April 19, 2024
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April 19, 2024
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Jewish Contributions to the Arts

Jews, currently only 0.2% of the global population, contribute so much to the world. In the arts alone, Jews provide employment to so many. It’s an industry built on a multitude of talents that inspire others to create new ideas, find new ways of representing old ones, or develop new technologies. The arts are big business from which everyone, regardless of religion, race or ethnicity, makes a profit — those who produce the art, as well as all the individuals and companies who support the arts in various ways. Even governments, which often subsidize the arts, receive a great return on their investment in the form of tax revenues as well as civic pride.

What is amazing is the extent to which Jews are the major forces behind artistic contributions to the world. Who knew that “The Book of Mormon” had a Jewish connection? The exuberant musical that plays to standing room-only audiences in New York, London and everywhere it’s produced was co-created by Matt Stone, the son of a Jewish mother, Sheila Lois Belasco. Stone is also the co-creator of the long-running television comedy “South Park.”

Walk down Broadway or (London’s West End) and you’ll find a plethora of musicals that are the work of Jewish writers, composers, producers, directors, musicians or performers. Some of these theatricals are so popular they play for years; some for decades, attracting new audiences as well as repeat visits by people who can’t get enough. One could say they’ve become classics. Nor are they relegated to Broadway. Visiting companies and regional theaters perform them everywhere.

A list of these crowd-pleasing Jewsical musicals currently playing on Broadway includes the aforementioned “Book of Mormon,” “Aladdin,” “Wicked,” “A Beautiful Noise,” “Sweeney Todd,” “SIX,” “Chicago,” “New York, New York,” “Come From Away,” “Little Shop of Horrors” and “Some Like it Hot.” Not all are mere entertainment. “Parade” is based on the racist trial and lynching of Leo Frank. Lerner and Lowe’s “Camelot” (which officially opens April 19 at the Lincoln Center Theater) is a new version of the original. Written by Aaron Sorkin, it tackles contemporary political issues. “Funny Girl,” the play about Fanny Brice that made Barbra Streisand a star almost 60 years ago, is back on Broadway. Lea Michele Sarfati, whose father is of Sephardic background, was born in the Bronx, attended Tenafly High School and is married to Zandy Reich, the grandson of Holocaust survivors. Is “Hamilton” also a Jewsical? Yes, if Alexander Hamilton was Jewish, as some historians believe. And even if he wasn’t, he did attend a yeshiva on the island of Nevis before landing in America and becoming our first Secretary of the Treasury.

Not a lover of musicals? “Leopoldstadt,” Sir Tom Stoppard’s highly lauded and deservedly applauded almost-autobiographical tragedy of a Jewish family’s history beginning in 19th century Vienna, may be your preference. You may also like “The Lehman Trilogy,” which may return to Broadway given the current banking crisis. (Although Lehman Brothers failed, the financial institution didn’t fail to pay all their debts, proving themselves very honorable, as were the Orthodox Jewish immigrants who founded it.)

Prefer concerts? Last week, YIVO hosted a musical evening to celebrate the digitization of Yiddish songs, collected and preserved by composer and lyricist Chana Mlotek, z”l and her husband Joseph, z”l. Their son Zalmen and his children and grandchildren continue the couple’s rich musical legacy. Zalmen serves as the artistic director of the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene, which produced the amazing Yiddish version of “Fiddler on the Roof.”

The Folksbiene continues to bring plays, concerts and lectures to the theater located in the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Battery Park. Early in March they produced a wonderful concert, Schwesters (Sisters) featuring (mostly) Yiddish songs performed by Eleanore Reisa and Cilla Owens. It was organized by Paul Shapiro, a brilliant saxophonist who is a composer, arranger and the creator of Ribs and Brisket, which marries Jewish-based klezmer music with African-American jazz and blues. Owens is a singer and professor at Hunter College. Reisa is the daughter of Holocaust survivors and the author of a recently published book based on her father’s letters.

Reisa also performed at the YIVO concert with a gorgeous, haunting rendition of Frilling (Springtime), composed during the Holocaust by Schemerke Kacerginski.

Mlotek, who conducted the chorus for the American premiere of Pleytem Tzusamen, the song cycle about refugees composed by Josh Waltetzky, was simultaneously working on a new project, a concert about Chiune Sugihara, a righteous rescuer. The Japanese diplomat stationed in Kaunas, Lithuania sabotaged his promising career to save Jewish lives by issuing travel documents to the Dutch owned Curacao.

Among the recipients fleeing the Nazis were the Mir Yeshiva students and faculty. Most refugees landed in Shanghai, where they survived the war. Among them was the Seiden family, who eventually immigrated to the United States. Norbert Seiden, z”l born in Vienna, became a Mir student in Shanghai. He completed his education with a degree in engineering. He married Cecile Holtzmann, z”l a child survivor from Antwerp, who became a master Jewish educator, lecturer, calligrapher and a member of the New Jersey Holocaust Education Commission. The couple had two daughters who gave them many grandchildren. Norbert was largely involved in the building of the Synagogue of the Suburban Torah Center in Livingston, and served as its baalei tefilla.

The special concert to honor the heroic Sugihara will take place at Carnegie Hall on April 19 at 7 p.m..

This vast array of performing arts hardly includes all the Jewishly connected entertainment available throughout Manhattan and the greater metropolitan area this season. Not mentioned are the host of free events at libraries, universities, JCCs and other institutions and historical sites. Paintings and other arts on display in museums and galleries, also often free, are available throughout Manhattan, even on streets and in subways, parks and boardwalks.

By Barbara Wind

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