remixes Yiddish poetry for the people and politics of today” and will include elements of “Amnesia” (his work-in-progress, in case you forgot).

In addition, Luckey, who also is a rapper, will perform some songs from the album “rememory” as spoken-word poems. He and violinist Lila Sklar of Berkeley, as the duo Waystation, released the album of klezmer hip hop music in 2017.

The “Story/Mayse” event also will include performances of poems written more than 100 years ago by “sweatshop poets” — Jewish factory workers in New York at the turn of last century. One prominent poet in the group was Morris Rosenfeld, who penned a noteworthy poem about a man who loses his identity to the monotony of working long hours on machines.

“I rewrote it in the voice of my great-great-grandfather, who also worked in the sweatshops,” Luckey said of his ancestor, who was 20 when he came to the United States in 1889 from Belorussia.

After seeing Fischer perform in one of the final productions of the S.F.-based Traveling Jewish Theatre, which ceased operations in 2012 after 34 years, Luckey asked him if he would dramaturge his play “Amnesia.” They worked together on the script for about three years, during which time Fischer imparted a great deal of history, Yiddish and otherwise, to Luckey.

Today they are friends as well as collaborators.

“I see Corey as the generation before me of Jewish artists carrying forward the legacy,” Luckey said.

When the two share the stage for the first time on Jan. 12, they will be touching on themes such as immigration, diaspora, memory and ancestral lineage as they perform classic Jewish stories and new material of their own.

“We are intentionally trying to draw a line from the mystics, like the Baal Shem Tov, through Yiddish poets of the past, to Traveling Jewish Theatre, to the performers of today,” Luckey said. “I realized that I’d been missing that continuity.”

Story/Mayse: A Night of Jewish Storytelling with Corey Fischer and Ariel Luckey

8 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 12 at Congregation B’nai Tikvah, 25 Hillcroft Way, Walnut Creek. $20, free for under-21.

Laura Pall
Laura Paull

Laura Paull was J.'s culture editor from 2018 to 2021.