Watching a concert of Yiddish music in Central Park last week was a bit like playing an old-fashioned game of Telephone. My Yiddish-speaking husband would translate a refrain, whisper it to me, and then I’d lean over to try to explain the meaning to the opera singer from Ukraine who happened to be sitting next to me, along with another Ukrainian who understood some of the lyrics, as he spoke German. He’d then pass the sentence along to an American friend.
But mostly we clapped, sang along and enjoyed the gorgeous voices and showmanship of Cantors Avraham Fried, Netanel Hershtik, Yanky Lemmer, Joseph Malovany, Lipa Shmeltzer and the neo-chasidic band Zusha. Each cantor sang solo, but the best parts were when they came on stage together, when the elegant Cantor Malovany, the elder statesman of the group, introduced the singer known as Lipa to conclude his song about “Three Cantors” with some cantorial hiphop. Lipa later belted out “Manhattan, Manhattan, Manhattan” to the tune of the Yiddish stage classic, “Rumania, Rumania, Rumania,” and the very mixed audience cheered.
“Yiddish Soul: A Concert of Cantorial and Chassidic Music” attracted 4,000 people to Central Park’s Summer Stage last Tuesday for what was probably the largest Yiddish gathering ever in the park. This was one of the highlight events of KulturfestNYC, which ended its inaugural weeklong run on Sunday night. Presented by the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene (to mark its centennial) and Museum of Jewish Heritage in collaboration with UJA-Federation of New York, events took place in venues all over the city.
It was New York City’s pop-up World’s Fair of Jewish culture, with musicians and theater troupes from all over the world, an international film festival featuring talkbacks with directors and stars, a symposium for scholars of Yiddish, as well as dance, street performances and walking tours of the Lower East Side in English and Russian. There were more than 120 events, almost 200 performers and some 50,000 viewers.
The closing event at the Museum of Jewish Heritage — the Folksbiene’s new home — featured “Theodore Bikel: In the Shoes of Sholem Aleichem,” a film, as Alan Alda said, “about two Jewish giants.” Bikel was presented with the NYTF’s Lifetime Achievement Award and appeared on stage after the film with Alda, who narrates the film, director John Lollos and Eric Goldman, who curated the film series. Alda and Bikel have been friends for more than 50 years, since they starred together in the 1964 Broadway musical production of “Café Crown,” which was panned by critics and closed after three nights.
“Theo more than any other personality has brought Yiddish songs to millions,” Zalmen Mlotek, artistic director of NYTF, said. Bikel, who is 91 and in a wheelchair, would raise his cane in acknowledgement of the audience’s rousing applause.
The thing about KulturFest was that each event was layered with stories — the stories about the performers, the back stories about the productions and ,of course, the stories behind the people in the different audiences every night. In an interview after her excellent performance at Joe’s Pub at The Public Theater, Polina Shepherd of Great Britain, told of being born in Siberia, growing up in Tatarstan, training in classical music, and then hearing klezmer for the first time in Kazan, the capital of the Russian republic. She joined Russia’s first klezmer band after Perestroika, and now performs on vocals and piano with her clarinetist husband Merlin Shepherd. She belted out “Avinu Malkeinu” from the High Holiday liturgy with soulful phrasing.
“I cannot speak Yiddish but I can speak the Yiddish feeling,” said Miwazow Kogure, who plays percussion and vocals in the Japanese band Jinta-La-Mvta, which also performed at Joe’s Pub. Her friend showed us a dictionary featuring English, Japanese, Yiddish and Yiddish transliteration into English.
NYTF officials say it’s too soon to determine whether this “incredible inaugural event” will be repeated annually. Chris Massimine, executive producer, comments in an email, “This wasn’t about holding onto the past. It was about reveling in the past and throttling toward the future and appreciating how much richer the world is to have diversity, and how our heritage plays vital for who we were, are and will be.”
Leaving Central Park after “Yiddish Soul,” we guided a Satmar woman and her two young sons, dressed alike although one was a year older, both with thick payes, to Central Park West. She loved the concert and is a big fan of Lipa Shmeltzer, although she doesn’t say that too loudly in her Williamsburg community, where he is a controversial figure for his flamboyant musical approach. But she won’t tell her young sons’ teachers where she was. “I tell my sons that we’re all Jews, that some people may do things differently than we do, and they are Jews too and we respect them.”
That was a great takeaway as we continued through the park, where she had never been before. She declined to give me her name, but we went on to talk about books and music and the beauty of Central Park straight through to her subway.