When Mandy Patinkin, the actor who got his start in “Evita” and probably is best known for his work in the movie “The Princess Bride” and the television series “Homeland,” sings Yiddish songs — songs from Eastern Europe, from Second Avenue, even translated from English — he’s not indulging in a polite experiment in nostalgia. He does not drown in schmaltz, and there are no ironic air quotes anywhere.
He’s singing these songs for real, simultaneously exploring his tribal history, that history’s engagement with the America into which he was born and always has lived, and the sense of universality that plunging so deeply into the specific usually confers.
That’s a lot for an art that he just learned a few years ago, as an adult, but when you read about Mr. Patinkin — and even more when you get to talk to him — you very quickly realize that he might be funny (yes, he is funny) but when it comes to issues that touch him he is very deeply serious.
On May 23, Mr. Patinkin will sing at Jazz at Lincoln Center at a concert that the National Yiddish Theatre/Folksbiene will present to honor Zalmen and Debra Mlotek of Teaneck. (See below for more information.) Mr. Mlotek is the Folksbiene’s artistic director; he is also the reason why Mr. Patinkin sings in Yiddish as he does.
“It all began with Joseph Papp, from the New York Shakespeare Festival,” Mr. Patinkin said. Mr. Papp, who was born as Joseph Papirofsky and died in 1991, was a theatrical presence of nearly mythic proportions, the developer of the New York Public Theatre, the impetus behind huge numbers of plays, musicals, performers, and performances. “Joe was like my dad,” Mr. Patinkin said. “He signed the ketubah at my wedding. I loved him.
“One day, he called me and said that he was doing a benefit for YIVO” — the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, home to a trove of resources and treasures about Jewish life in eastern Europe and beyond. “Joe says, ‘I want you to sing a Yiddish song.’ I said ‘I don’t know any, except a little one that my father sang when I was about 5 or so.’ He said ‘It’s about time you learned one.’ And I said okay.”
That first piece was a well-known folk song called “Yossel Yossel.” That was what started it.
“Up till that point I’d sung many songs in shows — I’d been in shows since I was a kid — and I’d even started singing solo stuff, in my show — but it was all American popular songs,” Mr. Patinkin said. “This song, though…. It had a profound effect on me, and I couldn’t even understand it.”
Mr. Patinkin grew up in Hyde Park, on Chicago’s South Side, “right around the corner from Obama’s house — but not at the time I was growing up,” he said; his family belonged to Congregation Rodfei Zedek, a local Conservative shul. Like most Jews of his age, the now 63-year-old actor “never heard Yiddish at home.
“My grandma Celia would come over on Wednesday nights for dinner, and she and my father would go down to the basement and do her business affairs. She never really spoke English — she never really got off the boat — but I never understood it. So it wasn’t like I grew up with Yiddish, or that it moved me emotionally because I had memories of it from when I was a kid.”
After Mr. Patinkin learned “Yossel Yossel,” he played it with Don Byron, the brilliant African-American clarinetist who played for years with the Klezmer Conservatory Band. “And then Joe came over for a Shabbes dinner one night, and I played him that track, and then at dinner he said ‘You need to do this.’
“‘This needs to be your job. You need to learn this music.’” There was a long line of musicians, stretching way back, centuries back, to Europe, who made that music. “‘You need to get at the end of that line,’” Joe Papp told Mandy Patinkin.
Mr. Patinkin already knew that many of the stalwarts of the Great American Songbook — Harold Arlen, Irving Berlin, Leonard Bernstein, Steven Sondheim — were Jewish. So were many of the performers who interpreted those composers’ work, from Al Jolson to “Paul Simon, who inherited that Yiddish tam and the Yiddish cry,” he said. “And they also inherited that storytelling. Most of those songs were the chronicles of people’s lives — their births, deaths, weddings, joys. The songs were stories; they were Broadway songs. I think that’s where the Broadway musical came from.
“I can tell you for a fact that one of the most famous songs the Gershwins wrote was ‘Ain’t Necessarily So,’” Mr. Patinkin said, momentarily diverted from his own story. “Think about it. It’s what you say when you come up to the Torah for an aliyah. ‘Barechu et Adonai hamevorach.’ It’s the exact same tune. Note for note. I got chills the first time someone laid that on me.”
