It’s like the Summer Olympics of Yiddish, without the competition.
In a week of back-to-back performances, Yiddish will be heard in multi-accented songs, shouts and whispers on stages throughout the city, when the National Yiddish Theater Folksbiene presents KulturfestNYC, an ambitious celebration of its 100th anniversary being billed as a major international Jewish performing arts festival.
Founded in 1915 by a band of immigrant actors on the Lower East Side at a time when there were 14 other Yiddish theater companies in New York, Folksbiene (meaning “People’s Stage,” now known as NYTF) is the oldest professional Yiddish theater in the world and the longest consecutively producing Jewish Arts organization.
Performers from more than 20 countries will participate, including many non-Jewish Yiddish speakers, all sharing cultural treasures. For many of the performers whose work is framed by Yiddish, this will be the first time they will meet each other.
With a festival pass (and a MetroCard), one might see Yiddish plays by international drama troupes at the Abrons Arts Center on the Lower East Side and hear some Japanese klezmer at Joe’s Pub in NoHo or a mandolin orchestra at NYU and perhaps screen a suite of uncommon Yiddish films.
Many events are at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, the festival’s cultural base, and the opening concert is at Brookfield Place (formerly known as the World Financial Center), all with Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty in the background, the very same statue that generations of Yiddish-speaking immigrants glimpsed when they entered the U.S., inspiring their imaginations and hopes about what life in this new world would be like.
“We’re happy to give this gift to the city,” Zalmen Mlotek, artistic director of NYTF, said. One program is intended to attract the Yiddish-speaking chasidic world, “part of our mission to bring Yiddish to the broadest audience.” A free cantorial concert in Central Park is slated to feature cantorial and chasidic music virtuosos Joseph Malovany, Yanky Lemmer, Netanel Hershtik, Avraham Fried and Zusha.
KulturfestNYC, which has a budget of about $1.4 million, will be presented in collaboration with UJA-Federation of New York.
Also as part of its centennial celebration, the Folksbiene sponsored a playwriting contest judged by a panel of Tony-award winning and Broadway producing playwrights, directors and producers. The winner — announced last week — is Ben Gonshor of Montreal for his play, “When Blood Ran Red,” a historical drama about African-American actor and civil rights activist Paul Robeson. The play will be featured at the Festival in a professional staged reading. (See story on page 3.)
“We’re in the business of creating art for a new century, which also happens to be our slogan,” Bryna Wasserman, NYTF’s executive director, said. “That’s where we want to go.”
“The first play the Folksbiene did was a Yiddish translation of Ibsen’s “Enemy of the People.” This is the theater that survived. We have always kept reinventing ourselves.”
Other new initiatives include a youth program, the Folksbiene Performing Arts Academy, with a choir and workshops at schools and summer camps, “creating new artists and new audiences,” and FolksbieneRU, an arts platform for the Russian-speaking Jewish community, with young people exploring their Jewish identity through forming an acting troupe. (Their show, “Knock,” opened last week at the Player’s Theater.)
“We look at the next 100 years as a challenge and an opportunity to grow, to give a whole new generation their rightful inheritance. You can’t move forward without looking at the past,” Wasserman said, “Always with an eye to the future and the needs of the next generation.”
In recent years, the Folksbiene has been using supertitles in English and Russian to provide translations of Yiddish shows. Chris Massimine, NYTF executive producer, said that recent productions have been groundbreaking, “pushing forward continuity and values that are still relevant, making it new to keep it alive,” using multi-level rotating sets, augmented reality, holograms and other technology. “Content is still king,” he added.
On Tuesday, March 31, the NYTF will host a gala at Carnegie Hall, featuring Itzhak Perlman playing “In the Fiddler’s House,” and also Frank London, Andy Statman, Michael Albert and other klezmer musicians — “the leading artists of this genre in the world” — and a children’s choir of 300, honoring Sanford I. Weill and Jordan Roth.
“Perlman’s embracing of this music is a great inspiration to us,” Mlotek said.
Bruce Ratner, executive chairman of Forest City Ratner Companies and chairman of the Museum of Jewish Heritage-A Living Memorial to the Holocaust, the gala’s chair, doesn’t speak Yiddish but is an enthusiast for Yiddish theater and culture and the Yiddishkeit he grew up with. His parents spoke Yiddish, as did their large extended family in Cleveland, along with the many survivors his father helped to resettle, who also became family. They’d all get together every Saturday night and the men would play pinochle as soon as Shabbat was over. “I am a shtetl, Eastern European Jew, from the tip of my tongue to the tip of my toes. My father, who had a heavy accent, talked a lot about what it was like in the Old Country.”
Talk of Yiddish always seems to lead to questions about its future. “There’s something so immensely satisfying about hearing this language. It’s the same as prayer — not every American Jew can speak Hebrew or understand it, but they go to shul and pray, and it fills them with satisfaction,” Lane Silberstein, 27, said. Silberstein, who has a master’s degree in Hebrew and Yiddish literature, is the executive assistant to Wasserman.
