By: Paulanne Simmons
July 7, 2020: During this extended shutdown, many of us are discovering unexplored talents or learning new skills. If you’ve always wanted to learn another language or forge a closer connection with your own or a different culture, help Is on the way. Throughout the summer, National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene is offering 15-minute Yiddish lessons every Tuesday at 1pm. The lessons can be accessed live and in archived form via Folksbiene’s website or on YouTube.
Motl Didner, who leads the online class, is also Folksbiene’s associate artistic director, so it’s not surprising that the lessons have what he calls an “artistic flair.” Thus, Didner’s lessons take the form of a teacher/student dialogue in which he plays both the teacher and his six students. This comes easily to Didner. Having taught Yiddish at programs sponsored by the Workers Circle and the Museum of Jewish Heritage, he says he has come to “love the students and the questions they ask and the stories they tell.”
Who takes these classes? According to Didner, students range from youngsters in their 20s to seniors in their 80s. The “episodes” attract as many as 375 live views and 2,000 overall views.
And although a good number of these students are Jews looking to create stronger connections to their cultural heritage and identity, even if they are not religious, many students are not Jewish. They come from the United States, South America, Australia and Japan. In fact, in recent years, Japanese interest in Yiddish has been fueled by the popularity of Fiddler on the Roof and the writing of Sholem Aleichem, as well as an underground Klezmer scene.
Folksbiene began its virtual entertainment series, Folksbiene! LIVE, during the first week of the shutdown. In addition to the weekly Yiddish lessons, Folksbiene offers a variety of Wednesday afternoon programs that have included concerts, theatrical pieces and a Yiddish Quiz Show; as well as Thursday afternoon Living Room Concerts by Folksbiene artistic director and conductor Zalmen Mlotek.
Of course, we’re all waiting eagerly for the shutdown to end, but Didner points out that Folksbiene has discovered several benefits to their new programming: “The online programs are putting us in touch with a much broader demographic… we’re also able to engage artists from all over the world.” Even after Folksbiene goes back to live performances, Didner would like to “keep the successes of online programming.”
Certainly, much of that success, both online and off, has cultural, artistic and political significance for contemporary audiences. As Didner notes, remembering the great success of Folksbiene’s 2019 Yiddish revival of Bock, Harnick and Stein’s musical, “How do you see Fiddler without coming away with an empathy for the refugees of today?”