Mr. Patinkin began his search for mentors in the Yiddish world. Eventually and inevitably, through a chain that went, as he recalls a bit mistily, through his friend, Debbie Friedman, the songwriter to whose work the Reform movement prays and dances, to Moishe Rosenfeld, who is active in just about all the Jewish performing arts, to Zalmen Mlotek.
Zalmen Mlotek’s parents, Joseph and Eleanor Chana, were famous and influential Yiddishists, musicologists, folklorists, writers, and towering eminences in their world. (Joseph Mlotek died in 2000 and Eleanor Mlotek died in 2013.) Mr. Patinkin learned from them. He loved them, he added. “They were the parents you wish were your parents. They were full of life and spunk, and ohmigod they were alive. They were really so alive.”
Mr. Patinkin also learned from Henry Sapoznik, another famous and influential specialist in Yiddish music, but of his own generation.
“It was a five-year journey, making my promise to Joe Papp good,” Mr. Patinkin said.
“And then it was a few months before my ‘Mamaloshen’ album” — his 1998 Yiddish-language recording, featuring not only such Yiddish favorites as “Belz,” “Rabbi Elimeylehk,” and “Raisins and Almonds,” but also translated versions of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” and “Maria” from “West Side Story” — and I was in my studio at home, ready to start recording in a few days. And then I had what was basically my college boards.”
Remember, Mr. Patinkin said, that he had not spoken Yiddish before he started to sing it. “I had to learn the language from scratch. I understood every word that I sang, and I understand a lot of it when I hear it, but I wasn’t fluent in it. It was a new language for me.”
So there he was in the studio with the three Mloteks, Henry Sapoznik, and Moishe Rosenfeld. “Yosele” — that’s Joseph Mlotek — “was on his walker, and they sat down on my couch, and I began singing the repertoire for them, so that they could approve my pronunciation,” Mr. Patinkin said.
“I sang — and then there was an argument,” he continued. “Chana says that I should say a word this way, and Yosele says no, no, I should pronounce it that way, and then Henry says no, no, no, my grandmother always says it this other way.
“Moishe and Zalmen were quiet, but the other three got into a heated discussion over which way to pronounce it — tomayto or tomahto — and it was very moving. It became very clear to me that they were fighting for the way their ancestors had said that word, in their town, in their village, on their corner, on their stoop, in their house.
“That meant everything.”
When he started performing Yiddish songs, Mr. Patinkin added, people would come backstage “and they’d tell me ‘No no no, you shouldn’t say that word that way. Say it this way!’ It was amazing.”
The emotional content of the Yiddish songs he sings moves audiences of all backgrounds, Mr. Patinkin said. “When I perform it, yes, Jews come backstage, but so do non-Jews, priests, nuns, Catholics, Protestants, they’d all come backstage.
“When I recorded ‘Mamaloshen,’ there was a lot of pressure. It was a very complicated recording session, but it went more smoothly than any other I’d ever done in my life, and that was a little wild. And then the African-American and Asian musicians who had been at all my other recording sessions and also were at this one came up to me collectively at the end, and they said ‘This was the most moving experience we have ever had.
“‘We couldn’t understand a single word of it, but we all felt it.’”
The image on the CD’s cover was taken by Richard Avedon. “It’s a black and white of me, and I grew my beard, so I’d look like the quintessential shtetl guy,” Mr. Patinkin said. “And I asked Avedon if he could put my image in front of an American flag, and he agreed.” (The flag’s stripes are in red and white; the stars are black on a gray-toned field.)
“That’s because it’s the story of an immigrant. Really, any immigrant.
“One of the lessons is that whoever you are, wherever you are from, take a walk in your own heritage. In your culture. Not just the food, not just the easy stuff, but the sounds and smells and all of it. Let it wash over you. You don’t have to understand it, you just have to go there and let it wash over you, and it will do something for you, no matter who you are. Give yourself this gift of hearing what your past sounded like.”
