Yiddish theater gives fans what to kvell over as stars broadcast from home
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Interview'As people reach out to family, we should reach patrons too'

Yiddish theater gives fans what to kvell over as stars broadcast from home

National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene reaches out to sequestered audiences with free online programming, even as they faithfully prepare for the opening of a new show in May

  • Scene from 'The Sorceress,' by New York's The National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene. (courtesy)
    Scene from 'The Sorceress,' by New York's The National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene. (courtesy)
  • Steven Skybell (Tevye), center, and ensemble in National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene's Production of 'Fiddler on the Roof.' (Victor Nechay/ProperPix via JTA)
    Steven Skybell (Tevye), center, and ensemble in National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene's Production of 'Fiddler on the Roof.' (Victor Nechay/ProperPix via JTA)
  • Lexi Rabadi stars in the National Yiddish Theater Folksbiene's one-woman show, 'Hannah Senesh (a play with music and song).' (Victor Nechay/Properpix.com)
    Lexi Rabadi stars in the National Yiddish Theater Folksbiene's one-woman show, 'Hannah Senesh (a play with music and song).' (Victor Nechay/Properpix.com)
  • National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene artistic director Zalmen Mlotek (Courtesy)
    National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene artistic director Zalmen Mlotek (Courtesy)
  • 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)
  • Scene from 'The Sorceress,' on stage through December 29, 2019, at New York's The National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene. (courtesy)
    Scene from 'The Sorceress,' on stage through December 29, 2019, at New York's The National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene. (courtesy)

NEW YORK — This is an announcement of the Emergency Yiddish Broadcasting Network. If you are reading this anywhere on Planet Earth, chances are you are home, maybe even a little bit bored. That dirty, rotten Covid-19 (feh! you shouldn’t know from it!) has closed everything down — even New York’s National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene (NYTF), which hasn’t missed a season since 1915. And the world has seen much tsuris (trouble) in that amount of time.

With that level of historical understanding, the NYTF’s Artistic Director Zalmen Mlotek is pulling every lever he can to keep bringing Yiddish learning and Yiddish entertainment to the audiences that crave it. And considering what a run the company is having, from “Fiddler on the Roof” to “Hannah Senesh” to “The Sorceress,” it’s no time to slow down.

Accordingly, and with great alacrity, the team has put together a programming slate to go out for free via the theater’s Facebook page. Members of the extended company will present shows direct from their own living rooms, offering us a chance to focus on something other than the news for a spell.

Despite the last-minute aspect of this endeavor, Mlotek was kind enough to speak to me via the phone. (No, not in person; we must flatten the curve!) Below is an edited transcript of our conversation.

National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene artistic director Zalmen Mlotek. (Photo by Marc Franklin)

I am so glad this program is happening. Who’s idea was this?

Our social media person, Giacinta Pace, who also functions as house manager. She has direct contact with many of our patrons. And she realized that since we are all reaching out to our elderly family members, we should be reaching out to our elderly patrons. Not that all our patrons are elderly, but a sizable percentage are over 65, myself included. We started making calls to reach out, then we realized we could go a step further.

We contacted our performers to see if they were willing to do short presentations from their homes, to share with the public who are stranded, just like we are. The response has been tremendous.

Let’s talk about the programs.

Tonight [March 17] I’m doing one, a small concert, just me and my piano. Tomorrow [March 18 and 19], my associate artistic director Motl Didner is doing a two-part lecture with illustrations of Yiddish theater past, present and future. After that we have a fun presentation from Ben Liebert [March 20], who played Motl Kamzoyl in our Yiddish “Fiddler on the Roof.” He is an Allan Sherman aficionado, so he’s put something together with a friend of his, Blair Alexis Brown.

Ben Liebert, Steven Skybell, Mary Illes, Rachel Zatcoff, Stephanie Lynne Mason, Rosie Jo Neddy, Raquel Nobile, Samantha Hahn, and Daniel Kahn in the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene’s production of ‘Fiddler on the Roof.’ (Victor Nechay/ ProperPix.com)

Next week we have more programs set: Lynne Mason and Drew Seigla, who played Hodl and Perchik, and who became an actual couple during the two years of “Fiddler,” they will do a program of love duets in Yiddish and English [March 23].

And more we’re still putting together. We’re going to get the entire cast of “Fiddler,” including [director] Joel Grey to do a talk-back and connect with the audience. We had several hundred thousand people see our show, so we thought it would be good to get back in touch.

And these are all happening from people’s homes, yes?

Yes, all over Facebook Live and we’ll set up Zoom events. And, of course, for free. This is a gesture.

I mean, in this precarious climate, we are a non-profit, we are concerned, naturally. We are in pre-production on a big show, for Paddy Chayefsky’s “The Tenth Man,” a big comedy-drama, but we’re going into pre-rehearsals next week over Zoom. Our Yiddish coaching will be done online for now, and hopefully we’ll be able to still open in May. That’s the plan, anyway, we’re hoping it will happen.

Scene from ‘The Sorceress,’ by New York’s The National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene. (courtesy)

Well, it’s important to keep busy on something you love.

Yes. And also something that people want.

The National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene has been around since 1915 and hasn’t missed a season.

Consecutively since 1915, and, of course, has changed and evolved, much as the audience has changed and evolved.

It’s comforting to think it survived the 1918 flu.

Huh, that’s interesting. We’ll have to research that and see if there’s any documentation on how that went.

There, I just gave your librarian a fun assignment.

Right!

You are a renowned scholar of Yiddish literature and culture. Can you give us some words of encouragement based on this heritage?

The concept of moshiach, of messiah, has been a part of Jewish life forever. Even for the non-religious, the concept manifests itself in “better times.” A time when peace would reign and the world would be free of pestilence and hatred. There is a Yiddish song that was written by Shmerke Kaczerginski at the end of the second World War, “Zol Shoyn Kumen Di Geule,” which means let the redemption come. Let this moment come. Let the moment come where we can all breathe again, breathe fully, which now means literally and figuratively. This will be part of my concert tonight.

Folksbiene Live

פורסם על ידי ‏‎Toney Brown‎‏ ב- יום שלישי, 17 במרץ 2020

Okay, more Emergency Yiddish, please. Even non-religious Jews know they can always rely on a sacred phrase in difficult times: Oy vey. But do you have something for us that’s maybe a little stronger?

Oy a brokh is one, for sure. Gevalt also comes to mind.

What does “oy a brokh” mean, exactly? This is a phrase I’ve known longer than my own name, but I don’t think I know what it really means.

Literally, it’s when something happens and gets broken. But it has come to mean “a disaster.” Wait, I happen to have [Uriel] Weinreich[’s Yiddish-English dictionary] in front of me, hold on.

He defines it as a break, a fracture, a crack. A brokh iz mir, woe is me, a disaster.

Most Jewish people have either experienced widespread crisis directly, or have had loved ones who have. Is there something, you think, that we as a community can share to others who have perhaps been lucky not to experience this?

We always hold on to prayer, whether it’s religious prayer or not. The concept of doing acts of kindness, the concept of “what can I do today that will make me feel good, and also make someone else feel good?” People believe that that is what will heal the world.

Also, moments of self-reflection. Whether there is a god in your life or not, the idea to take a moment to care for oneself, and to ask “what kindness can I do for others?” This is something we Jews have in our learning, and certainly it resonates in many other cultures.

Updates to the schedule and live streams are on National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene’s Facebook page.

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