Jan 8



Move over, Iron Man. Step aside, Robin Hood. A new hero has come to town: Hershele. Hershele Ostropolyer, brought to mischievous life by Mike Burstyn.

Lawrence Van Gelder, The New York TImes


The ebullient Mike Burstyn, a veteran of both Broadway and Yiddish theater ("Barnum," "On Second Avenue"), plays Hershele, a vagabond who sets out to right wrongs despite his own impoverished circumstances.

Frank Scheck, New York Post


The best news of all is that it stars Mike Burstyn. Burstyn, with his long Yiddish theater history and pedigree as the son of Yiddish stars Pesach Burstein and Lillian Lux, has vaudevillian style comedy and physical movements down pat and is thoroughly endearing on stage.

By William Wol, New York Calling Theatre.


The big name in the show is Mike Burstyn, who plays the lovable rascal with great zest and a fine sense of Yiddish irony. But if Burstyn brings in the audience, he also lifts up the show. He sings, dances and dispenses a great deal of Yiddish wisdom and humor.

CurtainUp By, Paulanne Simmons


The Broadway-tested Burstyn highlights the Yiddish humor with his quick steps and tongue-in-cheek delivery.

Backstage, by Gwen Orel


Hershele is played by the always masterful Mike Burstyn.

Barbara & Scott Siegel, TheaterMania


Hershele, brought to life by Mike Burstyn with his usual canny charm.

New Jersey Jewish Standard, Miriam Rinn Theater


This little gem of a musical is made to order for its star Mike Burstyn. A perfect fit, as they once said in “Fiddler on the Roof.” Burstyn (playing a roving penniless character who lives by his wits) sings, dances, and performs his way into our hearts.

Irene Backalenick, ireneback@sbcglobal.net


He’s the mensch: Mike Burstyn and the quest to keep Yiddish alive

Posted by Mark Dundas Wood on Thursday, May 26, 2011

When entertainers say they have “international careers,” it often means they’ve made one or two excursions away from their home turf. In the case of Mike Burstyn, though, the claim verges on understatement. Burstyn, who was born Mike Burstein in New York City in 1945, is fluent in eight languages and is currently learning a ninth (Russian). The singer/actor has performed in French in France, in Spanish in South America, and in Hebrew in Israel. In the 1970s he hosted a variety program in Holland where he spoke Dutch. His English-language roles include the title character in Broadway ‘s musical Barnum(replacing Jim Dale, who originated the role). The language that Burstyn is perhaps most passionate about is one that’s been on the endangered-idiom list in recent decades: Yiddish. As a child, he and his twin sister Susan (a self-taught ventriloquist) toured with their parents, Pesach Burstein and Lillian Lux, who were famous performers in the international Yiddish theatre. (The story of the Burstein family is told—fascinatingly—in the award-winning 2000 Israeli documentary The Komediant.) Currently, Burstyn is performing in Yiddish in New York City at the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene. He plays the title character in The Adventures of Hershele Ostropolyer. The musical, based on a three-act play by Moyshe Gershenson, centers on a quick-witted “Jewish Robin Hood” character who comes to the aid of villagers suffering under the tyranny of the town miser, Reb Kalmen. The legendary trickster Hershele Ostropolyer was reputedly inspired by a real-life historical figure.

The musical—billed as “a Comic Tale Full of Song, Wit and Meshugene Antics”— had a successful engagement at the Folksbiene in 2010, so this is an encore run. Burstyn was not familiar with the original Gershenson play when director/choreographer/adapter Eleanor Reissa approached him about playing Hershele last year. But that didn’t hold him back.

“Immediately I said I wanted to do it,” he explains, “both because of the part…and also because my goal for years has been to help maintain the Yiddish language as a living, performed language and not just an academic language.”

Although the play was new to him, Burstyn did have a tie to the main character. He won a Kinor David award—the Israeli equivalent of the Oscar—for playing the title role in a film called Hershele in 1977. The protagonist of that film, a Russian immigrant to Israel, claimed to be a descendant of the cunning folk hero.

