“Lies My Father Told Me” is one of the most ambitious productions in the 99-year history of the National Yiddish Theatre-Folksbiene. The musical has a large and extremely talented cast of 17. It features an innovative, Broadway-caliber set (by John C. Dining). And it has a long and storied history, both as an award-winning film and a play with music.
“Lies” is based on the autobiographical works of Ted Allan, a Canadian writer, who grew up in a poor Montreal neighborhood in the 1920s. His doppelgänger here is David Herman, who lives with his grandfather and parents.
Young David (Alex Dreier, definitely a star in the making) is caught between his beloved Tevye-like Zaida (Chuck Karel) and his father, Harry (Jonathan Raviv).
Zaida is a junk man, who takes David with him on his Sunday rounds, regaling him with Jewish stories and wisdom along the way. Harry fancies himself more modern and constantly belittles the older man and his beliefs.
If the inter-generational battle between religion and secular had been the central plot line, it would have been sufficiently involving. But Harry is also mean and delusional, blinded by ambition and always coming up with hair-brained schemes to make money. If that’s not enough, he’s also — at least by contemporary standards — abusive to his wife and son.
“Covers,” a new production by experimental theater troupe the Lost & Found Project for the Russian division of the National Yiddish Theater Folksbiene, attempts to breathe new life into two timeworn themes: young rebellious children and the clash of traditional values in the new world. Premiering May 22 to a packed (and largely Russian-speaking) audience, the show picks up where the troupe’s inaugural production, “Doroga,” left off — young Russian Jewish Americans in present-day Brooklyn, grappling with questions of identity and self-actualization while being smothered by the nagging disapproval of their immigrant parents.
Alex, a once-accomplished investment banker who suffered an emotional breakdown after losing his job, has just moved back in with his overbearing parents who, in proper Russian-Jewish fashion, do not take kindly to his decision to abandon his career and become a musician. His brother Misha, a successful lawyer, also endures their criticism for marrying a non-Jewish woman. Their family drama unfolds while two cousins next door, Sharon and Magda, fight over selling their late grandfather’s apartment.
Immigrant family dramas are by no means new, and though the play’s experimental, minimalist set and instances of breaking the fourth wall add flair to an otherwise tired plot, tropes of the genre are employed without reservation. For instance, the parents’ revulsion to Misha’s new and questionable lifestyle choices — chief among them, a vegetarian diet (clearly the influence of his American wife) — does not even attempt to challenge Russian immigrant stereotypes. In that regard, the roles undermine the message “Covers” strives so hard to convey — that we are all masters of our fate and identity; we choose our “covers” and are not dictated by our past, despite the bearing it has on us.
“The Megile of Itzik Manger” and the National Yiddish Theatre seem like a perfect partnership: love and marriage, horse and carriage, Purim shpiel and the Folksbiene.
Manger is considered one of the most important Yiddish poets and playwrights, and “The Megile” is one of several plays in which he put his own stamp on a biblical story. It was reworked as a musical by, among others, award-winning composer Dov Seltzer, a totem of Israeli creativity.
The play has had several successful productions, including a lengthy run in Israel and a brief one on Broadway. This interpretation, however, could better serve its extremely enthusiastic and talented cast.
In a couple of Russian-style numbers, the dancers wear fur caps, a tip-of-the, well, hat, to the theater’s large émigré audience. But this is hardly true to the show’s Persian locale. And director Motl Didner’s use of a circus theme seems puzzling. Employing a ring master (Shane Baker) as narrator works but, after an opening scene set in a 1937 Polish circus, the theme isn’t carried through in a meaningful way.
When my parents landed in New York in 1947 they were assigned a case worker. I’m not sure who did the assigning, but I remember my father saying how puzzled he was. “Case” was German for cheese, and he didn’t understand why he needed a cheese worker.
My parents didn’t tell many stories about their early lives, about crossing the border from Austria into Switzerland after the Anschluss or how they got to the goldene medina. Perhaps I didn’t ask the right questions.
But that particular anecdote stayed with me, because it was about their life at the precipice. They were starting a new life in a new land with a new language, one briefly filled with optimism and faith that life could and would be better.
Perhaps that is why I am such a fan of the new National Yiddish Theatre-Folksbiene production of “The Golden Land,” a joyous celebration of the turn-of-the-century Jewish immigrant experience.
Tonight, renowned Yiddish music anthologist Chana Gordon Mlotek will be honored at The National Yiddish Theatre-Folksbiene’s annual gala for her life’s work preserving Yiddish folklore.
Mlotek, the author of nine books on Yiddish music, has an encyclopedic knowledge of her subject. Now 90, she grew up in the Bronx immersed in Yiddish culture. In 1944, she began working at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research as assistant to Max Weinreich, one of YIVO’s founders and its director of research. While attending the first-ever Yiddish folklore class at University of California Los Angeles, taught by Weinreich in 1948, she met her future husband, Joseph (Yosl) Mlotek.
The couple married in 1949 and settled in New York, where Yosl Mlotek was the director of education at the Workmen’s Circle. In 1970, Chana and Yosl began writing a bi-weekly column for the Forverts called “Perl fun der Yiddisher Poezie” (Pearls of Yiddish Poetry). Readers would submit snippets of songs they recalled from their youth, and the Mloteks — in detective mode — would identify and write about the songs. Chana returned to YIVO in 1978, becoming its music archivist in 1984, and has been there ever since. She spoke to The Arty Semite about the history and future of Yiddish music.
Renee Ghert-Zand: What inspired you to make Yiddish music your life’s work?
