Yiddish in the city

Yiddish in the city

Folksbiene Theater, as it turns 100, makes everything old new again. (And its artistic director lives in Teaneck!)

The klezmer-rock band Golem will be at Joe’s Pub on June 18 as part of KulturefestNYC.
The klezmer-rock band Golem will be at Joe’s Pub on June 18 as part of KulturefestNYC.

The week is just so stuffed full of everything that it’s hard to know where to start.

A huge, bursting, ripe, aromatic, extravagantly sensual flowering of Yiddish culture, backward and forward, history and prophesy, will bloom on New York City streets on the week from July 14 to July 21. Theater, music, dance, poetry, academic analysis — all will flourish up and down Manhattan.

The festival, called KulturfestNYC, celebrating the Folksbiene Theater’s first hundred years and moving it into its second century, is the brainchild of the theater’s artistic director, Zalmen Mlotek of Teaneck.

As is true of so many things in life, the festival, and the centennial it celebrates, represent a balance. The obvious one, of course, is the bridge between the old and the new. Another one, which plays itself out continuously during the week — and constantly for the staff at the Folksbiene — is the creative, energizing tension between the general and the particular, the highly specific Yiddish culture that nourishes the Folksbiene and the emotional and artistic connection it provides to people outside as well as inside that culture.

“As we approached our 100th anniversary, we started to think, okay, how do we do it in a way that brings attention to us and to our mission, which is to show that Yiddish culture has a place in today’s mindset, and in the next generation’s?” Mr. Mlotek said.

Mr. Mlotek knows what he is talking about when it comes to generations. He is part of one of the most prominent families in the Yiddish world. His mother, Chana Mlotek, who died at 91 in 2013, was “a seminal force in the collection of thousands of Yiddish songs, thereby inspiring and informing a whole cultural movement,” so soon before she turned 90, Mr. Mlotek and his brother, Michael, came up with the idea of an international festival. They worked with Bryna Wasserman, who ran a Yiddish festival in her native Montreal before she moved to New York to become the Folksbiene’s executive director. That’s why, when the theater’s centennial loomed, the way to celebrate it came naturally to them.

There was a slight change in emphasis, though. “We broadened it,” Mr. Mlotek said. “We don’t call it just Yiddish, so that there is more of a sense of how Yiddish culture has informed Jewish culture. We decided to call it the International Jewish Performing Arts Festival, to broaden its base.

The Yiddish Theater of Israel’s “Kishka Monologues” will be at the Museum of Jewish Heritage on June 15 and 16.
The Yiddish Theater of Israel’s “Kishka Monologues” will be at the Museum of Jewish Heritage on June 15 and 16.

“The first thing that people say when you talk about Yiddish culture is ‘Sorry, I don’t understand Yiddish. Why should I come?’ We are producing more than 100 events. Many of them are in Yiddish, of course, with supertitles, many of them are in other languages that have been informed by Jewish and Yiddish culture — Czech, Hungarian, Polish, Hebrew, Japanese, German, and of course English. More than 24 countries are sending artists (and they obviously are not all Jewish).

And music needs no translation.”

The Folksbiene, on the cusp of a major milestone, also is moving into a new home, its first permanent one for some time. “In honor of our 100th birthday, the Museum of Jewish Heritage” — that’s the way-downtown museum with extraordinary views of New York Harbor and an active schedule of talks and performances to supplement its permanent and temporary exhibits — “has invited us to have a permanent space there,” Mr. Mlotek said.

“That’s a huge big deal for us. We have been wandering Jews for many years.”

Some of the festival’s programs will be at the museum. Others will be at the Jewish Museum, the Skirball Center at Temple Emanuel on Fifth Avenue and the Skirball Center at NYU. There will be concerts at Joe’s Pub at the Public Theater (“which is significant because the theater is the old HIAS building” — the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, which was instrumental in helping immigrants) “and because of its connection to Joe Papp,” the wildly influential producer, director, public theater advocate, and son of Jewish immigrants who never forgot his roots.

The festival will open officially with a Klezmatics concert at the old Winter Garden theater and close with a free Summerstage concert in Central Park featuring famous cantors.