Some audience members at the Folksbiene (mainly the older ones) understand every spoken word and lyric in The Adventures of Hershele. But for those who don’t, the theatre projects English (and Russian) titles on panels above the stage. The super-titles help Burstyn and company size up the composition of the audience.

“That’s the litmus test, right at the beginning,” he says. “If we hear people laughing when we get to the end of the sentence, then they’re reacting to the Yiddish itself. If there’s a slight delay, then obviously they’re reading the translation.”

Burstyn notes that many of his fellow Adventures of Hershele performers are not fluent in the language. “Actors—that’s what we do. When opera singers have to learn a new libretto in French or German or Italian, most of them are not from that background. They learn it. And you need a good ear. It’s one of the things you have to develop. The same thing here: [The cast members] are speaking Yiddish beautifully. And we’ve helped them.”

Interest in Yiddish as a spoken language has grown in recent years, says Burstyn. In part that’s been due to the popularity of klezmer music (as klezmer musicians come from a Yiddish-speaking tradition). But much of the Yiddish renaissance in the U.S. has been prompted by a desire among younger Jewish Americans to discover their roots.

A similar Yiddish revival has taken place in Israel, a country that was fairly unwelcoming of the language after Hebrew was selected as the national tongue. Now, with Israeli baby boomers harboring nostalgic longings for the voices of Yiddish-fluent parents and grandparents, the language is making a comeback there too. “[The boomers] are in their sixties now, and they’re coming to listen to it as a way of regaining their childhood memories,” Burstyn explains.

At 65, he still works a lot, but Burstyn says it’s impossible for him to nourish all facets of his worldwide career equally. Like most any actor, he needs to go wherever the jobs are.

However, he tries to make a trek to Israel at least once a year—for film, concert, or theatre work. Last year he traveled there three times, participating in a series of well-received Yiddish-language concerts. He would like to take The Adventures of Hershele to Israel as well. He feels confident that there would now be an audience for it.

Before he gets a chance to do that, however, Burstyn will head to Los Angeles this September to play the lead in Jolson at the Winter Garden!, a new show about entertainer Al Jolson that he and director Bill Castellino developed. The show had its initial tryout in Florida earlier this year. Burstyn’s dream would be to bring the show to New York eventually.

Burstyn previously played “Jolie” a few years ago, in Jolson: The Musical. That production didn’t make it to Manhattan, Burstyn notes, largely because of the politically touchy issue of blackface performance—something Jolson was famous for. (The John Kander/Fred Ebb minstrel-show-related musical The Scottsboro Boys shuttered quickly on Broadway earlier this season in part because of controversies involving similar racially sensitive themes.)

With the new show, Burstyn does not anticipate such difficulties. “Jolson didn’t perform in blackface in these [1920s] concerts at the Winter Garden [Theatre in New York]. He performed as Al Jolson. So I don’t think that is going to bother us if we bring it to New York.”

Jolson is just one of many real-life characters Burstyn has portrayed during his career. Others include showmen P.T. Barnum and Mike Todd, gangster Meyer Lansky, international banker Mayer Rothschild, and controversial attorney Roy Cohn. Is there any other historical figure he would like to play? Burstyn can’t think of anyone, but he would enjoy trying his hand at Charles Dickens’ villain Fagin from Oliver Twist (and the musical adaptation, Oliver!).

And what about performing in his own life story, perhaps in a stage version of the Komediantdocumentary? Burstyn wouldn’t rule it out. He does know for sure that he wants eventually to write a book about his life.

In the meantime, there is that unceasing devotion to preserving the Yiddish performance tradition: “I was lucky, because I was born into it…” he says.

“I caught the last Golden Age of the Yiddish theatre, and I experienced it personally. And so I kind of feel I have an obligation to be that link in the chain between the past Yiddish theatre and today’s audiences.”


