By: Paulanne Simmons
July 15, 2021: Confined to their homes during the pandemic, many people decided to master a new skill. For some, that skill was speaking Yiddish. In fact, according to Motl Didner, associate artistic director of National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene, thousands of people have watched Folksbiene’s “15-Minute Yiddish” over the past year. This, says Didner, is just part of the “Yiddish Renaissance,” which began in the 1970s and received a huge online boost during the pandemic.
“In past years, if 50,000 people attended Folksbiene events, it would be a great year; now we’re seeing 250,000 views of our online programs,” says Didner. These events include a Chanukah celebration, a Yiddish Women’s Playwrights Festival and several concerts. Didner attributes NYTF’s successes to the wider audiences of online programs. “We’re reaching people outside typical areas, New York, California, Florida. People are watching from Europe, Australia, Argentina, Brazil… pockets of Yiddish speaking communities or Yiddish speaking individuals without a community.”
For Folksbiene, this is cause for celebration. And so, this July the company is presenting A Yiddish Renaissance: A Virtual Concert Celebration, bringing together more than 140 actors, singers and musicians from across the globe, and featuring special greetings from Emanuel (Manny) Azenberg, Judy Blazer, Joel Grey, Barry Manilow, Mandy Patinkin, Itzhak Perlman, and Dr. Ruth Westheimer.
The heart of the celebration, which Didner is producing, will be excerpts from some of the most memorable moments from NYTF’s critically acclaimed and award-winning productions: The Golden Bride, Amerike the Golden Land, On Second Avenue, The Pirates of Penzance (Di Yam Gazlonim) and, of course, NYTF’s big hit, the Yiddish version of Fiddler on the Roof, directed by Joel Grey.
Another highlight will be Alumni of HaZamir: The International Jewish Teen Choir performing Khalutsim Lieder, a medley of songs written in Yiddish and Hebrew telling the story of Zionist pioneers of the early 1900s.
The 2-hour event will also pay tribute to NYTF’s longtime artistic director, Zalmen Mlotek, in celebration of his 70th birthday.
“Zalmen grew up in the Movement,” says Didner. Mlotek attended Jewish summer camp and afterschool programs. Later, he became a teacher and a musical director at these same venues. Much of his 50-year career dedicated to Yiddish music and theatre has been at Folksbiene, where he has developed new productions and introduced young actors and singers to Yiddish theatre. One of his signature accomplishments was the Joel Grey-directed Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish, which ran for six months at the Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust before moving uptown to Stage 42, where it ran for a year.
Folksbiene is planning to return to live productions in January 2022 with The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, a new opera based on Giorgio Bassani’s 1962 novel, which was adapted into Vittorio De Sica’s 1970 award-winning film. Composed by Ricky Ian Gordon, with a libretto by Michael Korie, the opera is co-produced by New York City Opera and will make its premiere at the Museum of Jewish Heritage.
That’s certainly something to look forward to. But in the meantime, don’t miss this virtual celebration of the Yiddish Renaissance.
A Yiddish Renaissance: A Virtual Concert Celebration debuts on Monday, July 26th at 2:00 PM (ET) and is available to view through Friday, July 30th at 2:00 PM (ET). Registration is required at www.nytf.org/renaissance. Donations are not required but suggested to help support National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene’s programming.