Celebrating Yiddish and the Folksbiene

Celebrating Yiddish and the Folksbiene

Also, happy birthday Zalmen Mlotek. It’s all online

Zalmen Mlotek at a recording session for the Folksbiene’s Yiddish “Fiddler on the Roof.” (Photo by James Gavin.)
Zalmen Mlotek at a recording session for the Folksbiene’s Yiddish “Fiddler on the Roof.” (Photo by James Gavin.)

Sometimes you just want to try to do something different.

Yeah, your family’s very deeply involved in a specialized, emotionally gripping, evocative, intense, and rewarding world. Like, say, the world of Yiddish — language, text, culture, music, traditions, all of it.

You know it and you love it and on a very deep level you get it, but you really want to try something else.

Maybe your own version of rumspringa, when Amish teenagers can go out on their own, live like everyone else for a year or two, and then decide whether or not to return to the community.

That’s sort of like what Zalmen Mlotek of Teaneck, the influential Yiddishist, artistic director of the National Yiddish Theatre: Folksbiene, the living wellspring of the Yiddish revival that’s enriching and invigorating the culture he loves — and who, not so incidentally, just turned 70 — did in when he was in his 20s.

That’s perhaps not so unusual. And it’s also not so unusual to have something or someone bring us back to our senses, to our roots, to our deepest loves.

But most of us don’t have that role performed by Leonard Bernstein.

The Folksbiene will celebrate both Mr. Mlotek’s birthday and the Yiddish renaissance that he helped midwife; we’ll look at that, but first, there’s the story about Zalmen and Mr. Bernstein.

Mr. Mlotek grew up in the Bronx, in the Yiddish-speaking world, the son of Joseph and Eleanor Chana Mlotek, both renowned Yiddishists, musicians, and generally influential in the Jewish world. Zalmen was thoroughly at home in that world. He was also a birthright musician, musical to his core. “I’d worked since I was 16,” he said. “As a singing teaching in Yiddish school and as a music director in Yiddish camps.”

Zalmen Mlotek and one of his early mentors, Leonard Bernstein, in a young conductors workshop in Tanglewood in 1977. (Courtesy of Zalmen Mlotek)

But then he went to college, studied music, and “Leonard Bernstein was an early mentor,” he said.

“I studied with Bernstein in the summer of 1977, in Tanglewood,” he continued. “It was a young conductors’ workshop; there were 25 or so of us, from around the world. We were picked to be in this class.

“After one performance — he’d been conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra — I went backstage, and he asked me, ‘What are you doing next year? What’s your plan?’ I had been at the New England Conservatory, and I said, ‘Next year, I’m going to Juilliard, for its young conductors’ project.’ ” (Although there is no need to point this out, because our readers already know, it is a major coup for a young musician to be accepted by Juilliard. It’s a very big deal.)

“And he says to me, ‘Why? Why does the world need another Traviata conductor? But you know your own music, and you can do your music better than anybody.’

“I tell this story now, but it took me many thousands of hours of therapy for me — I was born in a Yiddish home, with two icons of the Yiddish cultural world, and as a teenager and a young person I really felt the responsibility to continue that work.

“But at the same time, I really wanted to be a classical music conductor. I love opera. I love theater. I already had been working in the Yiddish cultural world for years. So it took me a lot of soul-searching to accept his words, to tell myself that ‘You don’t have to feel bad about this. You don’t have to feel like it’s a step down from a dream.’

“But life happens. I had new opportunities. I was guest-conducting orchestra at the time, but I knew that the energy it would have taken for me to focus on being a conductor of opera or of classical music would have led to what I was afraid would have been the complete abandonment of the music that was closest to my heart.”

So instead of abandoning it, he immersed himself in it completely. “And I met my wife, Debra, who was a stage manager at a Folksbiene production, and we have three beautiful children and beautiful grandchildren, and I don’t look back and wonder about the roads not taken.

“Instead, I look at this path as bashert for me. My father and mother never said to me, ‘This is what I want you to do.’ My mother knew that I had aspirations to conduct — and it just so happened that my creativity became focused on the world of Yiddish.”

