‘Soul to Soul’

‘Soul to Soul’

Zalmen Mlotek of Teaneck talks about his twin passions for Yiddish theater and social justice

Zalmen Mlotek
Zalmen Mlotek

It’s not clear if most people are driven consistently by one passion throughout their lives, so that it’s traceable in a clear line from childhood through adulthood.

And what about two passions, distinct but working in tandem?

Zalmen Mlotek has that.

Mr. Mlotek, who lives in Teaneck, is the artistic director of the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene. His twin passions, traceable throughout his life, separate but entwined, made for each other, are Yiddish and social justice.

He is now at a turning point, or at least an inflection point, in his life. His lovingly nurtured and overwhelmingly and unexpectedly successful project, the Yiddish “Fiddler on the Roof,” has just closed after a year and a half run, about a year and a quarter of it unimaginable before it started. His smaller but still well-loved just-for-fun and lots-of-fun production, “The Sorceress,” ended its limited run the week before. (He’s working on both national and international tours for “Fiddler.”)

What next?

At the curtain calls after the last
performance of “Fiddler,” the cast sang
“Happy Trails” — in Yiddish. (Tricia Baron)

He’s not sure about long-term projects, but for now he’s busy on an annual one-performance production, “Soul to Soul.” It’s a Martin Luther King Day weekend tradition that celebrates “the music and shared experiences of the African American and Jewish communities,” its press release tells us.

Before he gets to “Soul to Soul,” Mr. Mlotek talked about how it felt to have “Fiddler” end.

“It was momentous,” he said. Mr. Mlotek is a seasoned performer, so it would be hard to imagine how to surprise him emotionally, but “I had never before experienced anything like the energy in that room,” he said “This was something so unusual. You had a company of 30 people who have been together now for a year and a half on this journey that was supposed to be a six-week adventure downtown and became a year and a half off-Broadway run.” (Yes, that’s the theme from “Gilligan’s Island” that older readers suddenly have stuck in their heads. “A three-hour tour. A three-hour tour.”)

“Leading up to the finale was quite intense,” Mr. Mlotek continued. “That last night, the energy in the room — the audience was full of friends and supporters and family and then regular people — the performance was as if it had just opened. People were saying that they just couldn’t believe the quality of that last performance, and many of them have been seeing it since the first performance.

“So yes, we’ll be going on tour. Yes, there will be more life to ‘Fiddler.’ God willing, we will be on tour in China and Australia. But this is the end of this chapter, and it will never be the same.”

Last year’s “Soul to Soul” concert, Tony Perry. (Victor Nechay Properpix)

Given that “Fiddler” is about anti-Semitism and immigration, among other things, he and its cast and staff were greatly shaken by the recent acts of anti-Semitism locally. “That Saturday night of Monsey,” when the man with the machete attacked people at a Chanukah party, grievously injuring one of them and hurting others, “I had left the theater and was standing out in front with cousins, and a couple of kids ran by the theater marquee, shouting ‘F•••ing Jewish c••••s.’

“We were just standing there, looking at each other, saying ‘Did that really just happen?’ It shook me. It definitely shook me. I have never experienced that before, so it was quite…” His voice trailed off.

But back in the theater, “the cast was tremendously motivated, after what happened in Jersey City and then in Monsey, to do something. A flurry of emails went around asking what we could do. But this was Saturday night, and the closing was the next week, on Sunday. There wasn’t much time or many possibilities.” The best idea seemed to be to gather a panel to discuss options after one of the few remaining performances.

Then there was another idea. “What if Steven” — Skybell, who played Tevye — “or Joel” — Grey, the famous actor-turned-director — “were to stop the applause at the end of the curtain call on Thursday to say that the cast had to make a statement about what was going on, to urge people to participate in the march on Sunday, and to hand out leaflets with the websites of organizations that are dealing with anti-Semitism.” That’s what they did. “Joel made the address. It was very moving, and he ended it by saying ‘I am going to be at the march on Sunday. Come join me.’

“The audience burst into applause.

Last year’s “Soul to Soul” concert, Tony Magda Fishman. (Victor Nechay Properpix)

“What everyone has been saying about this whole experience of ‘Fiddler’ is how sadly it is so apropos now. So besides being a piece of art, it is also outreach to the people who do not have a firsthand experience with Jewishness.”

