Shane Baker, a comedian and actor who was raised Episcopalian, is one of the most prominent proponents of Yiddish theater, language and culture in New York. He is a member of the New Yiddish Repertory Company, one of the two major Yiddish theater companies left in New York City, along with the more traditional Folksbiene theater group.
Baker, after starring in a production called The Big Bupkis: A Complete Gentile’s Guide to Yiddish Vaudeville, created a series of internet videos for the Jewish Daily Forward titled The Sheyn Show.
Baker was profiled in The New York Times last year. As Corey Kilgannon reported in the Times,
It’s not easy being the top non-Jew in the Yiddish theater. There are those letters to “Miss Sheyna Baker” and the constant questions about why he would want to steep himself in Yiddish.
“It’s funny — it’s always Jews who ask me this,” he said. “But anyone who knows anything about Yiddish theater knows that I’m onto something great.”
“Some people assume I’m going to convert, but I tell them, ‘I already have a religion that I’m not very good with,’ ” Mr. Baker said.
What did he know from Yiddish? Growing up in Kansas City, Mo., he was an altar boy at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church. He heard his first Yiddish word around age 5 watching Groucho Marx in “Animal Crackers” sing “Hooray for Captain Spaulding.” Marx rhymed “schnorrer” with “African explorer,” but young Shane could not find anyone who knew what it meant.
Here is Episode 1 of The Sheyn Show, in which Shane Baker reflects on meditation and Jewish troubles with wry Jewish humor. The entire episode is spoken in fluent Yiddish, with English subtitles.As a teenager, he learned that it meant freeloader, and that it came from this language called Yiddish. By then, he was a young actor and magician who admired a retired neighbor who had been in vaudeville. He began learning Yiddish and was visited, according to a bit in his show, by the ghost of a Yiddish vaudevillian named Ludwig Zats, who urged him to become a star of Yiddish theater in New York, where, Mr. Baker assumed, there was “Yiddish vaudeville on every corner.”
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