A concert at the JCC in Manhattan will feature a Japanese klezmer clarinetist, Ohkuma Wataru, and his band, Jinta-la-Mvta. Klezmer has been popular in Japan, and Mr. Mlotek, a pianist, has toured there. Mr. Wataru “is a tremendous player, with a fascinating style, a style that I hadn’t heard before,” Mr. Mlotek said. The festival is studded with performers like Mr. Wataru and bands like Jinta-la-Mvta, people whom Mr. Mlotek has met serendipitously and whose talents he has recognized.

“We specifically conceived this festival to appeal to everyone, to have something for every demographic,” he said. “From little kids — we’re doing a klez for kids thing — to outdoor concerts with Josh Dolgin,” a Canadian who mixes hip-hop and klezmer. “We have a young people’s choir, who are singing with a well-known Russian maestro. We have paper cutting for kids; we have a food festival up on Madison Avenue.

“We have a theater company from Romania and one from Australia; we have a one-woman show from a star of the South African stage. We have a new play reading, from a contest we sponsored this year in honor of our anniversary, called ‘When Blood Ran Red.’ It’s about Paul Robeson and his experience going to Russia and singing Yiddish songs. Bryna Wasserman’s theater from Canada will do a new production of ‘The Dybbuk.’ An Israeli company is coming with an interesting theater piece about Jewish food.”

He paused for breath.

“We want excellence; people who have something important to say or something beautiful to say or sing or present. It had to be of top artistic or academic significance. That guided all of our choices.”

The Folksbiene has changed a great deal since its founding, although it has remained true to its mission, Mr. Mlotek said. When it was created in 1915, Yiddish theater flourished, reigning over the southern end of Second Avenue, where the Jews lived. The Folksbiene was not among those companies. “The people who created it were not professional actors,” Mr. Mlotek said. “They were workers. There was a nurse among the leaders, and a haberdasher, and tailors.”

Second Avenue offered them lighter fare, but the Folksbiene was created to keep meatier, more solid fare available as well. So it met two needs — to keep serious Yiddish theater alive, and to provide people who had to work at other jobs all day with an outlet for their creativity and a place to perform.

The all-woman klezmer sextet Isle of Klezbos will be at Joe’s Pub on June 19.
The all-woman klezmer sextet Isle of Klezbos will be at Joe’s Pub on June 19.

The other Yiddish theaters, of course, are long gone, and the Folksbiene now “has become more of a performing-arts center. Our mission is the same,” Mr. Mlotek said, but it necessarily has expanded in scope. “It is to bring the widest scope of Yiddish culture to the public. We will do comedy, light-hearted fare, and more significant philosophical works. There is something for everybody.”

“What we want to accomplish is to show the contribution that Yiddish and Jewish culture had, not only on the city, but on North America, and ultimately on the world,” Bryna Wasserman said.

Also on the future, she added: “I have a really strong faith in the next generation, who really are searching for a connectivity, and for their roots — and what better way than culture — through excellence and diversity — to explore that heritage?

“We are looking forward to the next generation being part of that culture — and that’s what theater does. It gives access to a culture.”

The actor Ron Rifkin will sing Yiddish songs during Kulturfest, accompanied by Mr. Mlotek and joined by friends Joel Gray and Debra Monk.

“I come from a very Orthodox background,” Mr. Rifkin said. “The first time I tasted treif, I was 32. I come from a large family, I was born in Williamsburg, and those are the sounds in my head. That’s the music in my head. I still go to shul — I have always been on a spiritual quest, I always have been searching for something; I keep finding things that are different from my world, and I keep going back to the original.”

So when Mr. Mlotek first ask Mr. Rifkin to sing for a Folksbiene gala a few years ago, “he gave me a present of one of his parents’ books” — like his wife, Chana Mlotek, Yosl Mlotek, who died in 2000, was a Yiddishist and musicologist, and they worked together. “I started exploring it, and I realized that this music was making me crazy.

“These songs are so poetic, so elegant, so filled with longing and humor.