For information on tickets for The Adventures of Hershele Ostropolyer, visit www.folksbiene.org.

You can learn more about Mike Burstyn and his career at www.mikeburstyn.com



“The Adventures of Hershele Ostropolyer” initiated a limited run (until June 26) at the Folksbiene Theater, Baruch College on Manhattan’s East Side.  Go! Go! Go!   It will transport you into a charming world where all can be solved by a bit of seychel, a bit of mazel, and, of course, a bit of love. That’s what Yiddish theater is all about, isn’t it?

Hershele Ostropolyer is a would-be Robin Hood. Mike Burstyn is Hershele.  The plot, while wonderfully simple and obvious, keeps the viewer’s attention with just enough twists and turns through its iterative steps. It’s an “if only, what if?” experience in the possible (if not the probable) that is well worth seeing.  Hershele is challenged to help young love succeed and has only his wits on which to rely.  His defeat – and reformation – of the town miser, Reb Kalmen, is a quick moving, quick witted game well worth playing.


The evening on which this viewer saw the show, Burstyn was recovering from a leg injury, and, trooper that he is, managed to jump and bounce through the dancing – albeit, with a little help from his friends. The songs and limited dialogue, performed entirely in Yiddish, are translated into easily readable English and Russian supertitles, thus eliminating any language barrier for the non Yiddish speaking viewer.


Based on the classic Yiddish play by Moyshe Gershenson, the show has an original score featuring nicely above average Yiddish theatre and folk songs compiled by the Yiddish musicologist Chana Mlotek. Zalmen Mlotek, Ms. Mloteks’s son, is the show’s music director, and is responsible for the arrangements.

Hershele is indeed an adventure – one well worth joining.