“I think Yiddish can fill a lot of needs in American Jewish life, that can’t be filled with politics or religion. I think we need Yiddish and I’m very positive about the future.” Silberstein met his girlfriend through a Yiddish blogging site.
The Yiddish world seems to contract and then expand in new and surprising directions. Just last week, the Tel Aviv Public municipal library got rid of its entire Yiddish collection, opening up their shelves of Yiddish books – which had already been moved to a basement storage room – to whomever would cart them away. Among the takers were students, translators, Yiddish loyalists and a Protestant minister who arrived from Germany with an empty suitcase.
And at the same time, the Yiddish world on the Internet is thriving: There are Yiddish tweets, YouTube videos of Yiddish hiphop, Yiddish blogs and message boards, language clubs and academic sites. Just launching over the summer is “In Geveb,” a multi-faceted English-language journal. Saul Zaritt, a graduate student at the Jewish Theological Seminary who is one of the founding editors, explains that they will feature peer-reviewed Yiddish scholarship and hope to make it accessible to a larger community, and will also cover Yiddish cultural life through blog posts, interviews, traditional journalism and lenticels.
Haryuki Kuroda, 53, a professor of German literature at Matsaymua University, is coming from Japan for KulturfestNYC. In an email, he said that he looks forward to “witnessing that Jewish culture is still living and is enjoyed among many peoples.”
He first encountered Yiddish through jazz clarinetist Don Byron’s CD featuring the music of Mickey Katz. “But the lyrics Mickey Katz wrote were full of words of “Yinglish,” thus a surprising mystery for me as a Germanist,” he wrote. “Then I began with my long and winding road to Jewish music.” He met Mlotek several years ago and arranged for him to visit Japan.
“I am not a Yiddishist or a scholar of Jewish studies in general, but my goal is to quest for a unique trace of Jewish culture, i.e. klezmer music for my case, a music which has long been wandering beyond many boundaries,” he said.
He sees klezmer musicians as messengers or mediators, whether between heaven and earth or, after many Jews immigrated to the U.S., between the new world and the old. “And now,” he writes, the klezmer musicians will “mediate Jews and goyim from all over the world nokh a mol [again] in the coming Kulturfest.”
Kulturfest NYC Highlights
KulturfestNYC, which runs from June 14-22, features concerts, theater, music, dance, film, comedy, cabaret, food and street performances from all over the world, along with panels and lectures. Most events are $18 or $36 and some are free. A full schedule will be available on their website later this month, nytf.org
Here are some highlights:
♦ South African opera singer and performer Aviva Pelham’s one-woman show (in English) — “Santa’s Story,” about her mother’s life — will be accompanied by a quartet of klezmer musicians.
♦ Rafael Goldwaser’s one-man show, “Uncle Arthur,” written by Israeli playwright Dani Horowitz, exploring the challenge of communicating the depths of horror experienced in the Holocaust; it combines French mime, new media, Yiddish folk literature, melodies of Yiddish theater. Goldwaser is founding artistic director of DerLufTeater of Strasbourg, France.
♦ The Ester Rokhl and Ida Kaminska Jewish Theatre of Warsaw presents “Bonjour Monsieur Chagall," a whimsical musical performance based on poetic works and paintings by Marc Chagall.
♦ “Borscht Ball,” a multi-lingual, poly-stylistic festival kickoff party at The Paper Box in Brooklyn is curated by Russian Jewish poet/songwriter/singer musician Pavel Eduardovich Lion.
♦ Prize-winning Israeli actress Lea Koenig presents a one-woman show of stories in Hebrew and Yiddish.
♦ The Opening Day Concert is free and features the Klezmatics and special guests American singer Eleanor Reissa, Vira Lozinsky from Israel, the Argentine duo Lerner & Mogilevsky, and others.
♦ A concert series at Joe’s Pub at the Public Theater features, among others, the American klezmer rock band Golem; the all-women’s American klezmer sextet Isle of Klezbos; Jinta-La-Mvta of Japan, whose bandleader is one of the country’s few klezmer experts, with a distinctive perspective and a mix of indigenous Japanese music, punk and Balkan music; Ger Mandolin Orchestra, an all-star lineup of international musicians resurrecting a quintessential and once ubiquitous Jewish musical form; and Klezmerson of Mexico, who blend gypsy and Mexican influences into its klezmer rhythms.
♦ Eric Goldman, author of “Visions, Images, and Dreams: Yiddish Film, Past and Present,” who is curating the film festival, will be highlighting not the Yiddish classics, but rather more contemporary films that deal with Yiddish life and culture. “I’m trying to mix it up as much as possible,” he said, and will include short films from all over the world, several silent films with live musical accompaniment, new Yiddish films and “other gems people don’t know about.” The festival will also honor Theodor Bikel and present the New York City premiere of “Theodore Bikel: In the Shoes of Sholem Aleichem”