The National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene has performed “Soul to Soul” on the weekend of Martin Luther King Day for a decade by now.
It’s a perfect synthesis of the passions of the company’s artistic director, Zalmen Mlotek of Teaneck — Yiddish language, Yiddish songs, civil rights activism, social justice, brilliant performers and musicians, and the magic that sparks from a live performance.
This year, almost all of those elements will come together as they always do. One of them — the live performance part — will be missing, but by now, after almost a year spent, among other things, in figuring out how these new challenges and technologies and upended assumptions work, the Folksbiene is offering Soul to Soul online.
Its goal, as always, is to present “a serious overview of songs and materials that have spoken to both the American Jewish and African American communities,” Mr. Mlotek said.
His interest in civil rights activism goes back to his childhood and adolescence; his parents, the noted Yiddishists Joseph and Eleanor Chana Mlotek, sent him to summer camps where everyone not only sang folk songs but meant every syllable of them. He was a young Soviet Jewry activist, a voters’ rights activist, and an all-around child of the 60s and early 70s. Plus, of course, the Yiddish part.
So when the singer Elmore James, who was interested in the songs that Paul Robeson had sung, started to work with Mr. Mlotek on the Yiddish ones, the idea for “Soul to Soul” started to coalesce.
Usually — and this year as well — Mr. James, Tony Perry, Lisa Fishman, and Cantor Magda Fishman will sing in “Soul to Soul.” Mr. James and Mr. Perry are Black and neither of them is Jewish; Ms. Fishman and Cantor Fishman, who are not related, are white and both are Jews. This year, they’ll be joined by a fifth singer, Tatiana Wechsler, who also is producing and directing; she is both Black and Jewish.
What the performance will lose in immediacy it will gain in intimacy; a camera can get much closer to a performer than an audience member can (or likely would want to). It also can attract a much bigger and more diverse audience; neither time nor distance is a hurdle. This year, “Soul to Soul” will premiere on Monday, January 18 — MLK Day — but it will be available online after that.
This year, the narrative that loosely connects the songs to each other has been extended slightly, Mr. Mlotek said, and “we’ve recognized some of what has happened this year. We’ve mentioned names — George Floyd, Brionna Taylor. “We have the civil rights song and the spirituals,” and of course Yiddish songs. Many of them “are exuberant. You can’t stop tapping your feet. And you also have songs that talk about experiences that were difficult, that African Americans and the Jewish community have in common.”
This year, he added, Ms. Wechsler will sing “Strange Fruit,” the terrifyingly powerful song Billie Holliday made famous. The lyrics — about a lynching, about racism, about the South — were written by a Jewish man from the Bronx, Abel Meeropol. (If that name sounds familiar, it’s because Abel and Anne Meeropol adopted two brothers, Robert and Michael, who were orphaned by the execution of their biological parents, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg.)
So part of “Soul to Soul” is emotional and evocative, but part of it — much of it — is exhilarating. “At the end, we project the lyrics of the civil rights medley on the screen, and we invite people to sing along,” Mr. Mlotek said. (Of course, one of the advantages of watching at home is that you can sing along whenever you want to, as loudly as you want to, even as tunelessly as you have to.)
The technical challenge the Folksbiene faced is that there are nine performers; the four musicians are joined by Mr. Mlotek on the piano, and by Brian Glassman, D. Zisl Slepovitch, and Matt Temkin. “That’s nine performers recording from nine homes,” Mr. Mlotek said. “Tatiana has put together nine performances of the same song.” Motl Didner, the Folksbiene’s assistant artistic director, has added a video and photographs. And translations will appear onscreen for all the Yiddish songs.
Next year, it seems, if the vaccinations that already have begun have gone to everyone who can take them, “Soul to Soul” once again will be performed in person, in the theater that is home to the Folksbiene, at the Museum of Jewish Heritage Manhattan’s southern tip, with the Statue of Liberty right outside the lobby window. But this year, this odd transitional year, we all can watch it at home, close up, and still be moved — differently moved, but still indisputably moved — by its magic.