NEW YORK – You get a warm glow when you hear it. You say to yourself, “Bubbe’s Yiddish is oh-so yesterday, too bad it’s a dying language.” Well, yes and no.
Reports estimate some 150,000 people in the US and Canada speak Yiddish, yet there are signs that say differently, and productions by New York City’s National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene (NYTF) hint that the language is making a comeback. Other sources, such as the New York-based 120-year-old Workers Circle, reported a 65% spike in enrollment for Yiddish classes this season.
Some might say Yiddish never quite left mainstream culture in the US. Just recently, for example, US Rep. Elissa Slotkin of Michigan was quoted as saying before a congressional body, “Warfare among Democrats would be a shanda,” using a word that is likely not in every politician’s lexicon, but she was understood.
After the runaway success of NYTF’s unorthodox revival of Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish, this anomaly may have inspired a whirlwind of interest in Yiddish classes, theater and culture that is having its moment during, of all things, a pandemic.
What most surprised Zalmen Mlotek, NYTF’s artistic director and music director for Fiddler in Yiddish, was that people stopped looking at the supertitles projected above the stage.
“That told me the story was so iconic on so many levels that the majority of non-Yiddish speakers understood. It transcended the language barrier, and they appreciated hearing Yiddish. And now, some cannot imagine hearing Fiddler in English anymore, they were so taken by Sholem Aleichem’s story.”
About this time, New York and other American cities were reporting a spike in antisemitism, which quite possibly heightened how very vulnerable were Tevye and the denizens of the village of Anatevka, making the production even more endearing. The interest has not waned.
Mlotek, who grew up in the Bronx, knows a good story when he sees one, and he knows how to get that story told and how to keep it alive.
His father was one of the many Jews rescued by Japanese diplomat Chiune Sugihara, and spent time in Kobei, Japan, and then in Shanghai, China. His mother was a musicologist, and together his parents rescued Yiddish songs and published anthologies, some of which became the basis of the Klezmer music revival.
He recalls training as a conductor at Juilliard and Tanglewood under Leonard Bernstein. One day backstage, Mlotek met with Bernstein, who challenged his goals: “What does the world need another Verdi conductor for when you know your own music as well as you do?” That became Mlotek’s ah-ha moment.
Bernstein’s advice led Mlotek to make some definitive decisions. For instance, some have asked him why the NYTF doesn’t produce a Yiddish version of My Fair Lady. His response: “Why do that when we could have Yiddish versions of works like Threepenny Opera, or Yentl, or the Tony-nominated play by Paddy Chayefsky, The Tenth Man that we just produced?
“I became involved with singers and began writing music for some NYTF productions,” Mlotek recalled. The company was facing a critical juncture in 1997 when he and American actress, singer, theater director, playwright, librettist, choreographer and translator Eleanor Reissa proposed a new approach to keeping the company afloat. That approach included new productions and collaborations.
Fiddler’s limited run was extended five times at its home-base theater at MJH until its uptown transfer to Stage 42. At 499 seats (500 seats is the minimum capacity for a theater to be considered “Broadway”), Stage 42 (formerly known as the “Little Schubert”) is one of the largest commercial off-Broadway houses. Even with such audience support, the theater trade publications report that the play did not recoup its initial $2.6 million investment, but it opened the floodgates of enthusiasm in other ways.
Of course, one production does not a revival make. On the heels of Fiddler’s closing, just when it seemed the ideal moment to promote NYTF and more Yiddish productions, the COVID-19 pandemic arrived. Everyone went home and Folksbiene’s theatrical home at the Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust (MJH) closed.
Celebrating its 106th birthday this year, and in for the next century, it seems, the NYTF did not wait for a sign. Its social media maven Gia Pace suggested taking the company to a place it’s never been: virtual space.
WITHIN DAYS of the first lockdown in March, when the MJH shut down, Mlotek lost no time livestreaming performances on Facebook, kicking off “Living Room Concerts” featuring Yiddish songs and music; NYTF launched a weekly lunch with Motl Didner, engaging participants in conversational Yiddish; and the NYTF Radio hosted by Toney Brown was born.
