There is something gloriously countercultural, or at least counterintuitive, about walking in the Celebrate Israel parade.
First, there’s the simple fact that you’re walking north up Fifth Avenue. That would be like the Hudson River flowing north, taking ocean water up to Lake Tear in the Clouds (and talking about glorious things, how is that for a glorious name?) instead of dumping pure clear upstate water into the Atlantic. No cars. Going the wrong way. It happens only by force of will.
The city shows itself at its loveliest that day too; as we walk, we can marvel at the great brick and stone architecture to our right and the lush green-and-sunlit-stone park to our left.
And more even than that is the political truth that once a year, all sorts of Jewish (and some non-Jewish) groups from across the spectrum come together, groups not in the least united in their feelings toward Israel’s politicians and policies but entirely together on their love for the country and their understanding of its centrality to Jewish life. No matter how you define Jewish life.
This year, as they do every year, representatives of schools and shuls and federations from across northern New Jersey and Rockland County joined people from the city’s five boroughs, Long Island, Westchester County, and places much farther away in their trek up Manhattan.
Zalmen Mlotek of Teaneck had a different — Why not be honest and call it better? Okay, a better — view of the parade than most marchers or onlookers could manage. For most of the route, Mr. Mlotek, as the artistic director of the National Yiddish Theater Folksbiene, was riding with members of the cast of “Fiddler on the Roof” — aka “A Fidler Afn Dakh” — the Yiddish-language version of the classic musical that opened for a limited run downtown, at the Folksbiene’s home at the Museum of Jewish Heritage at Manhattan’s southern tip, last July, and now will remain open uptown until January.
When they passed the viewing stand, the men in the cast left the float and performed “L’Chaim.” (The group was one of about a dozen performers on floats, and they were joined by about 10 marching bands, Jewish and not, from around the area.)
Mr. Mlotek had a long day.
First, “we did a sound check, before the parade, at Town Hall, for the Drama Desk awards,” he said. The group was nominated for an award for the outstanding musical revival, so it was able to perform there. Next he did a sound check for the L’Chaim performance.
Then there was the parade itself, where the Folksbiene cast shared a float with a group from the Hampton Synagogue, out on eastern Long Island.
Then the performance. “We did L’Chaim because it’s one of the most iconic tunes from the score,” Mr. Mlotek said. “It was interesting, because we had to lip sync” — it’s far too noisy on the street for even heavily miked dancing men to sing audibly — “and we had to rehearse with the recording.” (The sound track for the show will be out soon, he added.) And yes, if you’re lip syncing and the spirit moves you and you just want to sing as you dance, on Fifth Avenue, in front of crowds of people in the Celebrate Israel parade, you may. You should feel free. But no one will hear you.
He did not perform, he added. “I just stayed on the float, shepping naches.”
Next, after the parade, “we went back to the theater for the 3 o’clock performance.”
Why, given that schedule, were the Folksbiene players in the parade? “Because as the National Yiddish Theater, we felt it important to have a presence,” Mr. Mlotek said. “The parade is public.
“It’s the same as the way we do SummerStage, where we reach 5,000 people and let them hear the sounds of Yiddish in the free air of New York. The parade also lets people hear the sounds of Yiddish and of Jewish culture.”
(This year, Folksbiene’s annual concert at SummerStage, the annual free outdoors festival in Central Park, will be a cantorial concert that Mr. Mlotek will conduct. It’s set for Wednesday, June 12. To learn more, google “Folksbiene SummerStage 2019.)
“And while our cultural institution has nothing to do with Israel or politics, as Jews we are supportive of the state of Israel,” Mr. Mlotek continued. “We want to make sure that everyone there knows that we are supportive of Israel.”
Incidentally, he said — and given the huge number of local schools at the parade, it’s not at all surprising — although the Folksbiene float followed marchers from Birthright Israel, the group immediately behind them was from Yeshivat He’Atid in Teaneck.
That wasn’t the end of Mr. Mlotek’s day, though. Later, at the ceremony, he learned that the National Yiddish Theater Folksbiene’s production of “A Fidler Afn Dakh” won the Drama Desk award.
Charlie Temel of Manhattan is the president of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York. The JCRC — an agency of UJA-Federation of New York (just as the JCRC in northern New Jersey is a Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey agency, and the JCRC in Rockland is a committee of the Jewish Federation of Rockland County) — is the parade’s sponsoring agency.
He marched next to New York’s Governor Andrew Cuomo, who, he says, is a strong supporter of Israel. “He held a little news conference before we marched, and he said some important things,” Mr. Temel said. “He made a strong statement; he had stickers made up that said, ‘We are all Jewish.’ Fighting anti-Semitism has been very important in his family, starting with his father,” former N.Y. governor Mario Cuomo, “and his mother,” Mathilda Cuomo. “He will be going to Israel sometime after the legislative session in Albany ends to show solidarity with the Jewish state in the face of growing anti-Semitism.” (And no, Andrew Cuomo is one of the few Democratic politicians who is not running for president, so it’s not that.)
He’s been in almost every parade for decades, Mr. Temel said; he thinks that this year’s crowds were bigger than they have been recently, and he suspects they might have been in defiant reaction to growing anti-Semitism.
The parade’s changed too, and in the direction of increased inclusivity.
“We have made an effort — and I think we’ve succeeded — in making this parade as inclusive as it can be,” he said. “Every type of Jew participates, and this is the largest intergroup Jewish event in the world.
“And there’s such a great breadth of Jewish organizations, that represent all the things that Jews do. They all came to march, and they all march right next to each other, one right after the other.
“So regardless of who you are, how you observe, what you do, as long as you are willing to walk up Fifth Avenue to celebrate Israel, we are happy to have you.
“We are not political. You will not see signs advocating one political policy or protesting another. This is all about celebrating Israel, the homeland of the Jewish people.”
And it’s not only for Jews. “Our non-Jewish friends participate — marching bands, police departments, public officials. They’re our neighbors, showing their support.”
How many people showed up to march? “We have between 35,000 and 40,000,” Mr. Temel said.
“The breadth is important,” he concluded. “The breadth of the Jewish community, and the breadth of its support for Israel. People are saying that we’re proud to be Jewish. We’re proud of the State of Israel. We’re proud to be Americans.
“It was a very happy day.”