Yiddish musical theater was a vital theatrical force not so long ago — less than 100 years ago — and it flowered not very far from here, on Manhattan’s Second Avenue.
But to get heavy-handed and obvious for a second, times change, tastes change, Yiddish went from the language almost everyone spoke to the language parents used to keep secrets from their kids to the language almost no one knew. And Yiddish operettas just disappeared.
But last year the National Yiddish Theater — Folksbiene mounted a full production of the recently unearthed, dusted off, and now glittering “Di Goldene Kale,” known to English-speakers as “The Golden Bride.” It was a huge success, so the Folksbiene has decided to give audiences more.
On January 1, it will offer two performances of “Light Up the Night” at its new permanent home at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in downtown Manhattan. (See the box for more information.)
“The incredible success of ‘The Golden Bride’ shows that there is an audience that wants to hear this music, and see these pieces performed in the way that they originally were done,” Zalmen Mlotek of Teaneck said. Mr. Mlotek, the heir to (and father of) a great tradition of Yiddish musicologists, is the Folksbiene’s artistic director.
“This is part of the wealth of music that was Yiddish theater from the middle of the 19th century to the 1930s and 40s,” he said. “It’s both European and American, and it reflects the journey of the Yiddish theater, which originated in Romania and Russia.”
The influences it has picked up are clear to the listener, he added. “For the pieces from the teens, say, you could hear a little bit of British music hall, with Jewish influences, the harmonies and modes of that are reflective of Jewish music, but juxtaposed with what was going on in the outside world.” The American pieces from the 20s have echoes of America musical theater, an art form with which the Yiddish composers were intimately familiar.
There was a problem in finding the music, though. When it went out of fashion, it was not neatly, carefully, properly archived, labeled, put in acid-free folders, recorded, or otherwise kept safe. It was treated as ephemera here, and of course as far worse than that in Nazi Europe. It wasn’t easy to find.
“Our first step is to try to find the music,” Mr. Mlotek said. “It’s in libraries and archives all over the world, mainly in almost unreadable chicken scratch,” handwritten on the fly. “Only a small selection was published, in the 1920s and on. We started a project to look for this material.”
Although much of the music is American, much of it is European, and “a lot of those orchestrations were saved and hidden during the war by the Paper Brigade,” he said. The Nazis collected and saved some Jewish literature, including music, planning to display it in its planned (but never executed) Museum of Extinct Races. In a last-ditch attempt to save the material, some Jewish intellectuals “smuggled it out, under the watch of the Gestapo, and buried them in milk canisters. Thousands of documents were retrieved after the war.”
In many cases the melodies had been preserved, at least in listeners’ and singers’ hearts, heads, and ears, but the orchestrations were lost. “In some cases we are presenting for the first time music that hasn’t been heard as it was intended to be heard since then,” Mr. Mlotek said. “The material was retrieved in the 1950s, but it has been sitting in archives. We have found these pieces and painstakingly recreated them and put them in a form that can be used today.
“It is a big musicological/archeological project, but there is gold in there. Every time we see something, it’s another impetus to continue our work.”
Once the orchestration is recovered, next is the question of scripts to go with them. “They never were put together or catalogued,” Mr. Mlotek said. “When you rent, say, ‘Fiddler on the Roof,’ you get everything, but a general archive of this work never was put together. But by using the resources of YIVO, the UCLA Library, and the Milken Foundation, we are starting to put this archive together.”
Once the Folksbiene — basically, that’s Mr. Mlotek and associate artistic director and “my right hand,” Motl Didner — have done that work, they had to cast the five singers they need for the performances they’re planning for New Year’s Day. “We have a tremendous pool of talent, performers from the Golden Bride and people who auditioned,” Mr. Mlotek said. “We are not teaching them this new material. They are not Yiddish-speakers, so they learn it phonetically, but it’s not all rote. They’re learning what it means.
“It’s so exciting to hear these songs from the mouths of these new young singers,” he said. Next, there’s the staging. This will not be a full theatrical production, with a plot, a script, costumes, and staging. Instead, it will be songs from various productions, played by a full orchestra, and “we will introduce every song, put it in context,” Mr. Mlotek said.
Mr. Didner and Mr. Mlotek have been working together for 13 years, Mr. Didner said, but the younger man came to the Folksbiene from a very different path. “I’m from Morristown; I had a Jewish education but it included no Yiddish,” he said. “I’m mainly a theater director; I have my degree in theater from the Tisch School at NYU, class of 1995. From 1996 to 2002 I was the artistic director of an experimental theater. I just sort of wandered into the Yiddish world.”
How did that happen?
