Teaneck—When Zalmen Mlotek and his family planned their annual trip to Israel, no one expected rockets to be flying over Tel Aviv. The trip was about bringing Yiddish music and song to students at The Naomi Prawer Kadar International Yiddish Summer Program at Tel Aviv University (TAU). Zalmen, who has been doing it for several years, was invited once again, as he said, “To open a window into a world that was, to a civilization that no longer exists, with songs that are witness and testimony to those vanished worlds.”
That is also an apt description of the mission of the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene, now in its centennial year. And that’s not a surprise, because Zalmen, a long-time Teanecker, is the theatre’s artistic director, who is passionate about his work and the legacy he carries forward from generation to generation.
The TAU program ran from June 22 to July 17. Think about the incongruity of teaching Yiddish songs about the Jewish experience through the centuries and over continents—from love songs to songs about the ghettos, sweat shops, partisans, Eretz Yisroel, capitalism and socialism, while the skies rain rockets and missiles on you. You could easily imagine Zalmen’s students, who came from all over the world, and in every age group, humming The Partisaner Hymn in their heads as they ran for cover.
Naomi Prawer Kadar, the woman for whom the program is named, said Zalmen, died way too soon. But she and her husband, Avraham Kadar, a pediatrician and immunologist, founded BrainPop. It is an educational website established in 1999 to create animated, curricular content that “engages students, supports educators, and bolsters achievement— whether in traditional, blended, and ‘flipped’ learning settings.” Animated characters help introduce new topics and illustrate complex concepts, while allowing teachers and students to keep a record of learning accomplishments. Now Kadar, who with his late wife, was devoted to preserving Yiddish culture, is doing the same thing for lovers of Yiddish with YiddishPop, and he fully supports the TAU Yiddish program, which is bringing the language back to life in a country where it was once considered the language of victims.
Zalmen’s course teaches his students the opposite of that. Yiddish is the language that was the international lifeline linking Jews to each other across borders around the world. A Jew from Poland or France could speak to each other in Yiddish, even if they didn’t know Polish or French, it was the lingua franca of our people for almost 1,000 years.
“I try to conduct my classes mostly in Yiddish, and my goal is to provide my students with the context of the song, the story behind the song, and the times in which the songs were written…to give them a taste of what those worlds were like through the power of music. Whether we were singing about a tailor in the shtetl or the girls in the sweatshops and shirtwaist factories, we were singing the stories in personal and poignant voices, in words written by witnesses, by dreamers, by thinkers and lovers.”
He muses for a moment. “I wish, le havdil, that we had voices to express lives in music today. If we could make our songs stories of personal testimonies… like the songs about what it was like to see the Statue of Liberty for the first time, and what it was like to come from a shtetl or ghetto to America or to Israel… Combining words with music is very powerful, very engaging, and it pulls on your emotions. The perfect song speaks to your soul—as if you are reading the pages of a diary. The songs create an intense connection to our past.”
And when the rockets came? “When the sirens went off, everyone would look around to see where they could run for shelter. In school they would go to the shelter and come back to class when the all-clear sounded.”
When the sirens sounded while Zalmen and his family were on a field near the children’s museum in Holon, they didn’t know where to run, so they looked for museum and security personnel and followed them. “It’s scary and serious, and yet there is this incredible unspoken spirit in the air. It’s not a game, and you go on with your life. You can hear the Iron Dome working when you hear the explosions, and you run out to look and you see the smoke, and you realize it is truly a miracle… almost like something out of Star Wars.”
Zalmen was also in Poland, where he and Elmore James, an amazing baritone, did “From Rosenfeld to Robeson,” singing songs of social justice and in support of human rights that reflect the similar Jewish and black experiences of oppression. Elmore, a Folksbiene favorite, is an African American who learned Yiddish songs, and Zalmen learned spirituals and gospel music. Together they put together a concert that builds bridges made of music to help us understand each other’s stories, to help us learn to respect each other.
And what did it feel like to finally come home? “The first thing I did was go to the rally in New York, where I was surrounded by 15,000 people who understood what Israel was going through. That, to me, was the greatest comfort.”
Now that the impresario is back, it’s time for him, and the rest of the supporters of the Folksbiene to get to work to make the National Yiddish Theatre-Folksbiene’s 100th anniversary celebration—a week-long Yiddish festival in New York City this coming June—the best Yiddish festival in the world for everyone, from every walk of life, to enjoy.
To learn more about the Folksbiene and the Yiddish festival, visit www.folksbiene.org.
By Jeanette Friedman