Common Chords: Black Soul, Jewish Soul


On a Midtown stage next week, the week of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, two African-American singers will sing a medley of traditional slavery-inspired blues and jazz songs. Within a few minutes they will be joined by an Israeli-born performer, the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors — and the trio will sing together in English and Yiddish.

The interracial, inter-linguistic concert, “Soul to Soul,” will be presented by Folksbiene–the National Yiddish Theatre, and it will mark the latest step in the troupe’s recasting of itself to reach a younger audience that is less steeped than previous generations in the Yiddish language.

The concert, created by Folksbiene’s longtime artistic director, Zalmen Mlotek, in association with The Workmen’s Circle, features opera singer Elmore James, actor Tony Perry, singer-trumpeter Magda Fishman and a four-piece klezmer-jazz band led by Mlotek. In the 90-minute program are plaintive Yiddish melodies and evocative blues tunes, reflecting themes of persecution and deliverance, sadness and optimism.

Which is the purpose of staging such a cross-cultural show, says Mlotek, who is working with Bryna Wasserman, Folksbiene’s new executive director, to revitalize the performing company with an eye on a wider audience that did not grow up speaking Yiddish.

“We’re trying to reinvent our mission. We haven’t abandoned Yiddish at all,” he says of the innovative trans-Yiddish and trans-Yiddishkeit concert. “Soul in Soul” shows that Jewish culture and African-American culture share an artistic vision in their separate historic experiences, visions that the program’s performers mutually respect.

The program, in fact, grew out of Perry and James’ previous participation in Folksbiene’s productions and their interest in learning Yiddish.

James, who has sung in several Broadway productions and on opera stages around the world, decided to perform in the Mamaloshen because of an affinity for the work of Paul Robeson, the late black singer and social activist whose repertoire frequently included Yiddish songs. James found in Yiddish a familiar “longing, yearning quality I identified with. There’s an expression of ‘soul.’”

A Judaica store worker in Manhattan steered him to Theodore Bikel, who suggested he contact Mlotek.

A friendship and creative collaboration was born. In his earlier work with Folksbiene, James was a novelty, “the black guy who sings in Yiddish.”

Now, as it has for Perry, a veteran of performing in Yiddish, the novelty has worn off.

In “Soul to Soul,” he says, he’s a Yiddish singer who happens to be black, who has “created a bond” with Jewish audiences, especially with European-born, Holocaust survivors in past shows.

Fishman, a native of Tel Aviv, says she came to appreciate the African-American musical idiom while studying music at the Manhattan School of Music and at New York University a few decades ago. It was her first exposure to the blues-and-jazz strain of American music. “I just loved it.”

Something about its tone sounded familiar, says Fishman, who studied at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America here, served as cantor at Manhattan’s Congregation Beit Simchat Torah and now works at Temple Beth Am in Los Angeles.

She has picked some of her gospel knowledge from Joshua Nelson, the pioneer in so-called Jewish gospel.

In “Soul to Soul” she sings solo Jewish and jazz-influenced numbers in English, Yiddish and Hebrew, sings with Perry and James, and belts out some melodies on the trumpet.

The three have contributed suggestions to the show’s repertoire and musical style, Mlotek says. Their first meeting two years ago at the Folksbiene office “ignited them,” he says. “They just fell in love with each other.”

Since September, the Folksbiene has presented a scaled-down version of the show at a few local venues and in Montreal. Now expanded, it will be presented several times between now and April — to mark Passover and the anniversary of Rev. King’s assassination — as part of a series of educational programs that will emphasize the commonalities of Jewish and black history, Mlotek says.

Future inter-racial collaborations with the Chinese, Japanese and Hispanic communities are under consideration, he says.

Mlotek says audiences so far — composed of Jews who hold little “nostalgia” for Yiddish, and blacks — have applauded Folksbiene’s border-crossing effort.

The present show ends in a “spirited medley” of the three singers. “In Yiddish and English, together,” Mlotek says.

“Soul to Soul” appears on Jan. 18 at 7 p.m., Metropolitan Room, 34 W. 22nd St. For more information go to or call (212) 213-2120.