“In 2003, just by luck, I happened to come across a Yiddish class that was being offered in my neighborhood in Brooklyn, and I really enjoyed it,” he said. “I found out that there was a Yiddish theater — the Folksbiene — and I started as a volunteer. I had no background in music other than in musical theater. And then a staff position opened, and in 2004 I became the associate artistic director.”
It wasn’t just a job for Mr. Didner, though. “It transformed my life,” he said. He learned Yiddish, to the point where he became a translation fellow at the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Mass.
“Going from experimental theater to Yiddish theater was a huge leap, but I try to bring some of my sensibilities that I developed in the experimental theater with me. I try to keep it very contemporary.”
As he and Mr. Mlotek go through archives together, he is astonished by what they find. “It turns out that the Library of Congress has thousands of pieces of Yiddish sheet music, and a lot are from operettas,” he said. “There are usually about four or five biggest hits from each show.”
The sheet music comes from the time before even the earliest record players, when people would play piano to entertain themselves and each other. “Vendors would sell sheet music at intermission” at musicals, Mr. Didner said. “People would fall in love with some of the catchier tunes,” and they’d buy them to take them home and play them to their friends.
So he and Mr. Mlotek work both with handwritten music and with mass-produced but lost scores; they now are entering everything using digital software that will keep it safe at least until the technology changes again.
Not all of this music has been lost and unknown, but it’s not been played as it had been written to be played within living memory. “It’s not that it isn’t lovely to hear it with just a piano, and maybe three or four other pieces,” Mr. Didner said. “It is fantastic. But to hear it with the orchestra…
“To hear it for the first time is the way I imagine an archeologist feels when a pyramid is opened, or when they first saw Tutankhamen’s treasure,” he said. “There is an incredibly high level of singing talent available in New York, and it’s great to hear one of those great voices singing it, with Zalmen playing piano. But when you hear it with the orchestra, there is an added depth. It pushes the singer to a new level, and it provides a texture. It’s like the difference between a fashion designer looking at sketches and seeing a model wearing the design. It’s going from concept to being fully realized.”
Mr. Didner talked about one of his favorite old/new songs, where the singer longs for his old home. That sentiment was shared by much of the audience. The song was evocative, Mr. Didner said, because “you were dealing with an immigrant population that very rapidly was adjusting to life in America, but at the same time had feelings of longing for what is missing. They left the old country mainly under terrible circumstances. They were not longing for the poverty, or for the pogroms, but for what American didn’t provide.
“Most European Jews at the time didn’t live in shtetls; they lived in cities or in small towns, in houses. It might have been the best circumstances, but it wasn’t the Lower East Side. It wasn’t nearly as dense. So that was one difference. Also, families in Europe were together more; they weren’t working such long days in sweatshops. They didn’t have boarders, strangers living in their houses. A lot of things got away from them. A lot of them stopped going to shul. They gave up their folkways. They longed for the warmth and the slower pace of the life they once had.”
The song evoked only the good things, Mr. Didner said. “It doesn’t mention the hardships. It’s a very romanticized version of life; the singer remembers Shabboses at home, helping his father sing a niggun as the fish was being served. He remembers his days in the cheder — in his case the rabbi who taught there was a nice rabbi. He remembers hearing the cantor sing, and he remembers Simchas Toyrah.” The reality, in other words, almost definitely would not have been as golden as the singer remembers it, but that’s the light most of the listeners preferred to invent and then remember.
Also, Mr. Didner said, Second Avenue theatrical music typically included the sound of davening. “They would put pieces of liturgical music into shows,” he said. “The Golden Bride has Kiddush. Other shows have Kol Nidrei, or include a bar mitzvah. Some have bits of chazzanut sprinkled throughout — it was written for an actor who had cantorial training.”
That explains why the music connected to its original audiences, but it fulfills another function now. “I am not about nostalgia,” Mr. Didner said. None of the background the songs evoke are his background. “For me, it is about reconnecting to something much, much deeper.
That’s why the Folksbiene will focus on rediscovering, recovering, recording (in written and digital form, in whatever new technology presents itself) and reclaiming this music. “We feel that it is important for the next generation,” Mr. Mlotek said. “It’s not about nostalgia, it’s about giving the next generations a usable way of hearing it. Mozart and Beethoven were transcribed, so people of every generation could hear it.” He wants nothing less for the music of the Jewish people.
Who: The National Yiddish Theater — Folksbiene presents
What: “Light Up the Night,” a theatrical concert of rediscovered and restored Yiddish theater songs
When: On Sunday, January 1, at 2 p.m. and again at 6.
Where: At the Museum of Jewish Heritage, 36 Battery Place in Manhattan
How much: $30; $20 for members of either the museum or the Folksbiene
For tickets: Call (212) 213-2120, ext. 230, or go to www.nytf.org