In fact, Mr. Mlotek added, when “Fiddler” tours North America, it will be framed in part as outreach. “It is the Folksbiene’s intention to have representatives in every city to work on these issues.”

That brings him to his other passion, social justice.

When he was young, Mr. Mlotek went to a Yiddish summer camp in the Catskills. Camp Hemshekh. “Survivors who had been Bundists back home wanted to create a summer camp that reflected their ideology,” he said. And it also was the ’60s. “So we would sing all these songs every morning at breakfast. I would go to the piano, half asleep, and play them. It was 1966, ’67, ’68, and this is what people wanted to do. Wanted to sing.”

Yiddish songs, right, Zalmen? No! “‘Oh Freedom.’ ‘Follow the Drinking Gourd.’ ‘Down by the Riverside’ — ain’t gonna study war no more. All those songs. All these American songs. ‘Last night I had the strangest dream I ever had before.’

Last year’s “Soul to Soul” concert, all four performers, Tony Perry, Magda Fishman, Elmore James, and Lisa Fishman. (VVictor Nechay Properpix)

“We were all American kids in the ’60s. Sure, Yiddish was our first language” — that was Hemshekh’s demographic, campers whose parents brought them up as Yiddish speakers, as Zalmen’s did — “but we were brought up with these American ideals of social justice. We were looking at these people, here in America, who had been denied their rights and treated horribly.”

He put his efforts where his mouth was.

“I was part of a group called the Jewish Socialist Youth in the 1960s,” he said. “It was an offshoot of the Jewish Labor Bund that had been formed in 1897 and had a history of defending Jewish workers’ rights in Poland, Lithuania, and Russia. Yiddish always was an important part of its ideology, but so was social justice.”

“When I was a teenager, 15, 16, in the 1960s, we did voter registration in the urban part of Long Island,” he remembered. “It was completely non-Jewish. I went to a march in Washington then too.”

This all was just before the Soviet Jewry movement; he was active in that too.

Many years later — about 10 years ago — “Elmore James, the African American folk singer, came to me looking to study the music that Paul Robeson made popular, that he had sung in Yiddish. He was interested in me coaching that material. When I started working with him, it touched something very deep inside me, because I had been so involved in the civil rights struggle in my own way.

Elmore James; he’s standing in front of a photo of Paul Robeson.

“So when Elmore came into my office and we started to sing songs, I got the idea of creating a program that would show the commonalities between our cultures and our struggles, and between African American music and Jewish music. I wanted to celebrate the partnership that was so prevalent in the ’60s. So I put together a program with two African American singers and two non-African American singers.” Jewish singers, to be specific.

“Soul to Soul” has used mostly the same four singers since it began, about five years ago. This year, it features Elmore James, Tony Perry, Lisa Fishman, and Magda Fishman. (Despite the coincidence of their last name, Lisa and Magda are not related to each other.) Each of the four has impressive credentials; Mr. James is a Broadway and opera star who’s been in “Beauty and the Beast,” among many other productions; Mr. Perry has starred on and off Broadway as well; Lisa Fishman most recently was in the Folksbiene’s “Fiddler,” and Magda Fishman is a cantor who has sung on many stages as well as in shul.

This year, for the first time, they will be joined by the Impact Repertory Theater of Harlem; with help from the gods of scheduling, “Soul to Soul” will be able to join the company uptown this year as well, but definitely that will happen next year, Mr. Mlotek said.

“With everything that is happening now, in Jersey City, in Monsey, all over, it is sadly so much more important than ever for us to heighten awareness and do whatever we can,” Mr. Mlotek said. “It is all about education. It is about people knowing. There is so much ignorance of the Jewish struggle, and of how the Jews were constantly in the forefront of the civil rights struggle. And now it seems that is not known by a majority of African American New Yorkers.”

Who: Zalmen Mlotek and the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene

What: Present “Soul to Soul”

Where: At the company’s theater at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, 36 Battery Place, Manhattan

When: On Sunday, January 19, at 2 p.m.

Why: “To celebrate the music and shared experiences of the African American and Jewish communities”

How much: Tickets start at $35

For more information and reservations: Go to nytf.org or call (866) 811-4111

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