New Posts
  • PRAISE FOR MIKE BURSTYN in "LANSKY" "A true master of the acting craft…the tour-de-force that is Mike Burstyn" Beverly Hills Courier "A superb storyteller and mimic." Variety "Burstyn makes the aging gangster smilingly gregarious." L.A. Times "A gripping one-man show." Jewish Journal "Burstyn’s characterisation presents a model of self-referential rectitude." Backstage "An actor who can bring off a charismatic, schmoozing big shot." Daily News A Special Curtain Speech There was a dramatic "curtain speech" after Sunday night's special Actors' Fund performance of "Lansky." Mike Burstyn, who shakes the rafters at the Odyssey Theater in West L.A. playing the powerful-pitiful Meyer Lansky, followed the (nightly) standing ovation with this dramatic tribute to the Actors' Fund: "In 1995, my first wife, Edie, was in her 4th year of her brave battle against ovarian cancer at New York's Memorial Sloan Kettering Hospital. The enormity of the hospital and medical bills became insurmountable. It was the Actors Fund that came to our rescue. As it has for others in our business for the past 125 years. If not for their financial and moral support, we probably would have had to sell our home. Unfortunately, Edie died that year, but she was comforted by the fact that we would survive financially, thanks in large part to the efforts of the wonderful people at the Actors Fund." Among those on hand to support--and applaud-- was Norman Lear, who reminisced with Burstyn on their first meeting in Israel 30 years ago. Another guest was Israel Consul Deputy for Information Gilad Milo. Lansky had been refused Israeli citizenship and forced to return to the U.S. (a decision agreed to by today's Consulate, which noted the play honestly represents what happened in 1973 just before the five-day war). "Lansky" has its eyes on Off B'way, and negotiations are ongoing with the Actors Temple, says Burstyn, who also produces with Dan Israely. Joe Bologna, who wrote "Lansky" with Richard Krevolin, tells me they will adjust for the bigger move after the play winds at the Odyssey, Sept.9. Meanwhile Bologna and wife Renee Taylor re-play "If You Ever Leave Me, I'm Going With You," Sept. 7-8-9 at the Sun Coast in Vegas and will next tour, joined by Lainie Kazan, in another of his laffers, "Bermuda Ave. Triangle." Bologna, philosophically says, "We (he and Renee) don't have to wait for the phone to ring. We create our own work. We're fortunate. Every night, when the curtain goes up, we say, 'Thank you, God'--and, no matter what has gone on backstage-- we're in love again." Monday, August 20, 2007
  • "Mike Burstyn, an acclaimed song and dance man, American/Israeli performer both on and off Broadway, is phenomenal in his portrayal of G." www.examiner.com "Mike Burstyn plays G and does a tremendous job. Burstyn is an amazing actor , his moments are carefully constructed, and there is a delightful simplicity to his work, and I’ve already mentioned his great voice, but I’ll say it again, great voice! I am not familiar with Mike Burstyn, or his career, but there was a point in the show when he spoke emphatically as God. I heard his voice, I felt it in my chest cavity. It was an inspired voice and one that nearly lifted me from my seat. Instead I raised my eyes from my notepad and took note of the actor before me. Surely, I have missed something. And I soon realized that I needed to catch up on my knowledge of internationally acclaimed American/Israeli actors." joestraw9.blogspot.com/ "Mike Burstyn brings just the right amount of menace, anger, fear and humanity to the role, sharing an Almighty who gives real meaning to man being created in his own image. God cries, yes he does, and Burstyn makes every emotion and swift flick of his powerful hand seem to come from deep within his soul, heartfelt and honest to the core." BroadwayWorld.com "God is splendidly played by Burstyn." Beverly Hills Courier "Mike Burstyn fitted the role of G exceptionally well." www.lasplash.com LINKS TO REVIEWS: http://www.joestraw9.blogspot.com/ http://www.examiner.com/review/o-my-god-brings-out-the-believer-us http://peoplesworld.org/in-new-play-god-comes-to-earth-finds-his-humanity/ http://www.broadwayworld.com/los-angeles/article/BWW-Reviews-O-MY-GOD-Offers-Insightful-Exam-of-Faith-Fear-Love-and-the-Power-of-the-Divine-20150501# http://www.jewishjournal.com/david_suissa/article/god_comes_to_picofor_therapy http://www.lasplash.com/publish/Los_Angeles_Entertainment_109/o-my-god-theatre-review-does-god-need-therapy_printer.php ITALIAN PRODUCTION: http://vaticaninsider.lastampa.it/en/news/detail/articolo/jewish-theatre-10770/
