You could make the argument that just as Jerusalem is at the center of the world — certainly our liturgy does — you also could say that Central Park is at the center, the emotional core, of New York City.
To play a concert there, outside, at Summerstage, is a major big deal, a huge accomplishment, an enormous acknowledgment, an unmistakable honor. June’s performers include George Clinton, the Metropolitan Opera, and Elvis Costello.
Next week, the sounds coming from the huge green-and-brown expanse of woods, streams, hills, gardens, rambles, fields, paths, boulders, overlooks, and vistas, carefully landscaped to look mostly accidental, the place that functions not only as the city’s heart but also as its lungs, will be Jewish.
Central Park will host the third annual presentation of “Yiddish Soul,” a concert featuring the Klezmatics, Zusha, the Maccabeats, and two well-known Orthodox cantors, Yanky Lemmer of Lincoln Square Synagogue and Chaim David Berson of the Jewish Center, both on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
It’s produced by the Folksbiene, which is headed by musician, Yiddishist, musicologist, and impresario Zalmen Mlotek of Teaneck. The Klezmatics — headed by the newly honored (and soon to be formerly honored) Sir Frank London — more about that later — will be the house band, backing the others as well as performing alone.
“The concert is kind of a phenomenon,” Mr. Mlotek said. “For the last two years, we have brought out several thousand people to hear Jewish, cantorial, and chasidic music.” This year, there will be a little less cantorial music and a bit more emphasis on younger performers and the younger audiences they attract. The two cantors, both of whom draw raves from Mr. Mlotek, are young themselves, he said, and “they represent two major Orthodox communities in Manhattan.” And both Zusha and the Maccabeats are young musicians who draw young crowds.
The ideas behind the concert have evolved since it first was conceived, he said. “Originally, I wanted to appeal to a community of Yiddish speakers that doesn’t come to Yiddish theater or concerts.” To that end, he made sure that all the performers were men, and even today, when you look at a list of the acts, you see no women’s names. “But it’s slowly changing.”
Zusha — which includes Mr. Mlotek’s son Elisha and Zachariah Goldschmiedt, both from Teaneck, as well as Shlomo Gaisin, who is not — plays music that its members prefer not to label but is among other things neo-chasidic, soul, and folk, as passionately felt by deeply-Jewish-and-open-to-the-world downtown millennials. Among many other things.
The Maccabeats is the decade-old a cappella group from Yeshiva University that has a distinct style — each wears a skinny black tie, white shirt, and dress pants — a deeply Jewish, clever, and engaging sound, an educational bent, and an Orthodox worldview — and a devoted following.
Daniel Kahn of Painted Bird, a Berlin-based band, entered our heads and stayed there when he reacted to Leonard Cohen’s death by posting a video of himself singing “Hallelujah” in Yiddish, staring at us through the glass of the screen, just him and his shining guitar, in a white shirt and a black vest and a dark background, with subtitled translations of his not-literal translation. It’s haunting and sad and lovely. He too will play at “Yiddish Soul.”
“It’s also an opportunity for us to make a statement about the quality of Jewish music,” Mr. Mlotek said. “It’s gotten a bad rap over many years, as schlock music, as wedding music. As not being inventive. We are presenting artists who are looking at their material with respect, using all their artistic background to create new sounds. It’s exciting for us to be able to present their new kind of expression in Jewish music.
“It’s our opportunity as Jews to manifest our culture proudly — and to enjoy it,” he continued. “For all of our issues with America, for all the problems and the injustices that still exist today, never have the Jews experienced such a community, and such freedom of expression.
“Never before in Jewish history have these outward manifestations of Jewish culture existed.
“Once upon a time, the role of the Yiddish theater was to help the masses understand American culture. Today, we see our job as promoting Jewish culture, and making sure that Yiddish and Jewish culture are heard on the best possible stages and venues, so that people are aware of its riches. So that they can be inspired by it.”
