Suddenly, computer screens are the new stages
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Coronavirus 2020

Suddenly, computer screens are the new stages

With museums and concert halls dark, the livestream is a culture lifeline; economic impact uncertain

The pandemic has shifted audiences from the seats of a theater to the couch of a living room.
The pandemic has shifted audiences from the seats of a theater to the couch of a living room.

Just about all of New York City’s Jewish arts and cultural institutions are dark this week. Museums are closed, theaters and concert halls are shut, the busy lecture circuit of authors and other speakers is silenced. The financial toll, likely to be heavy, is yet to be determined.

For the time being, until the city’s cultural lights are turned on again, computer screens are the new stages. There are live concerts being streamed from concert halls with empty seats and others from living rooms, as well as a variety of classes, talkbacks with performers, and readings and conversations with authors. As days of quarantine go on, more events are being made available.

Last Saturday night, pianist Garrick Ohlsson performed a program of Beethoven, Chopin, and Prokofiev on the 92Y stage as planned, with 65,000 people around the world watching and listening via live stream. The Y plans other free classical concerts without live audiences including pianist Jonathan Biss (March 26). In addition, they will stream previous 92Y events like talks with Larry David and poetry readings with Isabel Allende, along with Shabbat offerings, at no cost.

Ongoing lecture series are also available online, including a series on world politics by foreign affairs scholar Ralph Buultjens, and art classes including virtual figure drawing (for a fee) (92y.org/about/live-updates).

“It’s been inspiring to see how many organizations — from museums to Broadway — have begun to go online,” said Gady Levy, executive director of the Temple Emanu-El Streicker Center. “We too are in the midst of ramping up online opportunities to help people relieve the stress of staying home.”

He said that Streicker has had to postpone or cancel events until the second week of May. It will be offering free daily online classes with Streicker faculty members and visiting instructors including Rabbi David Wolpe, and they have put their annual biblical “trials” from the last five years online (emanuelnyc.org/streickercenter). Levy is hopeful that their sold-out May 21 Koolulam singalong event, in partnership with UJA-Federation, “will serve as an amazing back-to-normal event.”

“Clearly there are some financial implications,” he said, about the cancellations, “but all of the booked speakers were flexible and accommodating. We are all in this together.”

Over the last week, the National Yiddish Theater-Folksbiene (NYTF) has been checking in on its older patrons through phone calls. For its homebound audience of all ages, they are presenting “Folksbiene LIVE! An Online Celebration of Yiddish Culture” — a series of free concerts in Yiddish as well as English, workshops, lectures, performances, a talk with the cast of the award-winning Yiddish “Fiddler on the Roof” and other events (facebook.com/folksbiene).

Artistic director Zalmen Mlotek, who will lead off the series with a concert live streamed from his living room, said, “This is a diversion for viewers and a community-building effort.”

“The Folksbiene has produced performances in every season since 1915,” said Motl Didner, associate artistic director, who will present illustrated talks on Yiddish theater. “We have inspired and lifted spirits through many ups and downs.”

Eleanor Reissa, who is directing the NYTF’s newest show, set to open on May 21 — Paddy Chayefsky’s “The Tenth Man,” in an original translation into Yiddish that she did with Harvey Varga, “Der Tsenter” — said that the show is set to go on. Most of the cast is in place, as is the design team. They plan to begin rehearsals on April 20. Until then, some actors will have Yiddish coaching sessions.

About whether the Folksbiene will face any financial setbacks due to Covid-19, Mlotek said that it’s too early to tell. Its upcoming gala is planned for June, with Steven Skybell, the acclaimed Tevye in the recent Yiddish production, performing a program of Yiddish and American songs.

“We depend on the public and on foundations,” Mlotek said. “We haven’t had to cancel anything imminent. But of course, if we have to cancel a show, that would have serious implications for us. Hopefully not.”

92Y will livestream lectures and art classes.

Learning online

Rabbi Misha Shulman made the decision to postpone his debut one-man show, “Pharaoh,” about 10 days before it was slated to open at the Theater For A New City. The new (tentative) dates are in November 2020. While it’s a hardship for his small arts organization, Shulman said it’s not a massive loss, and the organization will launch a fund-raising campaign to cover the doubling of expenses. But, he said, the ones who are the hardest hit are his musicians and stage manager, all full-time artists who are paid by the gig. He will pay them what he can for blocking out the time, but everything they had scheduled, in addition to his show, has been canceled. 

In an innovative initiative, Shulman is starting Corona University, sponsored by the School for Creative Judaism that he heads. It will offer online courses in poetry, writing, painting, Talmud, meditation, and other subjects. The courses are geared to adults, including the parents of his students at the School, or anyone else who is interested. The nominal fees and donations will be paid to the teachers (for further information contact schoolforcreativejudaism@gmail.com).

For the first time, Limmud North America is planning a one-day eFestival, in the usual Limmud format of offering many classes simultaneously.

“Every person has a place at this table,” David Singer, the organization’s executive director said, noting that Limmud has experimented previously with digital learning, but never at this scale. In recent days, it has had to cancel five Limmud festivals in the U.S. and Canada. Its online sessions will be interactive, and presenters include author and activist Abby Stein and Rabbi Leon Morris, president of the Pardes Institute for Jewish Studies. Registration is $18 (limmudna.org).

Like the rest of the museums in New York City, The Jewish Museum is closed to the public for at least two weeks. Anne Scher, director of communications, said that the Museum “was closed for 9/11 and for major snowstorms that shut down mass transit, but from the 1980s to now, a Jewish Museum closure of such duration is unprecedented.”

The museum plans to open its new exhibition, “We Fight to Build a Free World: An Exhibition by Jonathan Horowitz” — which was scheduled to open this week — a few days after the museum itself reopens.

The Jewish Museum Shop, usually busy at this time of year before the Passover holiday, is also shut, although web orders are shipping on a limited schedule, with expedited shipping available.

At the Center for Jewish History, the building is closed and all events are canceled though April 1. Bernard Michael, the newly named president of the institution, which houses several Jewish organizations, said that many of their past programs, featuring authors, academics, and musicians, are available online, and the organizations are now expanding their offerings through social media (cjh.org). YIVO (yivo.org) and some of the other partner institutions offer online exhibitions and classes.

Michael explained that while the income from the canceled programs is lost, the center is primarily funded not by ticket sales but by donors and grants.

“We don’t want to lose sight of keeping the institution financially stable and have been sending out grant applications in these last days,” Michael said.

The Jewish Book Council has had to postpone the National Jewish Book Awards (JBC) ceremony and fund-raising dinner, along with other events, and the venues around the country have had to cancel book events that it hosts. The council is working on alternate plans for its annual JBC Network Conference, scheduled for later this spring, where authors present their new works to the organizers of JBC readings and programs nationally. Last year, 272 authors presented.

“The work we do is to ensure that our readers are reading books and talking about books and ideas. The physical space is ideal, but the digital space is just as fertile,” Naomi Firestone-Teeter, executive director, said. “We are trying to be optimistic and forward thinking.”

The book council now has a virtual book club on Facebook, and is exploring other digital venues to bring the reading community together. Firestone-Teeter concurs that authors whose books are coming out right now are the ones hardest hit, with their tours being canceled. Online, she has seen generous authors helping other authors to get the word out about their books and organize online book clubs and virtual conversations. Several authors are leading sessions about writing and ideas, and the JBC is keeping a running list of events, “Jewish Literary Conversations in Quarantine: Live Coverage,” on its website (jewishbookcouncil.org).

Sandee Brawarsky is culture editor for The New York Jewish Week, NJJN’s sister publication.

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