In addition to the devastation caused to New York’s infrastructure by Superstorm Sandy–whole neighborhoods being leveled, more fortunate neighborhoods (only) losing power for days or weeks–there were other casualties. Take for example the cultural life of the city. Many of Chelsea’s art galleries were damaged or destroyed, concerts were cancelled, plays halted. Sure, lives weren’t upturned like they were in the Rockaways, but they were disrupted.
The National Yiddish Theater Folksbiene’s play The Golden Land illustrates this point perfectly. With a premiere set for October 28th, the show’s run fell at the most inopportune time. Nine of the shows were cancelled in what was only a limited five week run.
“We did one show in the afternoon on October 28th, and we had to cancel the evening show because the subways were already being turned off. So we lost something like 8 or 9 performances,” Zalmen Mlotek, co-creator of the play (along with Moishe Rosenfeld) and musical director for the current revival, tells The Algemeiner
Fortunately, due to popular demand, the show will relaunch for a short run of 10 shows from December 20th-30th at the Baruch Performing Arts Center.
“We’re hoping we’ll be able to re-energize the community and attract all those people who didn’t see it who wanted to, or meant to see it, and also those people who saw it and want to bring other people,” Mlotek says.
The play, which tells the story of the struggles of newly arrived immigrants in New York, first premiered in 1985. The revival, directed by Bryna Wasserman, has been getting rave reviews, with the Jewish Daily Forward proclaiming it “simply a rapturous musical that will capture your heart and likely your soul” and the New York Times declaring that it “will leave you twirling in the streets.”
“People are on their feet by the end. They’re crying, they’re laughing–it’s an emotional experience. It’s about the Jewish immigrant experience –and the American immigrant experience in general–so I think it’s really piqued people’s interest because it’s such a universal story,” Daniella Rabbani, one the show’s stars, says.
At nearly one hundred years-old Folksbiene is the longest continuously producing Yiddish theater company in the world. It’s also the only professional company in the US that produces a full season from year-to-year. In other words, it’s not only a theater company but a record of Jewish history in the United States.
Zalmen Mlotek puts it rightly when he says: “Yiddish culture has been such an important part of the Jewish experience for the last 1,000 years, and because this was the lingua franca of Eastern European Jewry and it was the lingua franca of the American Jewish immigrant when they first came to this country wherever they settled–whether it was Galveston, Texas or Chicago or New York. Yiddish was the language, and they sang in Yiddish, and they performed in Yiddish. The songs, the language–it gives us, as contemporary Americans, such a window into who we were: who are grandparents were, who are great-grandparents were, what did they experience when they first came to this country and they couldn’t speak a language? What did it mean to have religious freedom, something that they never had before? ”
From an artistic standpoint the language also has relevance. “The authenticity that the language provides really plugs you into a totally different time period and a history that a lot of people don’t know very much about,”Rabbani says.
On Monday December 10th, the National Yiddish Theatre held their annual winter cabaret, in-and-of itself a celebration of the Yiddish language, which gave the actors of The Golden Land a chance to get in front of a crowd again ahead of their second run. The night was hosted by actor Ron Rifkin and featured performances from Elmore James and the cast of the Broadway-bound musical Soul Doctor.
James, the celebrated opera singer whose love of Paul Robeson lead him to Yiddish theater, has been performing with Folksbiene for over a decade. He puts the importance of Yiddish theater succinctly when he says, “You can see its influence all throughout theater today. We don’t call it Yiddish theater– but the Yiddish language, the Yiddish culture, the Jewish people–you can’t beat that.”
The Golden Land premieres (again) on Thursday December 20th. Buy your tickets here.