  • by Jerusalem Post With a career that’s spanned worlds as varied as Yiddish song and Broadway musical comedy, Mike Burstyn is as busy as ever. Mike Burstyn. (photo credit: Courtesy) It feels like Mike Burstyn has always been around. While the entertainment business, by definition, lends itself to illusion and the cultivation of non-realistic personas, in real life Burstyn is as effervescent and larger than life as the many delightful screen and stage characters he has portrayed over the past six decades. Los Angeles resident Burstyn is currently in Israel to star in The Adventures of Hershele Ostropoler , alongside veteran Yiddish actor Yaakov Boddo. The comedy is based on the eponymous 18th-century prankster, and forms part of this year’s Yiddishpiel Festival. The work was written by Moshe Gershenson in the early 20th century, and Burstyn is suitably enthused about portraying the lovable and somewhat incorrigible character. “Hershele is someone who does all this foilishtik [pranks] to help the poor people in their shtetls,” says the 67-year-young actor. “In this version of the story he has to drive a rich miser mad.” Throughout his career Burstyn has combined acting with comedy, song and dance, to great effect, so it was only natural that the current version of Hershele Ostropoler should provide a vehicle for him to utilize as many of his polished skills as possible. “The original play was not a musical, but the songs were added by the director of the Folksbiene, the national Yiddish theater in New York,” Burstyn explains. “The songs are all original Yiddish songs from that era. This show is very sweet and very innocent.” The play will be performed all over the country until the end of the month and is directed by Eleanor Reissa, who was in charge of the Broadway production, also with Burstyn, a couple of years ago. The New York run was a critical and financial success, and eventually paved the way for the Yiddishpiel slot. “It got a very good review and Sassy Keshet, who is the new artistic director of the Yiddishpiel, contacted me after he heard about the success in New York, and that’s how this came about.” Burstyn got a very early start on his career path, at the tender age of seven. He grew up in an archetypal show biz family. His parents, Pesach Burstein and Lillian Lux, were acclaimed Yiddish-language actors who toured the United States and the world with various productions, such as Megilla of Itzik Manger and A Khasene in Shtetl (Wedding in a Shtetl). Burstyn, and twin sister Susan, were soon recruited into the family business and the parents and offspring lineup became known as the Four Burstyns. The twins were given the stage names of Motele and Zisele. “My parents schlepped us along to South America and put us in the show,” recalls Burstyn. “We were cute little things and my father knew a good thing when he saw it. We were like these wunderkinder, singing and dancing and performing. We were real crowd pullers.” The family was the subject of the awardwinning 1996 documentary The Komediant. So, Burstyn was destined to earn his keep as an entertainer. “Yes, I really had no choice,” he notes, although he briefly contemplated rebelling. “I thought of being an aeronautical engineer or a lawyer,” he continues. “I am an amateur lawyer. I played one on Broadway.” While the Burstyns did well in the States and elsewhere, this part of the world proved to be a harder nut to crack, although that was no reflection on the quality of entertainment the family team offered Israeli audiences. “We came here in 1954 and worked here for about a year and a half, but eventually we had to leave,” Burstyn recalls. “In those days, the establishment was officially against the Yiddish language. There was a special entertainment tax on productions in foreign languages, and Yiddish was considered a foreign language. There was a fear that Yiddish might take over as the national language.” Burstyn has tangible evidence of the official hard-line take. “I have a document from the Ministry of the Interior, from 1955, with a request from a local producer to put on a Yiddish musical theater show,” Burstyn continues. This wasn’t any old show. “It was Kuni Lemel, of all things.” The 1966 Israeli film version of the play starred Burstyn and established him as a top actor in this country, as well as bringing him the Israeli Oscar. “The producer asked to put on a show of Kuni Lemel in Yiddish. The answer [from the Ministry of the Interior] says that it is forbidden for a local company to perform in Yiddish, and a copy was sent to the Israeli Police headquarters. In other words, it was a criminal offense to perform in Yiddish in Israel at the time.” Thankfully, things have moved on and the Yiddishpiel Festival is doing its bit to keep the language alive and kicking here. Burstyn’s meteoric rise to fame here, in the wake of Kuni Lemel, was also the source of some familial anguish. “I became really hot in Israel after that,” says the actor. “I was 20 years old and I had broken away from the family team. We weren’t just a family, we were also business partners, but I saw that I’d have no future if I stayed only in Yiddish theater.” Burstyn has spent quite a lot of his working hours in this country since that initial abortive attempt to make a go of it in Israel. He starred in two Kuni Lemel movies, as well as Oscar-nominated Israeli film Sallah Shabati, and The Dybbuk. He has acted in numerous Israeli theater productions while maintaining a busy career on Broadway, off-Broadway and on TV, in the States and Europe. He also speaks eight languages and looks much younger than his chronological age. “I am celebrating my 60th anniversary in show business,” Burstyn observes. “I haven’t stopped since I was 7.” He doesn’t even look like slowing down. The current run of The Adventures of Hershele Ostropoler opened last Wednesday at Beit Hahayal in Tel Aviv, to enthusiastic audiences, and there are dates lined up all over the country, including Jerusalem, Rehovot, Eilat and Kiryat Haim, through to October 31. For more info about The Adventures of Hershele Ostropoler and the Yiddishpiel Festival: (03) 525-4460 exts. 1-2.