"Too Jewish?" The question raises Jewish assimilation issues. Avi Hoffman uses it as the title of his solo show at Freud Playhouse.
Yet instead of tackling the subject head-on, Hoffman delivers gently humorous, sweetly sentimental reflections on Yiddish culture, especially the American brand. This is chicken soup, not a Talmudic debate. The subtitle: "A Mensch and His Musical."
Hoffman acknowledges that most of those who care whether something is "too Jewish" are Jews, and he refers to "our people" as if his entire audience is Jewish. With this attitude, the title could be a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Still, those who either remember or are beginning to rediscover their Yiddish roots are likely to enjoy "Too Jewish?"
After reciting part of Hamlet's soliloquy and singing snatches of show tunes in Yiddish or Yinglish, Hoffman talks in English about growing up in a Yiddish-intensive area of the Bronx in the '60s. He learned English only at school. We hear Yiddish lullabies and charming stories about his grandma.
Hoffman spent part of his youth in Israel, but he doesn't talk about it. Considering that the assimilation debate there is presumably different from what it is in the U.S., this is a missed opportunity to probe his subject more deeply.
He comes closer to discussing it in a section on changes in people's names that were made to avoid appearing too Jewish. He mentions the original names of celebrities and awards a bagel to those who correctly guess which celebrity belongs to which name. Then he asks audience members to reveal their own sets of double names. Even on Saturday afternoon, when many religious Jews wouldn't attend because of Shabbat, nearly everyone in the audience appeared to have two names. Hoffman betrayed no doctrinaire opposition to the changes. Indeed, he appeared to agree that some of the originals sounded "too Jewish."
A medley of songs celebrating Eastern European Jewish food and a costumed section with Hoffman as a Catskills comic conclude the first act, but Hoffman's evocation of New York Jewish comedy is at its best after intermission, when he does a routine as the seminal Yiddish comic Menashe Skulnik. Hoffman acknowledges he was too young to see Skulnik, and he sings in an English translation, but his whiny nebbish routine is amusing. Whether this image had any negative effect on Jewish self-identity is a question that goes unasked.
Hoffman addresses the spread of the Diaspora to unexpected parts of rural America and then sings a mildly corny medley of Yiddish-influenced western songs dressed as a cowboy. He quotes from George Washington and Mark Twain on the subject of Jews. He tells a few funny jokes.
Briefly turning to something darker, he recalls a visit to the Holocaust camps in which he saw a number of names on a list of the dead that were the same names as those of people in his own life. He quotes writer Itzik Manger's recollections of meeting Jews whose roots were hidden in the war but who later rediscovered them. He concludes by singing a fascinating paean to Jewish pride that was cut from "Fiddler on the Roof": "Faith in Whom?" Pianist Chris Dawson provides accompaniment.
Hoffman has a pleasant voice and tells a joke well enough, but his material isn't very personal or pointed. He wants to be a genial entertainer and cultural cheerleader, and he usually succeeds.
* "Too Jewish?," UCLA's Freud Playhouse, Westwood. Wednesdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m.; Wednesdays, Saturdays-Sundays, 2 p.m.; New Year's Eve show and party, Dec. 31, 10 p.m. Ends Dec. 31. $25-$30; New Year's Eve, $50. (310) 825-2101. Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes.