Sixty-one years ago, Josh Waletzky had a very untraditional bar mitzvah.
“My parents, knowing I was interested in writing music, gave me an assignment: Write a piece of music to what I was learning about Jewish history in school,” Mr. Waletzky said in a Zoom interview.
The Waletzky family was not religious, but his parents sent Josh to the secular Sholom Aleichem Schools, where students were taught to read and write in Yiddish.
“At the time, when I was about 13, we were learning about the Warsaw ghetto and the uprising,” Mr. Waletzky said. “I wrote a piano composition that related to that. So for my bar mitzvah celebration, my parents rented a restaurant and gathered friends and family. I said something. I don’t remember what I said. Then they wheeled a piano out in front of the tables, and I played this composition that I had written.
“There was no rabbi. There was no Torah reading. But the point is that in a way that imprinted on me, I learned that my mission in the Jewish community was to take a creative role.”
That manifested itself most recently in “Pleytem Tsuzamen” — “Refugees Together.” It’s a song-cycle that will have its long-delayed American premiere on March 26 under the auspices of the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene. (See below.)
It’s been an interesting journey for the secular bar mitzvah boy, one that included work with Barbra Streisand, Oscar nominations, and according to at least one critic, a position as the Yiddish Stephen Sondheim.
Mr. Waletzky has always made music — his latest album of Yiddish songs is “Pasazhirn/Passengers” — but he earned his living in film. He was the sound editor of the Academy Award-winning documentary “Harlan County, USA,” directed and received an Academy Award nomination for “Music for the Movies: Bernard Herrmann,” and, yes, worked with Barbra on “Yentl.”
He explains: “I was working at the YIVO office on a documentary called ‘Image before My Eyes,’ about Jewish life in Poland between the two World Wars. At the time, Barbra was working on her version of the Isaac Bashevis Singer story ‘Yentl.’
“She came to New York to do research for that film and obviously went to YIVO, which is where all the archival material for the period she was going to write about was stored.
“Someone told her, ‘Oh, we have a young man who is working on a film about just this topic. So they introduced me to her, and I will never forget screening the film for her.”
In one scene, a Polish woman who came to the United States in 1939 sings a popular theater song she remembers from her teenage years in Warsaw. After listening to her, Barbra’s “jaw dropped,” Mr. Waletzky said. “She was so impressed with that performance. It was I thought a stunning moment of recognition on her part of the musical tradition I grew up with and the one I’m continuing.”
Which brings us to “Pleytem Tsuzamen,” which Yiddish Summer Weimar, a month-long international gathering in Weimar, Germany, that celebrates traditional and contemporary Yiddish culture, commissioned in 2019.
“Weimar commissioned a series of new works based on the flourishing Jewish culture in Germany between the two World Wars,” Mr. Waletzky said. “Because I was well known as a songwriter, I was invited to create a cycle of songs for an evening program.
“I said I’m very honored, but I do not want to write about the 1930s. I said I want to write songs about 2019, and they said fine.
“This was a time when the political situation in the U.S. felt quite threatening. It was the middle of the Trump era, with all the white nationalists marching. And of course the ongoing climate crisis in the world, and how we’ve been unable to come to grips with climate change and all the disasters that were begging to proliferate.
“And there also were all the immigrants not being admitted to the U.S., the whole project of building a wall and trying to keep Muslims out. It was creating a real atmosphere of division, so the song cycle was meant to be my personal response.”
The song cycle, with a book by Jeyn Levison and a cast of talented singers and musicians, features spoken English and Yiddish songs that reflect the attitude of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society.
“I was reminded recently that HIAS has a new slogan,” Mr. Waletzky said. “I’m not sure I have it exactly, but it is ‘we used to help refugees because they were Jewish. Now we help refugees because we were Jewish.’”
This is not the first collaboration between Mr. Waletzky and Zalmen Mlotek, the Folksbiene’s artistic director. Mr. Mlotek, who lives in Teaneck, and Mr. Waletzky go back to the Sholom Aleichem school-affiliated Camp Boiberik, in Rhinebeck, New York, where Zalmen’s mom, Chana, was a singing counselor. The two stayed in touch over the years and even collaborated on a musical, “Chelm: Our Shtetl,” commissioned by Workmen’s Circle and performed at the 92nd Street Y.
“The Yiddish world is a small one, as you might imagine,” Mr. Waletzky said. “So you hear about things that are going on. I heard they had done it at Weimar. Many of my colleagues and friends were participating. And when I saw the response it got, a little light came on in my head and said, ‘You know, maybe we should be presenting it.’
“The idea of presenting a new work in Yiddish excited me. We are always looking to find new ways to attract new people and new interest in the work that we do, to perpetuate Yiddish culture, and language, and Yiddish writing all over the world.
“And what better manifestation of its longevity and continuing relevance is to showcase this thoughtful and moving piece about the refugee issue that is so pertinent and relevant to us at this time?”
What: “Pleytem Tsuzamen — Refugees Together” will be performed twice
When: On March 26, at 1 p.m. and again at 6 p.m.; masks are required at the 6 o’clock show.
Where: At the Museum of the Jewish Heritage,
36 Battery Place in lower Manhattan
How much: Tickets are $36
For more information and tickets: Go to