Zalmen with his parents, Eleanor Chana and Joseph Mlotek (Courtesy of Zalmen Mlotek)

Okay. So there’s Zalmen, instructed by his formidable mentor to follow the deepest callings of his life. That led him, about 20 years ago — and after accomplishing a great deal already — to the Folksbiene. “I was working as a musical director,” he said. “I’d already had the experience of producing and writing ‘The Golden Land’ and ‘On Second Avenue’ with my cousin, Moishe Rosenfeld, so when I was asked to do music for the Folksbiene, looking at the audience and at how the theater presented itself, I said to the board that this isn’t going to work.” But the board recognized Mr. Mlotek’s talent, and his charisma — and no, this isn’t at all how he put it — so it hired him.

A struggle between the old guard and the younger board members — between the people who’d gotten the Folksbiene to where it was then and the ones who appreciated the past but could see, through their younger eyes, further into the future — ended with Mr. Mlotek’s vision as the company’s guide.

The Folksbiene had been doing well. It moved to a permanent home at the Museum of Jewish Heritage — A Living Legacy to the Holocaust, with its glorious lobby offering a close-up view of the Statue of Liberty. Its most famous achievement, the Yiddish-language Fiddler on Roof, sold out at the museum, landed on Broadway, and was about to go on tour around the world. Other productions and concerts drew full houses of enthusiastic audiences.

The Yiddish renaissance was in full flower.

“it’s amazing, what’s going on today,” Mr. Mlotek said. “With ‘Unorthodox’ and ‘Shtisel,’ with the popularity of Duolingo and Yiddish classes and Yiddish festival all over the world, that drew new artists performing in Yiddish and new audiences to see them, not to mention of course Yiddish Fiddler, which was going to go to China, and to Australia…”

And then covid happened, and the world shut down, and then figured out how to keep going.

The Folksbiene offered small weekly performances and a few big ones. Its big yearly productions — “Soul to Soul” and the one outside in Central Park, the ones that raise awareness of social issues or raise funds for the company — had to be rethought.

“So we thought, let’s celebrate this moment in history, and my birthday, in a new way.”

The Folksbiene has created a video, called “Yiddish Renaissance,” that “has close to 140 performers from around the world,” Mr. Mlotek said. He doesn’t want to give away too much of what’s in it, but he will say that “we are doing ‘Tradition’ from ‘Fiddler,’ with 30 people in the cast and another 25 people in the orchestra, all recording using several devices in their homes.

Zalmen Mlotek and his cat.

“Everyone is in their own space, following a guide track of me conducting the music that they are hearing in one ear, and they’re watching me conduct, and they are videoing themselves and recording themselves, sometimes twice — sometimes audio first, sometimes video first — and sometimes doing both at the same time.

“And then it goes to a music editor, who puts together the sounds so it all synchs up.

“Because we all have been stuck at home watching videos, it our mandate that we make the most interesting and creative piece of video that anyone can imagine. We engaged close to 10 special video editors and directors; each video editor was paired with a director for a particular segment.”

Because the performers with whom he works are inherently creative, some of them have had the talent — and of course the interest — to pivot from performing to creating videos. “Of course they are dying to be onstage again, because they are actors, but they have been able to take this form and develop it to what I think is top-drawer video entertainment, and I think that it is remarkable,” Mr. Mlotek said.

“They’re very good at it, and they have been able to turn it into another avenue for creativity, and also for income. And we’ve learned this year that virtual programming is here to stay. As we conceive the new season that is coming up, we know that virtual programming will be a part of it.” It’s wonderful to have live audiences, but “our Chanukah spectacular reached more than 35,000 households around the world.” It’s hard to top that.

“The program for the first time will include a virtual orchestra,” he continued. “We’ve never done that before. It begins with an overture that I composed in collaboration with Frank London,” the klezmer and world-music trumpet player. “It takes highlights of musical themes that mean a lot to me. It also will include interviews with leading practitioners of Yiddish culture throughout the years, and short documentary-style interviews about the Yiddish renaissance and how people participate in it.

“That’s very important to me. When the idea of doing something about my birthday was presented to me I said okay, but I wanted to put it in the context of the bigger picture, which is what the Folksbiene contributed to the Yiddish renaissance.

