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Folksbiene offers an online Chanukah gala; Tziporei Shalom gets to sing for it

Last year, Cantor Ronit Wolff Hanan led Tziporei Shalom. Some of the children will sing as part of the Folksbiene’s Chanukah gala.
Last year, Cantor Ronit Wolff Hanan led Tziporei Shalom. Some of the children will sing as part of the Folksbiene’s Chanukah gala.

No family Chanukah parties this year; no gathering around Chanukiot watching the candles burn, no latkes and donuts and splattering oil and the greasy glory of fried everything.

Also, no year-end fundraisers, which showcase their organizations’ art as they ask for the donations that are their lifeblood; no dinners and performances and chances to kvell and excel and shine. More loneliness. Less joy.

But there’s also a bit of an antidote to all that. The internet. Not worth it at the price, of course, but still able to provide a sense of community as it negates distance to present far-away faces on your screen.

The National Yiddish Theater — Folksbiene is using the magic of the ether to stream a celebration of Chanukah, featuring more well-known performers and painstakingly produced performances that it possibly could have gathered in one physical place at the same actual time.

The Chanukah Spectacular will be available for 96 hours (that’s the result of the union rules, which limit the time the performance can stream but also allow its members to appear in the first place), starting on Tuesday, December 8, at 7 p.m. (See box.)

“It’s close to 100 artists from literally all over the globe, either sending in video greetings or being part of a musical or theatrical number,” Zalmen Mlotek of Teaneck said. Mr. Mlotek is the Folksbiene’s artistic director, and it’s fair to say that he’s also at its heart and represents its soul.

The performance is not quite done yet, Mr. Mlotek said; everything’s in, but the editing is not complete. It will run somewhere between 60 and 80 minutes; the cameo greeters it will feature range from producer Manny Azenberg and performer (and doctorate-holder) Mayim Bialik through actors Billy Crystal, Beanie Feldman, Joel Grey, and Mandy Patinkin to songwriter and singer Neil Sedaka and psychologist and pop icon Dr. Ruth Westheimer. (Please note that this list here is both alphabetic and arbitrary; it’s far longer and just as star-studded as this random dip shows.)

There also will be performances; it’ll be a variety show, more or less connected to Chanukah. “Its going to be in the spirit of the holiday specials that people used to make on television,” back ages ago, when the world and the small screen were young, Mr. Mlotek said. “There’s a song here, a song there, people giving greeting in between.

Its producer and director is Adam B. Shapiro, who had been connected with the Folksbiene ever since he auditioned for “Gimpel Tam” in 2008, and was cast in the titular role. “He came in knowing no Yiddish and embraced it,” Mr. Mlotek said. Along with Mr. Shapiro’s other “theatrical and cabaret work, he has done videos online where he inventively finds theatrical ways of presenting a song or monologue.”

Zalmen Mlotek is the artistic director of the National Yiddish Theatre – Folksbiene. He’s going to play during many of the Chanukah gala’s performances.

Mr. Shapiro has posted videos of himself, and of work he did with the cast of the Yiddish Fiddler — he played the rabbi — so when Mr. Mlotek started thinking about a video for the Chanukah celebration, Mr. Shapiro came quickly to mind. “We wanted to present this video so it’s not just another concert, and it’s not your typical fund-raiser,” he said.

One thing that makes the production unlike typical fund-raisers, at least of the pre-pandemic variety, is that it’s free. “People just have to register,” Mr. Mlotek said. Not that he wouldn’t welcome viewers feeling moved to contribute. He would welcome that warmly. “Donations will be solicited throughout, although no one is at any obligation,” he said. “It is our hope that people will appreciate the work, and the effort that went into it, and that they will understand that this is how we are dealing with the pandemic.

What about the content? “We were thinking about how to open the show; our idea is to present it in a similar way to the DNC,” Mr. Mlotek said. In August, the when Democratic National Convention met to nominate Joe Biden as its president candidate, it found itself unable to conduct its business as usual. In every other year, the candidates would wear silly hats and odd buttons on brightly colored, occasionally oddly tailored outfits as they schmoozed, boozed, and cheered mightily for their state as they announced the recipients of their electoral college votes. Covid ruled that out. Instead, each state presented a short, idiosyncratic video detailing where their votes would go. Audiences found it both creative and engaging. “We have singers from all over the United States,” Mr. Mlotek said. “They’re all at home. Some have moved back with their parents. Some are with their kids.

“We have performers, friends who are doing their own brand of Yiddish culture in Israel, Australian, Japan, Germany, Holland, Moldavia, Canada, Romania — literally all over the globe. Each one will do a little musical greeting. That’s pretty much how we’ll open the show.

“I recorded the piano, and I have a small band,” Mr. Mlotek continued. “Each recorded their own parts. It’s a real production; it doesn’t have the budget that an Oscars should would have, but it’s that kind of show.

“We are hoping to have a worldwide viewership. We are in discussion with Jewish organizations around the world to promote it to their constituencies.”

As around-the-world as its ethos is, one part of the Folksbiene’s Chanukah celebration stays close to home. Children from around the world as singing “Rainbow,” a song written soon after September 11, about people living together in peace. “It’s like John Lennon’s ‘Imagine,’ but without the part about no religion,” Mr. Mlotek said. “We have a beautiful compilation of young people singing it.” Some of those young people — eight children, in fact — are from Teaneck. They’re members of Congregation Beth Sholom’s Tziporei Shalom, a children’s choir that met before Shabbat services before covid forced them to stop, and will meet again when the virus is conquered.

Because much of the Jewish world is connected in so very many ways, Zalmen Mlotek and the two women who created and run Tziporei Shalom — Beth Sholom’s cantor, Ronit Wolff Hanan, and Adina Avery-Grossman — have known each other, and Mr. Mlotek has known their parents, for decades. “We are very connected,” Cantor Wolff Hanan said. Mr. Mlotek had heard Tziporei Shalom sing. “So he approached us, asking if we could find some singers to participate in his gala video, and we jumped at the opportunity,” she said. The children worked with Cantor Wolff Hanan and Ms. Avery-Grossman, learning the song, including the Yiddish it requires — “some of them have amazing ears, and picked it up quickly,” Cantor Wolff Hanan said. The children, who mostly ranged from second to fourth graders but also included one eighth-grader who’d just aged out of the choir that year, worked intensively on the song, made audition tapes and sent them to the Folksbiene. All eight of the self-selected auditioners made the cut.

“This is how you do a virtual choir,” Cantor Wolff Hanan said. “Each of them will sing individual pieces”; an audio engineer will link them seamlessly. “The recording is done with two devices. You listen on one device, with headphones, and you’re recorded on a video device. The production team takes all these little snippets and puts them together.”

It’s a painstaking process, she said. “And it’s time consuming.” The video and the audio, which have been separated, must be put back together again.

“The kids feel great about it,” she said. They’re not intimidated by the big names with whom they’re sharing billing. “Most of those names are lost on the kids,” Cantor Wolff Hanan said. “But they’re not lost on their parents.”


Who: National Yiddish Theatre — Folksbiene

What: Presents the Star-Studded Folksbiene Chanukah Spectacular

When: For 96 hours, starting on Thursday, December 8, at 7 p.m.

Where: Online, on your very own device of choice

Why: To support the Folksbiene

How Much: It’s free, although donations are gratefully accepted

To register: Go to nytf.org/spectacular

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