How to have yourself a very Yiddishe Christmas in NY
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How to have yourself a very Yiddishe Christmas in NY

From klezmer classes to dance parties, ’tis the season to revel in Jewish culture

The National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene’s 'Di Goldene Kale' ('The Golden Bride'), a 1923 operetta that’s playing at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York. (Ben Moody/JTA)
The National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene’s 'Di Goldene Kale' ('The Golden Bride'), a 1923 operetta that’s playing at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York. (Ben Moody/JTA)

NEW YORK — This Christmas Eve, lovers of Yiddish culture will be dancing the night away to klezmer music at the Erev X Dance Party, as part of Yiddish New York. The weeklong series of workshops and events is one of a number of Yiddish-related festivities lighting up New York this holiday.

The dance party and other fun activities are a far cry from the tense, solemn way Eastern European Jews marked Nittel Nacht (Yiddish for “Christmas Eve”) a few generations ago, when annual pogroms ravaged Jewish communities. They are also a departure from the more recent American Jewish custom of going out for Chinese food and a movie on Christmas day. But for a diverse group of New York Jews and their friends, it seems that increasingly ‘tis the season to revel in Ashkenazi culture.

In its debut year, Yiddish New York (YNY) has its roots in KlezCamp, a Catskills Yiddish festival in upstate New York that ran for some 30 years during winter break up until last year. With the demise of one tradition, however, the organizers decided to start a similar one — this time in the heart of Manhattan.

“I had been going to KlezCamp since I was a teenager,” said klezmer musician Michael Winograd, one of the YNY organizers. “When I was discussing it ending with [“Yiddish Princess” co-founder and singer] Sarah Gordon, we asked each other, ‘What will we do for Christmas?’”

And a new festival was born.

Yiddish New York festival.

YNY, which runs from December 24-29, features a packed schedule with classes in everything Yiddishkeit: klezmer music, dances such as sher, freylekhs and the hora, singing and acting in Yiddish and intensive Yiddish language courses. In addition, lectures and workshops are offered on everything from the history of American-Yiddish institutions and Ashkenazi food, to an exploration of Hasidic life.

Festive public evening events include a Yiddish cabaret night and a jam session. A special tribute concert celebrating the life of singer and activist Adrienne Cooper will feature such big names in the klezmer world as Frank London, Winograd and Josh Dolgin (aka Socalled).

Canadian rapper and producer Socalled. (photo credit: Courtesy)
Canadian rapper and producer Josh Dolgin, aka Socalled. (Courtesy)

With the move to New York City, Winograd and his fellow organizers hope to interest a new crowd in Yiddish culture. When it comes to Jewish music, he has seen this happen over decades, with interest having grown outside the Jewish community.

Clarinetist and Yiddish New York organizer Michael Winograd (Christoph Giese)
Clarinetist and Yiddish New York organizer Michael Winograd (Christoph Giese)

“In New York, you get a lot of crossover to other scenes. In the 1990s and 2000s, there was a connection with the downtown jazz scene. Now, also, avant-garde musicians dabble in it,” he said.

Yiddish choral singing will be the focus of one YNY workshop offered by Binyumen Schaechter, conductor of the Jewish People’s Philharmonic Chorus (JPPC) and a composer of musical theater and Yiddish music. Schaechter, hopes that the December 27 session will offer participants an entrée into the history and current state of Yiddish choral music, an area to which he has devoted much of his career, having taken the helm at the JPPC in 1995.

With help from members of the JPPC who will sing, workshop attendees will get acquainted with the differing choral arrangements favored by Bundists, communists and socialists alike. They all shared an interest in the choral style, but according to Schaechter, “never went to each other’s concerts.”

Binyumen Schaechter (Courtesy)
Binyumen Schaechter (Courtesy)

Today, the genre has moved even farther afield, with musical arrangements that borrow from the worlds of Broadway show tunes and jazz, among other kinds of music. Schaechter and the JPPC have become well known for their ability to “take old Yiddish warhorses and try to breathe new life into them,” while still staying true to their soul.

This season Schaechter, who is the son of renowned Yiddish linguist Dr. Mordkhe Schaechter, was commissioned to write Yiddish lyrics for the song “Baby It’s Cold Outside,” a Christmas classic by Frank Loesser. It was performed earlier this month alongside such favorites as Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas,” at a “A Goyishe Christmas to You,” an evening dedicated to Christmas songs written by Jews that was produced as part of the New York Festival of Song.

It would seem that a contemporary American spin on Yiddish music has struck a chord with the city. Schaechter says his audiences are growing.

Kneina hora, knock on wood, we can’t complain. We used to get 240 in the audience regularly and now we get 500, 600. There are younger people now, but the older people still come too.”

A scene from the Yiddish operatta 'The Golden Bride' performed at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in lower Manhattan. (Courtesy)
A scene from the Yiddish operatta ‘The Golden Bride’ performed at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in lower Manhattan. (Courtesy)

A packed house is something to which Zalmen Mlotek, artistic director of the National Yiddish Theater Folksbiene (NYTF) can relate. “The Golden Bride,” a musical performed in Yiddish (with English and Russian subtitles) at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Battery Park City in lower Manhattan has been attracting major critical buzz. The show, which started its run on December 2 and will close on January 3, has also drawn unusually large audiences that, he says, “break age restrictions and cross the racial divide.”

The play, directed by NYTF executive director Bryna Wasserman and associate director Motl Didner, tells the story of a poor Russian Jewish young woman in the 1920s who inherits millions and moves to America. She promises to marry any man who can reunite her with her lost mother. Cue the witty humor, flapper dance numbers and poignant romantic music; all of it is enriched by an authentic portrayal of a specific moment in American Jewish history. Although it was originally performed in 1923, and was lost following World War II, the show somehow remains fresh, and seems to speak to current events.

Mlotek says that NYTF chose the play consciously as its first performance in its new partnership with the Museum of Jewish Heritage.

‘The story is one of immigration, an immigrant’s success story’

“The story is one of immigration, an immigrant’s success story,” he said. In the music and story of this particular piece, we are replicating an experience shared by hundreds of thousands of immigrants. It makes a part of American theater history come alive.”

With an overwhelmingly young cast, the show has also been especially attractive to younger audiences, making the crowd truly multi-generational, according to Wasserman.

In an effort to introduce more theater goers to the Yiddish phenomenon, NYTF is now providing free transportation from Columbus Circle to the theater. Daytime performances on Christmas and New Year’s will likely be a major draw.

For those who want to travel a little farther after the show, there is a Yiddish Beginner’s Study Course from December 28 to January 5 at the Yiddish Farm in New Hampton, New York, some 70 miles north of New York City. The farm combines collective farm tasks with intensive study of Yiddish.

No Yiddish knowledge is required to attend the winter session and the goal is to learn from fluent Yiddish-speakers “in the classroom, the kitchen, the farm, the cabin, the dining room, the forest and the library.” Although most students are in their 20s and 30s, the farm hosts students as young as 11 and as old as 83.

So, while Hanukkah is over, and there will be no mistletoe or holly at any of this season’s Yiddish events, participants and audience members can expect to see people of all ages enjoying life together.

As YNY organizer Winograd recalled: “When I was a teen at KlezCamp, I would find myself hanging out on a couch with a guy in his 90s singing Yiddish folk songs. You still see a wide range of ages in today’s audiences. That’s the scene.”

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