You know the way a perfect late spring evening feels?
It has that softness that isn’t quite humidity but lets you relax into it. It’s one of the longest days of the year — because one of the paradoxes of summer is that its start marks the day when darkness comes sooner — and you can sit outside for a long time and watch the sun set and the colors change and the stars come out.
If you happen to be at SummerStage in Central Park on June 14 — as in this fantasy you are — you are surrounded by other people, all of you there for a Yiddish-language sing-along led by the Klezmatics and other stars of Yiddish theater and culture, organized by the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene and led by its artistic director, Zalmen Mlotek of Teaneck. (See box.)
The evening’s emotional resonance will be even deeper than it has been in other years because this is the Folksbiene’s return to SummerStage after the three not-in-person pandemic years. This year, there will be none of the forced jollity of people trying to enjoy themselves at home alone, staring at boxes on the screen. This year, everyone will be together.
Mr. Mlotek’s ties to Yiddish concerts in Central Park go back past SummerStage and his work at the Folksbiene. “Historically, the idea of a Yiddish outdoor concert started with my father in 1969,” he said.
To back up, Mr. Mlotek’s parents, Chana and Yosl, were integral to saving Yiddish culture in the United States and allowing it to grow. Chana was YIVO’s ethnomusicologist and folklorist, and Yosl was the Workmen’s Circle (as it was then; since 2020 it’s been the Workers Circle) education director, as well as the Yiddish-Language Forvertz’s managing director. The two of them worked together professionally as well as personally; without them, the Yiddish world would have been impoverished.
“My father organized the first Yiddish outdoor festival in Central Park,” Zalmen Mlotek said. “That was in 1969; 25,000 people came.”
That year, the festival was at the Naumberg Bandshell; later, it moved to Damrosch Park in Lincoln Center. “One of those years, Itzhak Perlman came and surprised the audience,” Mr. Mlotek said. “From that concert, he was inspired to make his klezmer records,” starting with “In the Fiddler’s House,” in 1995.
“More recently, Bruce Ratner, the chairman of the museum” — that’s the way-downtown Museum of Jewish Heritage, where the Folksbiene has its headquarters — “connected us with the SummerStage people, and they were interested in this concert.” For the last few pre-pandemic years, the summer began with a Folksbiene-in-the-park concert; it featured cantorial music and klezmer, among other forms of Yiddish music.
“This year, we thought that it would be a good idea to create a New York communal event,” Mr. Mlotek said. And what’s more communal than a twilight sing-along? (If you’ve ever been to sleepaway camp, you’re already enfolded by nostalgia, right?)
This year, the Workers Circle has inaugurated a new website, yiddishsongs.org, that looks at his parents’ work and makes it available to anyone who is interested in it. “We are going to use the website as a guide to sing some of the most popular and fun Yiddish songs, led by the best artists singing in the Yiddish world today.
“We have assembled an amazing cast,” he said.
That cast — led by the Klezmatics, whose sparkplug, Frank London, the bandleader, trumpeter, composer, and all-around klezmer superstar, is sharing the responsibility for the evening’s musical arrangements with Mr. Mlotek — includes Joanne Borts, Josh “Socalled” Dolgin, Cantor Magda Fishman, Avi Fox Rosen, Sarah Mina Gordon, Daniel Kahn, Elmore James, Lea Kalisch, Daniella Rabbani, Eleanor Reissa, and Lorin Sklamberg. Dudu Fisher will be a special guest; Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, the executive vice president of the New York Board of Rabbis and a NYPD and fire department chaplain, will be the emcee.
Those performers, of course, will perform, but they all will lead the audience as everyone sings together.
Audience members should know that this singalong is not only for people with good voices who went into other fields but still can thrill their friends, family, and local communities after a full day of work. It’s for everyone, Mr. Mlotek said.
There will be many ways for the audience to see the words, he added. “The words — in Yiddish and also transliterated and also translated — will be projected on big screens.” And everyone there will get a link with a QR code, so they can get the lyrics on their phones too. “You can use either one,” Mr. Mlotek said. So as the sky darkens, the lawn will sparkle with hundreds and hundreds of phones.
“There also will be some surprises,” he added.
For the first time, the Folksbiene is running two programs within a week; the SummerStage, which is free and open to the public, and the Summer Soirée, a major fundraiser at Chelsea Piers. There’s information about that evening, which will feature other stars, as well as excerpts from Folksbiene productions, on the company’s website, nytf.org.
When he thinks about the songs that the audience will hear — and sing — in Central Park, “I know that what’s attractive to me about them is not just the melodies,” Mr. Mlotek said. “It’s also the texts. Those songs’ words are mirrors of Jewish life. They tell stories about what Jewish life was like.
“For me, SummerStage won’t be just the experience of a sing-along. It’s a chance to experience that culture from the inside.”
Who: The National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene
What: Presents SummerStage
When: On Thursday, June 14, at 7:30. The doors open at 6; admission continues until the space is filled.
Where: In Central Park; enter at East 72nd Street and Fifth Avenue
How much: It’s free