“When you think about where some of these songs were written…” His voice trailed off, and then he began again. “One of these songs, ‘Friling,’ which means ‘Springtime,’ was written in the Vilna Ghetto in the 1940s. The writer’s wife had just died.” (That was Shmerke Kaczerginski and his wife, Barbara.) The song was written in a tango rhythm, because that’s the music that was popular in the ‘40s. Really. A tango. In the ghetto. It was about seeing his beloved at the garden gate and sneaking a kiss. Seeing a green garden when there was no garden. There was nothing green. It is so eloquent and so beautiful, and the music is so romantic.

“It is music of the soul,” he said, and in its specificity it is general; it might appeal particularly to Jews but reaches far beyond us. “It’s music that comes from your kishkes. It comes from history, from longing, from dreaming.”

Zalmen Mlotek, left, Frank London
Zalmen Mlotek, left, Frank London

Frank London, the trumpeter who is a founder of the influential Klezmatics, has known Mr. Mlotek for a long time. He traces his friend’s unusual blend of passion for Yiddishkeit, musical talent, and administrative skills to his parents. “We have to start with Chana and Yosl, people who were so passionately engaged in Yiddishkeit and Yiddish music, and who knew more about it than anyone else, and who published books of songs and preserved it.

“Zalmen is a prodigious pianist, and because he grew up in this world he is entirely immersed in it. It was such a natural thing when he took over as the Folksbiene’s artistic director! Who else would have the knowledge and range of ability? In many ways his whole life embodies this work, and his work embodies his life.”

To be entirely practical, Mr. Mlotek’s status at the top of the Yiddish world makes it easier for him to put together a festival than it would be for anyone else. “Zalmen can write a letter to anyone saying ‘Would you like to come?’ and they say ‘Of course,’” Mr. London said.

He believes firmly in the future of Yiddish culture. “It is in a really interesting point right now,” he said. “Because literacy in the Yiddish language, at least outside the chasidic world, is declining, but the output of Yiddish culture is the highest it’s been in 100 years. I don’t know the statistics, but I think that there have been more recordings of Yiddish music in the last 15 or 20 years than there had been in the 100 years before that. There is so much going on, so much creativity in every art form. It’s in music, which became the biggest driver of the Yiddish — what word to use? Not renaissance, because it never died — Yiddish cultural continuity.

“Yiddish is not a spoken vernacular language almost anywhere outside the chasidic community, but it is a living, thriving culture.”

Why is that? “Because the material is really great. Because the culture has such a particularity so that if you are, as I am, a fourth-generation New York Jew, who grew up entirely in English but you still feel the pull of the beautiful ethnicity, this gorgeous way of seeing the world.”

It’s not only for Jews, though. “The musicians in the Japanese klezmer band obviously are not exploring their own personal roots.” Instead, the pull they feel is the beauty, energy, and wit of the music itself. Generality and specificity. “It’s always that mix,” Mr. London said.

Yiddish is also so vital a strand in New York life that it cannot be teased out, Mr. London added. “When I first moved to New York, I was playing salsa gigs with Puerto Rican and Dominican musicians, and hanging out with them. They were telling jokes with Yiddish punchlines. That’s our New York.

Jinta-la-Mvta, the Japanese klezmer band, will play on June 15.
Jinta-la-Mvta, the Japanese klezmer band, will play on June 15.

“There would be no New York without Chinese food, without pickles, and without Yiddish.”

Bruce Ratner, the real-estate developer and philanthropist, is the president of the Museum of Jewish Heritage. He feels that the museum’s mission is furthered by its affiliation with the Folksbiene. “Yiddish is the language of our everyday speech,” he said. “And Zalmen and Bryna are extraordinary people.

“You don’t get Zalmens every day. They don’t grow on trees. He gets things done, he is energetic, and he has a humility and Yiddishkeit to him that fits right into our heritage and our Jewish values.”

He also believes that Yiddish culture has a future. “There is an interest in Yiddish music and theater and poetry,” he said. “I wouldn’t exactly call it an overwhelming resurgence, but it is a resurgence, and I think that the Kulturfest will make a difference.

“People are beginning to understand that much of Broadway theater derives from Yiddish culture. Particularly in our city, there is a tremendous opportunity to be part of this resurgence.

“I think that we can now say that there will always be Yiddish, and there will always be Yiddish theater and Yiddish culture. That’s the good news.

“And a big piece of that happens to be the Folksbiene.”