It’s extraordinary, when you think about it, this country of ours.
That’s always a loaded statement to make these days; tempers are so high, political divisions are so deep, mistrust is so pervasive.
We are celebrating the Fourth of July this week, the time when the founders of this country, along with the less powerful people they represented, risked everything — “we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our Sacred Honor,” they said, the exuberance of their capitalization underscoring the depth of their resolve — to create a new kind of state in the New World.
It was, of course, not an untarnished state the founders created — human beings were enslaved — but it was the start of a brave new experiment. It remains very far from perfect, but on the Fourth of July we still explode fireworks of hope and joy.
Some of those fireworks soar and crest and rain colored fire on the Statue of Liberty.
Although there were Jews in the 13 colonies that became the first United States, none were represented among the entirely white male Christian founders. We extrapolate the promises those men made to themselves to cover all of us as well.
Overwhelmingly, most of us are immigrants or the descendants of immigrants. It is no accident that the Statute of Liberty, one of the great symbols of the freedom that this country offers, holds her torch up to immigrants. This country grew from immigrants, was built by immigrants, welcomes immigrants, enriches and is enriched by immigrants.
Like this country itself, though, immigration was not all glorious. It was hard, painful, dark, impoverishing, at times fatal. It could divide families, maim hope, kill love. The only way truly to acknowledge the great gifts immigrants have given us is to honor their sacrifices and their despair as well as their joy and success.
So what does this have to do with the National Yiddish Theater — Folksbiene?
The Folksbiene, under the direction of its artistic director, Zalmen Mlotek of Teaneck, is producing “Amerike — The Golden Land,” a show about Jewish immigration whose month-long run at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in downtown Manhattan is set to begin on July 4, in the shadow cast by the torch of the Statue of Liberty.
“Amerike” is less a plotted musical than a series of songs sung by characters whose stories viewers can follow, or at least piece together. The songs all are authentic; most of them were unearthed by Mr. Mlotek and his mother, the great Yiddish musicologist Eleanor Gordon Mlotek, and by Mr. Mlotek’s cousin, Moishe Rosenfeld.
“The beginning of ‘Amerike’ goes back to 1982, when Moishe and I were asked to create a pageant for the Workmen’s Circle celebrating the 65th anniversary of the Forward,” Mr. Mlotek said. Some explanations — Mr. Rosenfeld and Mr. Mlotek are not only first cousins but also frequent collaborators. The Forward, the newspaper that began as a daily Yiddish publication and now publishes in Yiddish, Russian, and English, almost entirely on line, was closely linked with the Workman’s Circle, the Yiddishist, socially progressive organization that helped fresh-off-the-boat immigrants adjust to their bewildering new home. The Folksbiene began as a branch of the Workmen’s Circle. Mr. Mlotek’s father, Joseph, another prominent and beloved Yiddishist, was the Workmen’s Circle’s education director. Everything connects, and everyone is connected.
In 1982, Zalmen Mlotek did not work for the Folksbiene; “I was involved only tangentially with Yiddish theater,” he said. “I developed my own career as a musician.” But when he and Mr. Rosenfeld were asked to put together a theatrical piece about immigration, they said yes.
They researched the period beginning in the late 1880s and going through the next few decades of the twentieth century. “Research involved listening to recordings of Yiddish theater and looking at music that had never been published before,” Mr. Mlotek said. “We wanted to find material that was an honest portrayal of the immigrant experience, from the immigrants themselves.
“What excited us was the power of the songs and the lyrics we discovered. We were able to be transported dramatically and emotionally to the generation of immigrants who experienced this country for the first time.”
Uncovering this music took detective skills, including not only the ability to follow barely-hinted-at trails and allusions, but also to decipher fading scrawled handwriting and to have the patience to sit still for the huge chunks of time that deciphering demanded.
There were problems specific to reading music — conventionally read from left to right — set to lyrics in Yiddish — conventionally read from right to left — often transliterated into Roman letters — conventionally read from left to right. “It was complicated and time-consuming,” Mr. Mlotek understated. So he’d do triage. “I’d look at the music, and if it interested me I would take the time to decipher it.” Sometimes he’d find what he calls “jewels.”
“It was like being on an archaeological dig,” he said.
Some of the jewels were songs like “Vatch Your Step.” In that song, Mr. Mlotek said, “were exciting phrases that the immigrants heard all the time and turned into English.” Or at least into Yinglish; the rest of the lyrics were in Yiddish. Other songs “would talk about upward mobility, about no longer living in the tenements but moving uptown, to much nicer places in Harlem or the Bronx.
“It’s always key for us that the experience be told honestly,” he added. “These experiences were from the immigrants’ pens and minds and spirits.”
When Mr. Mlotek and Mr. Rosenfeld first wrote “Amerike,” it was mainly in Yiddish, although there was enough English and Yinglish for non-Yiddish speakers not to feel entirely lost.
The production was a great success, Mr. Mlotek said. “Dick Shepard of the New York Times gave it a five-column rave review, with our pictures, and for a week our phones rang nonstop. We were in a little office in the old Workman’s Circle building, and the phones just kept ringing. It was an incredible experience. It just exploded. People from the theater world started to come down and see it.
