The Yiddish Theater’s Next Big Project
Tonight, at 123 West 43rd Street in Manhattan, there will be a concert benefit for The National Yiddish Theater-Folksbiene Center for Performing Arts, honoring pop icon Neil Sedaka, Yiddish music anthologist and YIVO scholar Chana Mlotek, and pediatric ophthalmologist and Yiddish music patron Dr. H. Jay Wisnicki. Notably, this event will also introduce the unveiling of a new initiative called Kulturfest, a week long international Jewish performing-arts festival to be held in New York in 2015 that will celebrate Yiddish culture through a series of one hundred events including film screenings, concerts, and theatrical performance from Jewish performers and artists all around the world.
Award presenters for tonight’s gala include Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel, Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz, and The National Yiddish Theater-Folksbiene President Mark Mlotek.
In an interview with MSNBC, Mr. Sedaka expressed his support for The National Yiddish Theater as well as maintaining pride in his Jewish roots. “The music is wonderful, the history,” said Mr. Sedaka, explaining why he feels the importance of keeping Yiddish theater music alive. “I think New York City is a melting pot and certainly the Jewish population made a great contribution over the years especially in music…I’m happy to be a part of it and hopefully one day my songs with be as timeless as theirs.”
Originally known as Folksbiene (Yiddish for “The People’s Stage”) until its name change in 2006, The National Yiddish Theater-Folksbiene has consisted of musical and theatrical performances since its inception in 1915. The theater, which currently has no permanent home, showcases stage adaptations from works by prominent Yiddish authors and playwrights including “Shlemiel The First,” a play based on the stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer which took place over this past winter at New York University’s Skirball Center.
Through its outreach programs that include traveling musical troupes, Yiddish culture and music is brought to community centers, synagogues, schools, senior centers, and college campuses around the United States and internationally. The productions are in Yiddish but are translated into English and Russian to accommodate American and Russian-speaking audiences, especially Jews from the Former Soviet Union. Other artistic initiatives that sought to educate a broader audience include concerts such as Soul to Soul, an event at Queens College this past April that sought to bridge connections between African-American soul and Yiddish folk music traditions.
Still, something even greater is yet to come.
Kulturfest will become the first international festival of its kind by hosting a global gathering of Jewish performing artists synergized with an academic symposium on Yiddish culture, in the New York Metropolitan area. , Executive Director Bryna Wasserman, who previously produced Yiddish festivals when she worked in the Segal Centre for the Performing Arts in Montreal, felt that an international Jewish performing arts festival would have a lot to offer for New Yorkers on a dramatically broader scale.
An academic symposium, said Ms. Wasserman, will play a crucial component in the upcoming festival as “scholars and practitioners from Israel to Australia” gather together to discuss Jewish identity in the Kulturfest’s musical, theatrical, and film performances. “I think we all have a lot to learn from each other within this synergy” Wasserman told The Algemeiner about the festival’s international context.
“As we begin the process of celebrating our 100th anniversary, (the Kulturfest) gives us a sense of a new beginning,” explained Zalmen Mlotek, artistic director of the National Yiddish Theater-Folksbiene. “We are looking forward with hope and deep gratitude at all that we can share with diverse audiences from around the world.”
Some are skeptical over whether or not Kulturfest can succeed in spreading a revival of Yiddish culture. “It should provoke a debate: Is this just homage to Yiddish culture?” pondered Jewish novelist Thane Rosenbaum in a New York Times article about the upcoming festival. Mr. Rosenbaum, a moderator for discussion on Jewish culture and society at the 92nd Street Y, calculated that the Kulturfest would become a “pep rally” for the Yiddish language despite the intentions of its organizers to make Yiddish culture relevant.
Mrs. Mlotek, the namesake honoree for the 2015 Kulturfest as well as tonight’s gala, admits that while there is a decreasing number of Yiddish speakers, nevertheless she remains optimistic in The National Yiddish Theater-Folksbiene’s efforts to revive the language through its artistic and creative endeavors.
“It is exhilarating to be honored at the gala… and the Kulturfest is a wonderful idea,” said Mrs. Mlotek.
A Family Affair
The Mlotek family has been involved in their support for The National Yiddish Theater-Folksbiene throughout the generations. In addition to Chana and her sons Zalmen and Mark, Zalmen’s son Avram, 24, is a cantor and rabbinical student in Yeshivat Chovevei Torah who has performed in The National Yiddish Theater-Folksbiene events such as “Ghetto Tango,” a commemoration musical of cabaret songs from the Shoah, and will be performing at tonight’s Neil Sedaka gala concert as well.