Zalmen Mlotek of Teaneck, the artistic director of the 101-year-old National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene, had a rare opportunity several years ago to teach Yiddish to Elmore James, a prominent African American singer.
“He was interested in the music of Paul Robeson, who recorded some Yiddish songs,” Mr. Mlotek said. “He has an extraordinary voice, and was looking for someone to help him learn Yiddish.”
Later, when actor/singer Tony Perry was cast in a Murray Schisgal show calling for an African American who spoke Yiddish, Mr. Mlotek was pressed into service once again. His efforts paid off. “He did it very well,” the director said.
Those two experiences planted an idea in Mr. Mlotek’s mind, inspiring him to develop a program focusing on the connections between “soul music and Yiddish soul music.” His new work, “Soul to Soul,” will be presented at the Museum of Jewish Heritage on January 17 in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, which falls on January 18 this year.
“The museum has become the new home of the National Yiddish Theatre,” Mr. Mlotek said; the group premiered “The Golden Bride” there. “We had an enormous success,” he said.
“Soul to Soul” brings James and Perry together with “Golden Bride” star Lisa Fishman and Israeli Cantor Magda Fishman. (The two women are not related to each other.) The show has been performed at universities across the country, Mr. Mlotek said, although not in New York. The January 17 concert will be presented in English and Yiddish, with English and Russian supertitles. The singers will be accompanied by a four-piece band.
“We hope it will build community,” Mr. Mlotek said. “We live in such a fractured world, and it’s important that a program like this be done.” He pointed out that communities like Teaneck — “where things sometimes get heated” — might especially benefit from such events. “We’ll be celebrating connections between the cultures. It’s more than just music.”
Recalling the active role of the Jewish community in the civil rights movement, Mr. Mlotek said that his work “hearkens back to that period.
“As a young kid, I did voter registration in African American communities. On some level, I felt it was poignant to be singing and talking about that today. I bring music sung during the civil rights movement and Yiddish songs about the struggle for equality and human rights and blend them in various ways. The singers are phenomenal performers, and bring their hearts and souls to it.”
The program — which will include “spirituals, songs from Broadway, jazz, and Nat King Cole favorites” — is co-sponsored by the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene in collaboration with the Museum of Jewish Heritage and by the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding.
In a statement, the Folksbiene’s executive director, Bryna Wasserman, noted that “from its influence in shaping Broadway to its role in the rise of musical genres like jazz, Yiddish has intersected and collaborated openly with many other cultures in ways few others have to create some of the world’s most familiar and beautiful art forms. It is with joy we present the history behind these collaborations.”
“What I’ve learned is that the audience doesn’t care about language,” Mr. Mlotek said. “It’s the power of the music that brings audiences in and inspires them, whatever the language. Passionate performances are attractive no matter what.”
“We’re hoping for a nice turnout.” The organizers chose a Sunday for the event to make that easier, he added.