“This language was almost decimated in the Holocaust, and now it has such a powerful impact not only on people who understand Yiddish, but also on people who don’t. Look at the success of ‘Fiddler.’ More than 80 percent of the audience didn’t understand Yiddish, yet they came out crying and moved by it in the same way that Yiddish speakers did.”

Steven Skybell played Tevye in the Yiddish “Fiddler.”

“I knew about Zalmen years before that ‘Fiddler,’” he said. “I had studied Yiddish; my brother and I started to teach it to each other.

Steven Skybell (Photo by Allison Michael Orenstein)

“We grew up in Lubbock, Texas. Tech Tech is there, so it was a little bit of a cultural oasis, right there in the panhandle of Texas; there are about 100,000 people there, and about 100 Jewish families.”

Originally, the Skybell brothers — Joseph Skibell, who teaches creative writing at Emory, is a novelist who “has written some great Jewish-themed books,” Mr. Skybell said — tried to learn Hebrew. “We dipped into biblical Hebrew, but ultimately we settled on Yiddish,” he said. “Just because. Just because of the tradition. My grandfather was born in Poland, and he also lived in Lubbock.” So the brothers grew up in the great tradition of knowing Yiddish as the language that kept secrets from them.

“So I was an actor, doing ‘Wicked’ in Chicago, and I had down time, so I contacted Northwestern and asked about Yiddish classes.” The university, in Evanston, did offer a Yiddish class, but not enough people registered for it. “So my professor offered me private lessons on her home. She was Khane-Faygl Turtletaub, and she was actually a bit of a legend.” She died in 2021, but “she was able to see ‘Fiddler.’

“So I got some experience in Yiddish, going to her home and having one-on-one tutoring for the entire summer, but I still wouldn’t consider myself a fluent Yiddish speaker. But when I heard that there was going to be a Yiddish ‘Fiddler,’ although I don’t usually pursue roles, I did pursue this one.

“They told me that they were maybe considering someone else, I told them that I had worked with Joel Grey before” — the famous actor, who first made his name, decades ago in “Cabaret,” and more recently, like Mr. Skybell, was in “Wicked,” directed the Folksbiene’s “Fiddler” — “and I also said that I speak Yiddish. Which was not really 100 percent true, but I wanted them to know that I absolutely was up for the Yiddish challenge.”

Getting the role felt “100 percent bashert,” he said. “I was so excited. I did say to myself ‘Just my luck.’ I played Tevye when I was 17, at Interlocken,” the performing arts camp in Michigan, “and then again at 21, when I was at Yale, and I was Lazar Wolf in the recent Broadway revival, but I did think that this performance was a curiosity.

“But then it really caught the public’s imagination, and everyone responded to this classical musical in Yiddish, which felt like its authentic language.

“It was like lighting in a bottle. All those elements came together, including Joel Grey, who had seen it in its out-of-town tryout in the ’60s and had been thinking about it ever since. He had such specific ideas about what this musical was, which were not always the way other people think about this musical.

“And working with Zalmen was incredible, because the feeling he got from the pit was so authentically klezmer. The musicians were able to do this music in a way that I had never heard in any other production. As artistic director, Zalmen gave so many little touches, because he is an Orthodox Jew, so he just knew them. He knew that here, at the end, when I say goodbye to my children at the end, I should say a bracha. He just knew that.

Debra and Zalmen Mlotek relax with their grandchildren, Ravi, Hillel, and Shabtai. (Courtesy of Zalman Mlotek)

“His contribution was well beyond the music, and in that regard I think him for all that he allowed us to do.”

Mr. Skybell’s connection to Mr. Mlotek did not end with “Fiddler.” “We did have plans for a tour, which were postponed by covid, and people also were starting to ask me, before covid, if I would do an evening of Yiddish song. But I would only consider doing it if Zalmen would come with me.

“So right before the pandemic hit, Zalmen and I were meeting once a week in his office at the Folksbiene, and he was slowly introducing me to a wealth of Yiddish song. And then, after the pandemic ended, we did it once a week, on Zoom, for the entire year and a half. Now I have been going to Teaneck to continue the work.