Joel Grey, the actor who directed the Yiddish Fiddler last year, hosted NYTF’s online premiere with a star-studded cast including some of the play’s actors for a talkback show, where they described what they had done since that production.
Actor Adam B. Shapiro, who played Der Rov in Fiddler and has starred in other NYTF productions, was among the first to bring theatergoers into his living room with “Live from Shapiro Hall.” Today, he continues his own series on YouTube, “(Still) Live at Shapiro Hall” with his opera singer roommate, Janice Hall.
Mlotek reached out beyond the traditional parameters of the idea of a “theater” and outside the Yiddish and Jewish communities to form alliances and spectacular multi-cultural productions with African-Americans.
“The idea came to me many years ago as I was active in the civil rights movement in the 1960s, when Elmore James, a Broadway singer came to me to explore the repertoire of Paul Robeson, who also sang in Yiddish. I taught James that repertoire, so we thought why not present a program showing commonalities between our peoples’ experiences?” recalled Mlotek.
That led to “Soul to Soul,” an annual concert that explores the parallels of the African-American and Jewish history, a series that has been performed for the past 12 years at the MJH and has also gone on tour to Los Angeles, Miami and Romania.
“This is the year to do it globally,” Mlotek said, “because tensions have been significant.” Viewers can get a taste of this event at the December 8th Folksbiene Hanukkah Spectacular. The full production will take place on Martin Luther King Day, January 18, 2021, at 2 p.m.
This fall, NYTF teamed up with nine theater companies to present a multi-lingual production of It Can’t Happen Here, based on the Sinclair Lewis classic. The production featured more than 60 actors in an unprecedented collaboration in Yiddish, English, Spanish, Italian, Turkish and Hebrew.
NYTF worked together with Casa Italiana Zerilli-Marimo NYU and the Kairos Italy Theater; New York Classical Theatre; New Heritage Theatre Group; the Pan Asian Repertory Theatre; Playful Substance; Repertorio; and the Turkish American Repertory Theater & Entertainment.
Meanwhile, the New York City Opera has announced plans to produce the world premiere of Ricky Ian Gordon’s The Garden of the Finzi-Continis in a co-production with the NYTF that will feature a libretto by Michael Korie and direction and choreography by Richard Stafford. The plan is to open at Edmond J. Safra Hall, Folksbiene’s theatrical home inside the MJH, in April 2021.
As the NYTF re-purposes itself, more than 5,000 people have already registered for the NYTF’s Folksbiene Hanukkah Spectacular that is in the capable hands of Shapiro, who is producing and directing the fundraiser.
This curtain rises on this free event on December 8 at 7 p.m. After that, the celebration will be available for viewing online for 96 hours.
The Spectacular will feature more than 50 stars from across the globe, from Broadway to the Yiddish stage, with appearances from Australia, Japan, Romania, Israel, Moldova, Canada, the Netherlands, Great Britain and from artists across the US. It will include cameo appearances from Carol Burnett, Billy Crystal, Tovah Feldshuh, Joel Grey, Itzhak Perlman, Dr. Ruth Westheimer, Carol Kane and Barry Manilow, to name a few.
“You cannot spell fundraising without F-U-N, and that’s what the evening is about,” said Shapiro. “We’ve enlisted stars from here at home and across the world, and from renowned and award-winning Folksbiene productions like Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish, The Golden Bride, The Sorceress, Hanna Senesh, and Soul to Soul. Tune in to see a tribute to the golden age of musical theater, hilarious sketch comedy routines, beautiful song, dance and so much more.”
“It’s just so clear that Yiddish continues to be an important unifier for the Jewish community, especially now during the pandemic,” said CEO Ann Toback. “Amidst hardship and isolation, we are all seeking connection and to ground ourselves in meaningful activities.”
For more information, go to nytf.org.