Avi Hoffman, an actor-director known to countless fans for his shows Too Jewish? and Too Jewish, Too!, had a musical custom-tailored for him when he was only 4 years old. Aleph Avremel was the title, and it was written by his doting mother, Miriam, who would go on to teach Yiddish at Columbia University, write a column for the Yiddish Forward and craft the book for the musical Songs of Paradise. She wrote her son’s show in Yiddish (her son’s first and only language until he started public school in the Bronx), and as Hoffman recalls, “It was about me. I was the star.”
By the age of 10, Hoffman turned pro. He appeared as Avremele Hoffman in Bronx Express at the Folksbiene Yiddish Theatre. It was also around that time that Hoffman, now 57, met an actor who would later become a close friend; back then, though, Hoffman was a star-struck kid.
“My mother took me to see The Megilla of Itzik Manger on Broadway, and I saw Mike Burstyn in the show. I remember thinking he was the greatest performer of all time, and I wanted to be him,” Hoffman says. “I insisted that we should meet him, so my mother took me to the stage door. I handed him my Playbill and said, ‘My name is Avremele. I want to be an actor just like you.’ So he wrote, ‘Dear Avramele, May you have a long and successful career.’ I still have that Playbill.”
Burstyn’s good-luck wish came true, and then some. The Carbonell Award-winning Hoffman, who has performed in South Florida, New York, Los Angeles, Israel and elsewhere, has a huge list of credits in theater and television. And from this fall through next summer, he’ll have one of the busiest career periods of his life.
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In a couple of weeks, he leaves for New York to begin rehearsing with the New Yiddish Rep for a production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman in Yiddish. He’s starring in the monumental role of Willy Loman, and the show will run Oct. 8 to Nov. 22 at the Castillo Theatre, 543 W. 42nd St. From Jan. 28 to Feb. 21, he’ll direct and star in Charles Gluck’s world premiere play Unlikely Heroes at the Studio Theatre at Boca Raton’s Mizner Park Cultural Arts Center. From June through September, 2016, he’ll be in Israel directing and acting in a Yiddish production of his mother’s musical, Songs of Paradise. He’ll also be doing scattered performances of his show Still Jewish After All These Years around South Florida.
Hoffman will also continue work on a project that, as the son of Holocaust survivors, means the world to him. The Dachau Album Project is built around a remarkable work of art and remembrance: 30 color drawings of life in the Dachau concentration camp, drawn by Polish Catholic artist Michael Porulski and given to Jewish teen survivor Arnold Unger, who brought the leather-bound album with him when his family came to the United States at the end of World War II. Hoffman serves as executive director of the Arnold Unger Foundation for Remembrance, which aims to use the album — with its artifacts, photographs and those drawings — as the cornerstone of an educational initiative that will include a documentary and exhibition expected to debut at Dachau in 2017.