Mike Burstyn in an off-stage role

Yiddish comedian doubles as president of American Friends of Yedidim, prepares to spend more time in Israel.

MIKE BURSTYN (photo credit: Courtesy)
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Winding up his second season in the Yiddishpiel production of Hershele Ostropolyer, in which he previously starred at the Folksbiene Theater in New York, versatile, multi-lingual actor, singer and dancer Mike Burstyn had a dual purpose in being in Israel at this time.
He is president of the National Board of the American Friends of Yedidim, a position he’s held for the past six years. Yedidim is one of Israel’s leading mentoring organizations for youth at risk, and provides counseling, free extracurricular activities, help with schoolwork and nourishing meals for 3,500-4,000 youngsters a year.
When offered the position, the Los Angeles resident was told he need not actually do anything, “We just want to use your name, because we think we can get more support that way.”
However, Burstyn fell in love with the cause, and as the son of actors frequently on tour, empathized with the rootless feelings of immigrant children.
In his case, his parents were available to respond to his needs and those of his twin sister. Yet many immigrant parents not only undergo economic difficulties, but, weighed down by language and cultural barriers, are even more helpless and bewildered than their youngsters.
Working with community centers, Yedidim provides many a bayit ham (“warm home”) where young people can network with their peers and develop their potential.
More importantly, this project keeps them off the streets where they could fall into crime. Yedidim mentors have been able to persuade youth in trouble that their situations are not hopeless and that there are other options. Several juvenile delinquents have been given a fresh start by Yedidim.
Mentors are mostly university students, often from similar backgrounds, often Yedidim graduates.
They are compensated for their mentoring with Yedidim scholarships enabling them to pursue college or university studies without having to worry about finances.
Sadly, many of Yedidim’s substantial donors have been hard hit by the global economic crisis. There have been severe cutbacks in local government and municipal spending on social welfare projects. Yedidim’s budget is NIS 400 per child per month, and it operates programs in 180 towns and cities across Israel. The Yedidim “warm home” in the direst straits is in Ashdod, where approximately 200 youngsters receive mentoring and cultural enrichment five days a week.
Yedidim has now changed its fundraising strategy, and instead of going after big donations from a few, has decided to aim for small donations from many. In order to do so, the organization has harnessed Burstyn’s talent. Long before Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie wrote “We are the World,” which sold more than 10 million copies worldwide to stave off starvation in Africa, Burstyn was singing a very catchy song for the Israeli heats in the 1981 Eurovision Song Contest. The song, “Sviv Kol HaOlam,” (“All over the world”) came sixth and therefore did not represent Israel in the actual Eurovision contest.
But it remained in Burstyn’s repertoire.
It is a perfect song with which to raise funds. The melody is upbeat and the lyrics easy to remember. So Burstyn taught the song to the youngsters at Beit Yedidim in Ashdod, and then took those with good voices and lots of verve to a recording studio in Tel Aviv where they all sang the song together.
The recording is available on YouTube. If you like it, donate just NIS 10 to the Yedidim fundraising campaign.
Just send an SMS to 6090 with the word “Yedidim” and pledge NIS 10. If you want to give more call 1-800-52- 52-54.
Burstyn has two other Israel projects on his plate. One is a sitcom inspired by the plot of Kuni Lemel, the role for which he is most famous, and the other a one-man show celebrating his 60 years in the world of entertainment, with a pilot scheduled in Holon at the end of the month. He has so much material from all the years he’s been in showbiz that making the selection has been quite a task.
Even though Burstyn will be spending more time in Israel, he’s not sure whether he will be appearing with Yiddishpiel again, though he’s certain that if he’s not on stage, he’ll be in the audience. Burstyn had nothing but praise for both the New York and the Tel Aviv casts of Herschele, but admitted a preference for Israeli audiences, as many more could follow the dialogue without relying on simultaneous translation. He found many more people in Israel with whom he could actually converse in Yiddish.
Burstyn is fluent in English, Hebrew, Yiddish, Dutch, French, Spanish, Portuguese and German and is currently studying Russian.