“We used the pandemic constructively. I now have 80 songs rehearsed and ready to go. I sing these songs every day. I am getting them in my kishkas.”

Did becoming Tevye in his original language change Mr. Skybell’s life? “As a performer I am so enamored of Yiddish and the Yiddish language and Yiddish songs and the Yiddish theater,” he said. “Now that I have dipped my toes in it with Zalmen, it feels like I have come home. It feels so personal to me, as opposed to a Broadway musical, which is a little more removed. I love the feeling.”

He thinks that there is something in the sound of Yiddish that moves people, Mr. Skybell said. “We had many a non-Jewish audience member who was emotionally overwrought by our performances. People have said that in Yiddish, the funny bits were funnier and the sad bits were sadder. There’s something about Yiddish that lands in a way that English doesn’t.

“I do think that part of our success was that we were dealing with such a well-oiled musical piece. I know that it has good bones. But I also know that the Yiddish went deeper and higher and funnier. There is something in the language itself. It’s a smattering of Hebrew and German and Hungarian and Russian, but it is more. It is of the earth and of the spirit at once. It points to God as well as to what it’s like to get your potatoes out of the ground.”

Zalmen embodies that range, Mr. Skybell said. “Khane-Faygl Turtletaub didn’t have enough students. But now there’s a Yiddish renaissance. Isaac Bashevis Singer said that people have been predicting the death of Yiddish for 100 years, but it feels like right now, in this moment, Yiddish is enjoying a flowering that it didn’t 15 years ago. And I do feel that by Zalmen devoting his life to Yiddish culture and Yiddish theater, he has played an important part in that.

“Not that it would have died, God forbid, he really nurtured it to the blossoming that it is enjoying now.

“He is my hero.”

Zalmen Mlotek works with noted Broadway and Hollywood arranger and conductor Larry Blank on the revised orchestrations for the Folksbiene’s ‘Fiddler.’ (Photo by James Gavin)

Rabbi Avram Mlotek, the director of spiritual life at the Bais movement, is Zalmen Mlotek’s oldest child. “You have over 140 artists, musicians, and actors, young and old, people who have been singing Yiddish their entire lives and people my father has taught Yiddish, are coming together,” he said. “The footage will blow people away.

“They have hired a team of all-star editors to make this happen,” he added.

“My brother, Elisha, is a film editor. He is editing a couple of moments, including a 30-piece orchestra for the overture. He also has been working on a song that my zayde used to sing on the mandolin, ‘Oh come quiet evening.’ My dad had recorded my grandfather singing it. I don’t want to give too much away, but my brother is blending the voices of generations.

“And my sister, Sarah, is going to blow you away.” She’ll sing in some parts of the production, including some moments with other family members, he said., including his daughter, Ravi.

One way to appreciate the Yiddish renaissance is realize how “Yiddish culture has been alive and thriving and dynamic during the pandemic,” Rabbi Mlotek said. That’s true of the arts in general, he added; “you see the ingenuity of artists during the pandemic, in making do with what they have at their disposal at home. That’s true b’gadol — at large — in this historical moment.

“This production is a real tribute to my father’s work,” he continued. “The people you will see on screen are some of the leading lights in the klezmer revival; people my father has worked with and inspired and taught. You are seeing the breadth and vastness of his body of work, and of his impact.

“But my father’s work is not so much a revival, because that means that something has died. Yiddish has been alive and thriving. To me, renaissance implies a proliferation of talent. You are going to see that from the people who are involved and the numbers they perform.”

Overall, Rabbi Mlotek said, “Aside from celebrating my father’s career and work, this is also an opportunity for people who might not have out touchpoints into Jewish life to check out another entryway.

“It shows so many ways of tapping into the Jewish story.”

Who: National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene

What: Marks Zalmen Mlotek’s 70th birthday and the flowering of the Yiddish culture he champions.

How: With the online celebration “A Yiddish Renaissance”

When: It begins its run on July 26 and will be up for only four days — that’s 96 hours

How much: It’s free, but a donation always is both useful and welcome

To learn more: Go to www.nytf.org.

And also: You have to register. To do so, go to www.nytf.org/renaissance

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