The National Yiddish Theatre-Folksbiene has announced that it will be creating a new, bi-annual international festival of Jewish performing arts, the New York Times reports. “Kulturfest,” which will also be named after Yiddish preservationist and anthologist Chana Mlotek, will begin in 2015, to coincide with the Folksbiene’s 100th anniversary. It will be officially presented at the organization’s upcoming June 12 gala, at which Mlotek will be honored along with Neil Sedaka and H. Jay Wisnicki.
The festival represents one of the Folksbiene’s first major initiatives since appointing Bryna Wasserman as its executive director in June 2011. Previously Wasserman served as the head of the Segal Centre in Montreal, where she spearheaded an International Yiddish Theater Festival in 2009 and 2011. The Folksbiene currently is one of two Yiddish theater companies operating in New York City, along with New Yiddish Rep.
The theater has received $250,000 from the Stanley and Marion Bergman Charitable Fund and the Mlotek Family Foundation to produce the festival. It aims to raise another $2 million for the event, the Times reports. The festival will feature a range of performances and performers including “theatres, musical groups… filmmakers and media artists from around the world whose work creatively explores, either directly or indirectly, the Jewish identity.”
According to a statement by Wasserman, Kulturfest will be “the first international festival of Jewish performing arts in New York City” and will incorporate an academic symposium in addition to performances.
When you Google Elmore James the first hits that pop up refer to a blues singer from the 1940s. That is not the same Elmore James who stars in the National Yiddish Theatre — Folksbiene production of “Soul to Soul.” But Yiddish-singing James, 57, thinks the Southern bluesman would see similarities between what the two men do.
“Soul to Soul,” conceived and directed by Folksbiene artistic director Zalmen Mlotek, showcases Yiddish and African-American music sung by James as well as by Lisa Fishman and Tony Perry. Its next performance is April 4 at Queens College. Tickets are free, though reservations are required.
James grew up in Harlem and attended the prestigious High School of Performing Arts. He talked to The Arty Semite about getting into show business, performing in “Soul to Soul,” and learning to sing in Yiddish.
Curt Schleier: How did you become aware of Jewish music?
Is there room for a klezmer musical on Broadway? I think so. The band for “Shlemiel the First,” led by the Folksbiene National Yiddish Theatre’s Zalmen Mlotek, is so good that during the exit music a sizeable portion of the audience drifted down toward the pit instead of up to the exits. Costumed as an Old Country klezmer band, they even march onstage sometimes, but it’s at intermission and afterward that they really wail. And that is terrific stuff, particularly Dmitri “Zisl” Slepovitch’s clarinet, Yaeko Miranda Elmaleh’s violin and Mlotek’s keyboard. Hoo boy, good.
When the show travels — and it should, if tweaked a bit — the creators should put in more places for the band to strut their stuff. The show by Robert Brustein, with lyrics by Arnold Weinsten and music by Hankus Netsky, is intact from the version we reviewed in Montclair in 2010 (read that review here, and our interview with Brustein and Mlotek, which highlights the Yiddish theater sources, here).
Trish McCall, Dan Bielinski and Marcus Naylor in ‘Under the Cross.’ Photo by Louis Zweibel.
This summer New York remains the center of Yiddish theater. Audiences looking for a lighthearted romp can go see Hershele Ostropolye (in Yiddish) at the Folksbiene. Those looking for a grittier Yiddish theater experience can head to Midtown and see I.D. Berkovitch’s 1924 play “Under the Cross” (“Untern Tseylm”) (in English), running until June 25 at June Havoc Theatre. “Under the Cross” is a production of New Worlds Theatre Project, a small theater company whose mission is to present new English language productions of Yiddish drama.
“Under the Cross” is set in 1923 Belarus, in the midst of the post-Revolution civil war. Berkovitch, like many Yiddish writers, had already left Russia by the time of the civil war, but remained keenly interested in events there. Unlike Dovid Bergelson, Der Nister and others, Berkovitch never returned to the Soviet Union.
The drama of “Under the Cross” centers on paterfamilias Moshke Ferapontov (Charles Roby), his wife, son and daughter-in-law. Moshke is a man in conflict. During a 25-year tour in the Russian army he became a Christian. Now a middle aged man, he’s spent most of his life as a Christian, living with Christians. Even so, his actions betray an inner connection to Jews, a connection that will test his sanity and propel the drama unfolding across the 25 hours of Yom Kippur.
Rachel Rubinstein looks to the future of Yiddish literature in translation.
Jay Michaelson questions the intuitive power of religion.
Jenna Weissman Joselit wonders what Cyrus Adler would have thought of contemporary museum going.
Gordon Haber gets depressed by Yael Hedaya’s “Eden.”
Alexander Gelfand listens to the evolution of Jewish music at the Folksbiene.
In attending “A Gilgl Fun A Nigun” (“The Metamorphosis of a Melody”), which opened its five-performance run at the New York International Fringe Festival on August 14, I was charged with answering a single massive question: Can Yiddish theater appeal to a mainstream audience? As a lifelong theater lover and gentile, I had never been to a Yiddish performance before. So the question was, would I get it?
“A Gilgl Fun A Nigun” tackles the problem of bringing the Yiddish theater tradition into the present by using new media to tell the I.L. Peretz story of a melody that travels through space and time. Creator, performer and director Rafael Goldwaser narrates the tale in Yiddish, while English supertitles and video images project onto a series of prayer shawls behind him, accompanied by the nominal song in its various musical forms.
As the play progresses, the melody transforms in the hands of a fiddle player, roaming from a village wedding all the way up to concert halls and orchestras, then back down to the forlorn wailings of a blind orphan girl, and finally to the ears of a scholar, played on the video projection by Goldwaser.