“The show evolved. As it got more popular, a producer came to us and said that he wanted to do it Off Broadway, but we’d have to put more English into it. That meant translating some of the songs that had very little English in them.”
It worked. The show continued to attract and charm audiences. After Off Broadway, it toured, and “Leonard Bernstein recommended that we go to Italy with it,” Mr. Mlotek reported. “We went to Palermo and to Venice. The experience in Palermo was incredible. One time, the audience was all high school kids. They were rowdy, regular high school kids — and then when we talked about sweatshops and unionizing workers, they all hushed.
“It was as if they were seeing something holy. That resonated for them. The rest of it — well, they were rowdy high school kids.”
“Amerike” was revived again, soon after September 11 — the need for some hope was obvious — and again in 2012; that version played well until Superstorm Sandy knocked out most of lower Manhattan, including Baruch College, where it was playing. “And then when we came here to the museum, to our new home, last year, we were wrestling between ‘Amerike’ and ‘The Golden Bride’ as the first piece to present here.” “The Golden Bride” won. “It’s representative of Second Avenue material, and we opted for that, to give people a taste of actual Yiddish theater,” Mr. Mlotek said. The musical had a brief but critically acclaimed run at the museum.
Now, though, “we decided that because immigration has become such an important issue today, and because we are constantly inspired by our location — it doesn’t escape us that the Statue of Liberty is right outside our windows — we felt that it was time to bring the show back.”
They’ve made a change, though. They’ve stripped the English they added. “There is English throughout,” Mr. Mlotek said. “It’s the story of immigration, so as the immigrants assimilated their Yiddish became peppered with English. But now much of the material is back to the original authentic Yiddish sources that we picked.” Also, the production includes supertitles so even the most Yiddish-challenged of audience members will know what’s going on.
Now, he said, a challenge they face is how to pick a cast that can sing Yiddish “honestly, authentically, and dramatically — and also look good and of course also sound good.
“We auditioned more than 300 people in New York, and we came up with a terrific ensemble of 12 people,” he said. Some have experience in Yiddish, and some learned it. And then there is “one major standout. Daniel Kahn, who we brought from Berlin.”
Daniel Kahn is the young Detroit native who has lived in Berlin for the last decade; he broke into America’s consciousness last fall, soon after the singer/songwriter/poet Leonard Cohen died, by translating Mr. Cohen’s brilliant, popular, and hauntingly and undeniably Jewish song “Halleluyah” into Yiddish, and singing it on YouTube right into the camera, looking right at the viewer as he sang in a language that the song hadn’t been written in but seemed as if it should have been.
That Daniel Kahn.
“We are not making a political point with this show,” Mr. Mlotek said. “This is a nation of immigrants. The Yiddish theater in America became American theater, and it came from immigrants. We are celebrating that tie.”
To that end, the Folksbiene also is hosting the first immigration arts summit, set for Monday and Tuesday, July 17 and 18. The summit, which will include a keynote address by John Leguizamo, will bring together the Pan Asian Repertory, the Repertorio Español, the Irish Repertory Theatre, the Kairo Italy Theater, the Irish Arts Center, and the Turkish American Repertory Theatre, as well as Israel’s Office of Cultural Affairs in the USA, the Romanian Cultural Institute, and the Cumbe Center for African and diaspora Dance. The point is to talk about shared experiences, brainstorm shared ideas for paths forward, and share performances and audiences with each other. (See box for more details.)
To go back to the American Jewish experience, there are many lighthearted lyrics in the show. It’s not at all a depressing experience — it is in fact the opposite, and “Vatch Your Step” is in it — but there still are moments of deep sadness. It is hard to leave behind all that you know, and it is hard to learn to adapt to something new. And it is also hard, very hard, more than hard, it is soul-rending, to come to a new country, stand hopefully at its gates, and then be turned away.
“Lost Arayn” — “Let Them In”— “is a song written at the turn of the century,” Mr. Mlotek said; of course, that turn is not the most recent one but from the 19th to the 20th centuries. “We found it in a recording by Aaron Lebedev. My mother transcribed it. We used the first verse but not the second one.” It was in one of Ms. Mlotek’s books about Yiddish music; for the purposes of her argument, one verse was enough.
“My mother passed away three years ago, and I found this in her papers,” Mr. Mlotek said. “She never published this verse, and it is the killer verse.”
It’s the story of a young family:
“A young father with bent shoulders is
on Ellis Island.
He raised two small children by himself.
They lost their mother, and came here with great difficulty.
The gates are locked before them.
Their father is kept away from them.
Hearts are broken here at the door.
It ends, in a universal plea that is as relevant today as it was then —
then to Jews, today to others:
“Don’t have hearts of stone.
Open the gates to the Golden Land.
You see people falling, reach out
Let them in, let them in.
Don’t break any more hearts.
The whole world will bless you for it.
Open the gates and let them in.”
Zalmen Mlotek hopes that everyone will come to see the story of “Amerike,” down in southern Manhattan, facing the Statue of Liberty and the torch that lit the way for so many of our families, and to keep Yiddish theater alive as they do so.