[lg policy] NY: Festival Plans to Connect Jewish Arts in Many Languages

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Mon Jun 11 18:39:53 UTC 2012

Festival Plans to Connect Jewish Arts
Gerry Goodstein

Published: June 10, 2012

For almost 100 years the National Yiddish Theater-Folksbiene in New
York has churned out productions in the old language of Eastern and
Central European Jews, nursing and expanding a cultural connection.
Theater officials are now stretching their horizons with plans for an
ambitious international Jewish arts festival in New York in 2015,
featuring performances and workshops in many languages exploring
Jewish identity.

The plans for Kulturfest: The First Chana Mlotek International
Festival of Jewish Performing Arts will be announced Tuesday at a gala
concert honoring Neil Sedaka and others at Town Hall in Manhattan. A
weeklong festival with 100 events including concerts, film screenings
and theater is envisioned by Bryna Wasserman, the executive director
of Folksbiene, and Zalmen Mlotek, its artistic director.

The big ambitions do not come cheap. Folksbiene, with a staff of about
10 full-time employees and a budget of about $1.5 million, has
received $250,000 from two donors for the festival but has a $2
million fund-raising goal. And it faces a big question: In an era in
which Jewish artists and Jewish festivals in many disciplines abound,
what will Kulturfest add?

“It should provoke a debate: Is this just homage to Yiddish culture?”
said Thane Rosenbaum, a Jewish novelist who has written widely about
Jewish culture. “Is this really about world Jewish culture? Is there
is a distinctly Jewish art today, and what is its connection to

Mr. Rosenbaum, who moderates an annual series of discussions on Jewish
culture and politics at the 92nd Street Y, predicted that Folksbiene’s
“interest in memorializing Yiddish culture and making it relevant”
will turn the festival into a “pep rally” for the more than
1,000-year-old language. Yiddish, a Germanic-based language, has
contributed terms like “oy vey,” and “bagel” to the English vernacular
and is still taught.

“It is still a dying language,” Mr. Rosenbaum said, noting that
Yiddish has few speakers outside Hasidic enclaves. “Are there original
plays being written in Yiddish?”

In recent years Folksbiene has confronted that issue by expanding its
mission from preservation to a focus on original work that renews
Yiddish culture, Mr. Mlotek said. An example is a 2011 production with
Theater for a New Audience of “Shlemiel the First,” by Robert
Brustein, a klezmer musical in English adapted from Isaac Bashevis
Singer’s stories.

“When I took over 15 years ago, I realized it was more important for
the culture to be the focus as opposed to the theater, so we added
concerts, we added children’s shows, we created English and Russian
supertitles for all of our shows,” Mr. Mlotek said.

Kulturfest, he said, will have several tasks: reinterpreting the
legacy of Yiddish theater, literature, music, film and art; exploring
how Yiddish has migrated into other cultures and art forms; and
figuring out how Yiddish and Jewish culture influences new work. In
her role as executive director and artistic director at the Segal
Center for Performing Arts in Montreal, Ms. Wasserman organized
international Yiddish theater festivals in 2009 and 2011. She called
them rehearsals for Kulturfest.

The 2015 event is timed to commemorate the 100th anniversary of
Folksbiene (Yiddish for “people’s theater”), the longest continuously
running Yiddish theater in the world. Kulturfest’s official title, the
First Chana Mlotek International Festival of Jewish Performing Arts,
is a tribute to the music archivist at the YIVO Institute for Jewish
Research, who happens to be Mr. Mlotek’s mother. The seed money for
the festival comes from the Stanley and Marion Bergman Family
Charitable Fund and the Mlotek Family Foundation, headed by Mr.
Mlotek’s brother, Mark (who is also the board president of

Folksbiene officials hope that Kulturfest also shines a light on
Folksbiene. The theater does not have a permanent home; it is the last
survivor of a dozen Yiddish theaters that flourished in New York in
the early 20th century.

Once a semiprofessional company serving immigrants, in 1998 Folksbiene
acquired a professional staff and performers. By 2006 it had changed
its name to the National Yiddish Theater-Folksbiene and offered
literature and music and staged free performances at colleges.

Shane Baker, executive director of the Congress for Jewish Culture,
founded to promote Yiddish culture, argued that Kulturfest is
groundbreaking because it is interdisciplinary and international, both
scholarly and artistic, and has the Yiddish component.

“To bring together all the arts is a wonderful and brilliant idea,”
Mr. Baker said. “There has to be a dialogue. I imagine one of the
things they’ll be looking at is what is Jewish culture. I’m a gentile
fluent in Yiddish, and I play in Yiddish theater.”

Theodore Bikel, an actor and singer known for his thousands of
performances of Tevya in “Fiddler on the Roof,” said the festival will
be a worthy undertaking if participants come away with a desire to
learn Yiddish.

“That question comes up: Is someone a Jewish artist or a Jew who
happens to create music or books?” Mr. Bikel said. Yiddish is
paramount to the Jewish experience because “it has never attempted to
shed its Jewish identity,” he said. Even Hebrew, he said, is not
always particularly Jewish.

Ms. Wasserman said the only mandate for participating artists is that
they explore Jewish identity.

“We’ll speak many languages, and there will be an openness to the
Sephardic community,” she said. Yiddish is the language of Ashkenazi

Still, Mr. Mlotek wants Yiddish to take a leading festival role.
“We’re encouraging young artists to use the Yiddish culture and
reinterpret it for the widest possible audience. Use a song, a
character, a poem,” he said, “or a moment in Jewish history.”


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