Mr. Patinkin also starred as Georges and George in the first Broadway production of Stephen Sondheim’s “Sunday in the Park with George,” in 1984. “The most important word of my life is a word in that musical,” Mr. Patinkin said. “Connect. It’s ‘Connect, George.’ That connection means the world to me.
“It remains the quest of my life, to somehow connect to my own past, to the world around me, to my family and my friends, and to the people who don’t have a voice.
The Folksbiene is honoring Zalmen Mlotek for his 18 years of work. “Mandy’s been a friend of the organization for many years, and he agreed to do a mixture of Yiddish songs and Broadway standards for the annual gala,” Mr. Mlotek said. “I am humbled by it; I also feel that it’s a nice pairing because Mandy’s singing represents in some sense something that I have tried to do from the get-go. That is, to bring Yiddish out from the confines of the Yiddish-speaking audience and opening it up to an audience that is interested to hear it coming from the mouths of celebrities, and of people who have a connection to it.”
Mr. Mlotek also remembers the time when his family and Henry Sapoznik argued about Mr. Patinkin’s pronunciation, “because which pronunciation is right depends on which part of Vilna you came from,” he said. “Mandy took it very seriously.
“For someone who did not speak Yiddish as a kid, his Yiddish is pretty remarkable. It is so clear that it comes from his heart, and that he puts his whole soul into it. It’s actually kind of thrilling.
“He always had a soft spot for my mother, and when we had a memorial for her, right after she passed away, he sang for her.”
The Folksbiene’s honor to his wife is because although she is not involved in the theater, she is a longtime Jewish educator and early childhood teacher. “She helped create some of the children’s programming in KlezKamp and KlezKanada,” he said. (KlezKamp, which ended after 30 summers in 2014, brought klezmer musicians and aficionados together for a week of music in the Catskills; KlezKanada continues its summer week in the Laurentians.) “And she mothered our three children, who are all performers now, each one in their own way propagating this culture that is being honored here as well,” Mr. Mlotek said.
The Folksbiene plans on continuing its program as it rounds out its first year in its new home, the Museum of Jewish Heritage, at Manhattan’s southern tip. The company offered a concert version of the “The Golden Bride,” a wildly popular Second Avenue production when it was first played in the 1920s, at Rutgers last year, and brought it back for a staged version during the winter. It was wildly successful, so “We will present it again at the museum, starting on July 4, to kick off the summer season,” Mr. Mlotek said. It will play six times a week throughout the summer; the production was crowdfunded through RocketHub. And the May 23 concert will be the start of this year’s KulturFestNYC. Last year, the venture’s first, was huge. This year, Brynna Wasserman, Mr. Mlotek’s partner at the Folksbiene, who thought up KulturFest, and Mr. Mlotek are presenting a more scaled-down version. “Our big event will be a SummerStage in Central Park on June 15,” Mr. Mlotek said. “We are bringing back leading cantorial and chasidic superstars, and this year we have added the Maccabeats, Zusha, and Dudu Fisher.
“Last year it rained, and we still had more than 3,500 people. It was not all in Yiddish — but it was a great public manifestation of Yiddishkeit.”
Next year, if plans unfold properly, KulturFestNYC will be enormous, he added.
Why does he do it? “People ask me why Yiddish?” Mr. Mlotek said. “Why still Yiddish?
“And I say it’s because it’s speaking to new generations. It’s connecting new generations to older generations. It strengthens the whole fiber of Yiddishkeit. It also gives people who have no connection to it whatsoever a sense of what this rich culture has been, and how it really has an effect on American popular culture as well.”
In other words, with Yiddish, people connect.
Mandy Patinkin celebrates Mloteks, Folksbiene
Who: Zalmen and Debra Mlotek of Teaneck — he’s the artistic director of the National Yiddish Theatre/Folksbiene
What: Will be feted for his 18th year at the helm of the 101-year-old institution by
Who: Mandy Patinkin
Doing what: In concert
Where: At the Rose Theater in Jazz at Lincoln Center, Broadway at 60th Street, Manhattan
When: On Monday, May 23, at 7:30 p.m.
How much and how: Tickets start at $150; for information, call (212) 213-2120, ext. 204, or go to www.nytf.org.