Yiddish theater steps into the spotlight
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Yiddish theater steps into the spotlight

When supporters of The National Yiddish Theater come together for the group’s annual benefit gala on Wednesday, June 13, at Town Hall in Manhattan, they will have more to celebrate than the evening’s featured entertainment, "Laugh: Doctor’s Orders!," billed as "a celebration of American Jewish humor."

Last month, the theater, a.k.a. the Folksbiene, won a Special ‘007 Drama Desk Award "for preserving the cultural legacy of Yiddish-speaking theater in America for 9’ consecutive seasons." Eta Wrobel and Jack Wimmer, both longtime residents of Fort Lee, will be honored at the gala for their contributions to this historic institution.

The Drama Desk presentation on Sunday, May ‘0, at Lincoln Center was a proud moment for Teaneck resident Zalman Mlotek. Since 1998, Mlotek has presided over the longest surviving Yiddish theater in New York City, just one of four professional Yiddish companies remaining in the world today. (The other three are in Montreal, Tel Aviv, and Warsaw.)

This was not the first time that the Folksbiene, under Mlotek’s leadership, has come to the attention of the mainstream drama community. For the past two consecutive years, its main stage productions — last season’s musical revue "On Second Avenue" and the current season’s "Di Yam Gazlonim," an adaptation of Gilbert & Sullivan’s "Pirates of Penzance" — have been Drama Desk nominees, in contention with the best of Broadway and Off-Broadway. Reviews in The New York Times and Backstage have been glowing.

All of which, Mlotek asserted, confirms the Folksbiene’s having come of age. "This is an acknowledgement of the role of Yiddish culture in the United States, as part of the immigrant community," he stated.

Moreover, as a dynamic performing art, Mlotek maintained, Yiddish theater has come to be seen as "an important part of the contemporary Jewish experience and a necessary component of Jewish life today."

Since Mlotek took over, attendance — which had dwindled since its heyday in the first quarter of the last century — has increased by 60 percent. The tripling of group ticket sales undoubtedly contributed to the boost, as has new, year-round programming that has succeeded in reaching beyond the Folksbiene’s traditional constituency of Yiddish-speakers.

For the first time this year, the all-professional company — the Folksbiene, Yiddish for "People’s Stage," began in 1915 as an amateur troupe — performed two shows on its main stage. "A Yiddish Vaudeville" starred the comic Bruce Adler, and "Di Yam Gazlonim" returned for a limited spring engagement

Mlotek noted that the addition of English and Russian supertitles, visible on a small screen above the stage — similar to the electronic translations into English that now appear on seat backs at the Metropolitan Opera — made the material accessible to non-Yiddish-speaking and even non-Jewish theatergoers, a ground-breaking development both for Yiddish theater and American culture. "There’s a huge Russian audience now here in the United States with personal or family connections to Yiddish," he observed.

The calendar of events features workshops and staged readings; "Kids and Yiddish," a bilingual musical theater experience by and for children; and the "Folksbiene Troupe," or Di Trupe, a traveling company of ‘0- and 30-something performers that does outreach to synagogues, Jewish community centers, and colleges and universities along the east coast.

First brought in to compose music for the annual show, Mlotek quickly perceived the theater’s potential to reach young people interested in connecting to their Jewish roots.

"I realized that here was an organization with a unique mission in New York and America," said Mlotek. "I felt that the board needed to expand and reflect a new generation, no longer about nostalgia, but rather about having an amazing cultural treasure that needs to be preserved, promoted [and built upon]."

True to his goals, Mlotek spearheaded the redefining of the Folksbiene mission to include the development of new works to supplement the legacy of classics.

The Julliard-trained conductor knew he had found his home in Yiddish musical theater when his mentor from the Tanglewood Institute, the maestro Leonard Bernstein, remarked, "Who needs another conductor of Verdi? You’re one-of-a-kind who can bring this kind of music to a wider audience."

Bernstein was referring to the potent brew of Mlotek’s background in music and Yiddish. Mlotek grew up playing the piano in a Bronx home where Yiddish was the lingua franca. His late father, a survivor who emigrated from Warsaw via Shanghai, was a writer and editor at the Yiddish Forward. His Brooklyn-born mother, one of the world’s foremost musicologists of Yiddish music, for years worked as an archivist at YIVO, the Yiddish Institute at the Center for Jewish History. Mlotek’s education included afternoon instruction at the Arbeiter Ring Shule of the Workman’s Circle and Yiddish summer camp.

Mlotek would like to see the Folksbienne establish a home of its own — it is currently based in the JCC of Manhattan, the latest of its temporary addresses since it vacated its residence in the Forward building in the 1970s — a goal he believes is in reach.

For complete information about and to order tickets to the Gala Benefit, call (‘1’) ’13-‘1’0.

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