Frank London plays trumpet for the Klezmatics, and he is one of the band’s most well-known members. He played at the first two “Yiddish Soul” concerts, but this is the first time that the band will be there too.
The Klezmatics are 30 years old now. The group has been central to the revival of klezmer music, and they’ve always maintained the tension between then and now, the world they not as much inherited as unearthed and the new one that spreads before them. Its latest album is last year’s “Apikorsim” — on its cover art, the name appears spelled out in English and in Yiddish, and translated. It means “Heretics.”
The Klezmatics are not heretics, but they tease with it. “I think the Klezmatics have always walked this very fine line — which the Folksbiene also walks, although they do it differently — and it’s really a three-pointed line,” Mr. London said. “It really navigates three things — being religiously Jewish, being culturally Yiddish, and being culturally Jewish. Since the culture itself is based on the religion but has its own separate reality, there are three poles. And the question of being spiritual and Jewish without necessarily being halachically religious — what you see in our concerts is sort of a reaction to all of them.
“We, the Klezmaztics, don’t follow Orthodox halacha, but we are totally engaged with Jewish spirituality. We perform music about faith, about the coming of the moshiach, and songs based on religious texts, alongside songs in Yiddish about social justice. Songs of doubt alongside songs of faith.”
He’s looking forward to playing with the other performers; both he individually and the Klezmatics as a group have stayed vital as musicians “by doing collaborations,” he said. “By allowing ourselves to be put in different situations and contexts.” He’s been working with Cantor Lemmer for about five years, he added; together, working with Michael Winograd, they’ve formed a group called Ahava Raba. The name means much love, great, abundant, heaping love, and it’s the beginning of a prayer thanking God for so very much love. It’s also the name of a musical mode, Mr. London added.
“It’s great when the Klezmatics get to be with someone like Cantor Lemmer or Cantor Burson, because of their affinity to the old style of chazzanut. The musical roots of klezmer and old Yiddish music and the traditional Ashkenazic nusach are the same musical roots.
“Often, when you hear contemporary chazzanut, the accompanying band is not necessarily steeped in the Yiddish tradition.” But the Klezmatics are; and “we make the music that we play with them sound every bit as Yiddish and as Jewish as they make the vocal part sound. That allows us to go in a certain direction.
“On the other extreme, working with Zusha is finding a new way of playing Jewish music.”
And then there’s playing in Central Park. “It’s fun,” Mr. London said. “It’s joyous.” And to play klezmer in the park? “This kind of klezmer can be defined in many ways,” he said. “This may be a little self-serving, but I think that it is real New York music. It is one of the sounds — one of the many sounds — of New York. It’s right up with listening to salsa or the philharmonic. And so to play it proudly and loudly in New York is so much fun! There is something thrilling about seeing thousands of people there, dancing and having a great time.
One more thing, Mr. London. What’s this about being Sir Frank?
“It’s bittersweet,” he said. Last year, the Hungarian government made him a Knight of Cross, so he belongs to the lowest rung of the country’s Order of Merit.
“It was a great honor, and it is so much fun to be Sir Frank,” he said. “It’s weird. I was knighted for my work in providing both Jewish and multicultural work in Hungary.” He has no Hungarian ancestry, but he has worked in Hungary for many years.
That’s the sweetness, but the bitter part is there as well. “I soon will be ex-Sir Frank,” he said. Since he was honored, “the government took a step even further to the right, and gave the same knighthood to some really repugnant, anti-Semitic, anti-Roma racists.” So he is planning on returning the honor.
“Then I’ll be able to say yeah, I was knighted, but I gave it back,” he said.
Who: Zalmen Mlotek of the Folksbiene: National Yiddish Theater
What: Presents “Yiddish Soul,” the third annual Jewish Roots-Rock concert
When: On Wednesday, June 14, at 7 p.m.
Where: At Summerstage at Central Park; enter the park at 72nd Street and Fifth Avenue in Manhattan.
How much: It’s free
For more information: Go to www.nytf.org or call (212) 213-2120, ext. 204.