The 100-year-old National Yiddishe Theatre-Folksbiene has roots going deep into the 19th century—reaching back across the Atlantic from the Yiddish theaters of Eastern Europe to New York’s Lower East Side. In Europe, actors traipsed from country to country, from city to shtetl, to tell their stories. In America, they sent their troupes from sea to shining sea to teach Jewish immigrants about their new country, and to remind them of the Alte Heim (life in the old country). Whole generations who came to America from Europe were looking for ways to assimilate into American culture and created the Yiddish theater as its entry into American culture. Through thick and thin, the shows went on, the mission never abandoned. Today the mission is to bring that same knowledge and history to generations who will be enriched and blessed with that joyous legacy of Yiddishkeit in Yiddish culture.
In 1998, Zalmen Mlotek, the artistic director of the National Yiddish Theatre-Folksbiene (NYTF) and his then-colleague, Eleanor Reissa—a Tony-nominated director in her own right—took a dying Jewish institution, revived it, and, with loving care, and lots of tough love as well, set it back on its feet.
They and their supporters, a feisty bunch, were accused of chasing rainbows. At the time, things looked bleak. Money, space, marketing, audiences…it was time for an upgrade and these two upstart “youngsters” took the old bulls by the horns and set to work looking for the pot of gold on the other side…a pot of gold that could bring Yiddish culture to people who didn’t know what they were missing.
They were told by skeptics that Yiddish was in critical condition, with one foot in the grave and the other on a banana peel and good luck with those rainbows. See you at the funeral. Now, 17 years later, they can help those same daring leaders celebrate NYFT’s 100th birthday at Carnegie Hall.
It was not so simple. Since its inception on the Lower East Side in 1915, The Folksbiene was Branch 555 of The Workmen’s Circle, and could only be supported through their funding. The revolution took place when Zalmen and Eleanor, with their board’s approval, approached the powers that were and asked to be allowed to declare independence so they could raise funds from other sources. The intent was to invest them fully in bringing Folksbiene productions to a wider world. Independence was granted, and a new chapter in Folksbiene history opened—with all the requisite drama that accompanies facing a daunting challenge.
“When we started years ago, we never would have been able to do anything on this scale. There was no mailing list, no computer, no sense of the interest in the cultural value of what we had to offer Jews in the broader community and non-Jews in the cultural world,” Mlotek remembers.
It is not hyperbole to say that the Drama Desk Award-winning Folksbiene is part of the American entertainment legacy. In her heart is the 1,000-year-old language that held the Jewish people together wherever they were in the Diaspora. Its sensibility has been injected into America’s sense of humor and song for the last 100+ years.
Among its alumni, supporters and guests were Americans who infused their own talents with the spirit of Yiddish theater. A partial list includes Paul Muni, Joel Grey, Jack Benny, Danny Kaye, Zero Mostel, Mel Brooks, Sammy Kahn, Carl Reiner, Sid Caeser, Buddy Hackett and Mr. Television himself, Milton Berle. From the comedians who invented standup, like Eddie Cantor and Georgie Jessel, to character actors like Fyvush, that culture can be traced right to Molly Goldberg, Seinfeld, and all the way to Saturday Night Live and The Daily Show.
“With that kind of sense of history and dedication to this art form, we came to the board and said, ‘Let’s just do it,’” Mlotek said.
There have been more revolutions since, including the introduction of supertitles in English and Russian, growth in audience size into the tens of thousands and many more performances and projects, outreach to day schools and yeshivas, like SAR in Riverdale, that welcome the troupe with open arms, and vibrant plans for the future.
Said Mlotek, “The rainbows are pretty vibrant and we see them with fresh eyes. Yiddish culture and Yiddish music were living organisms at our house when I was growing up. These songs were the stuff of our lives they were the spices and the salt that seasoned our simchas (festivals and family gatherings).
“I was exposed to Ben Bonus and Mina Bern, Sidor Belarsky, Seymour Rexsite, and other amazing talents. The Claire Barrys and Molly Picons would call and ask me to accompany them because I had a contemporary style with the traditional background.
“And I realized that my contemporaries didn’t bother to familiarize themselves with this overwhelming talent unless it was presented in a contemporary way. That meant improving production values to Broadway and other professional theater levels. I realized that everything in my life had conspired to put me in a certain place at a certain time.”
How did they do it? They changed the way folks thought about The Folksbiene.
“A dozen Yiddish theaters on Second Avenue brought us actors that are still working today, like Fyvush Finkel, who won an Emmy for Picket Fences and claimed he got a new lease on life in his 70s—and now he’s almost as old as our theater, and still gets up to perform. There are young people today experience the particular joy of expressing themselves in a picturesque language that has no peer.” NYFT stars like Elmore James and Shane Baker are perfect examples of what he means.
Zalmen says people tell him they can feel Yiddish music and culture literally in their bones, and they respond completely with hearts and heads. “You know what it’s like. You can feel it in your kishkes.”
Getting it into kids’ kishkes meant developing a fabulously fun program called Kids and Yiddish which offered an alternative to “holiday attractions” in NYC. Parents brought children to the theater because of their own tenuous connections to Yiddish, which they loved but could not speak, and wanted to instill enthusiasm for Yiddishkeit in their children.
Today, the Folksbiene Performing Arts Academy is under development and will offer programs which are both fun and meaningful to students. It will offer a training program for young singers and actors culminating in Performances by Young People with a series of In-School Programs and Performances for Young Audiences to provide first experiences with Jewish performing arts. At the end of three years, participants will be prepared to be leaders among their peers in driving and promoting new Jewish cultural endeavors.
NYTF presentations and outreach programs are tri-lingual (Yiddish with English and Russian supertitles) and attract tens of thousands of people a year—school children in all grades; Holocaust survivors in catchment areas who revel in their mother tongue, and people from every walk of life who enjoy the great singers and fabulous actors in their musicals and dramatic main stage performances.
Mlotek and his family—his brother, his parents, his children—have always devoted themselves to the Yiddish tradition. The theater is what resonates in every cell of their bodies. From the time he was a child, he played piano; his mother (Chana) was a noted musicologist at the Yiddish Institute (YIVO at the Center of Jewish History). His father was a writer and educator at the Workmen’s Circle, and then later an editor at The Forward, who collected bits and pieces of the past through Yiddish songs on audiotape, and his parents published at least four books of Yiddish folksongs, art songs, historical songs, lullabies, lieder and show tunes.
Zalmen lives in Teaneck with his wife, Debby Cohen Mlotek, and his children. They are Modern Orthodox and involved in the local community as well as the world of Yiddish culture. The theater is their way of reaching out, of unifying diverse Jews with the same language and music that bound Jews together for centuries regardless of ideology or level of observance. “I come from a strong Bundist home where Yiddishkeit was in every pore of my parents’ bodies, but there was also a lack of connection to Eybishter. My father, the Bundist, came from a very religious family. My grandfather was a melamed of Jewish and secular studies.
“Debby comes from a religious Zionist family, and I realized that secular Yiddishkeit, as valuable as it is, has always been informed by Yiddishkeit, the religion, and that Yiddish without Yiddishkeit doesn’t work. It needs the connection to our Torah values and Hashem.”
As our conversation winds down, Zalmen restates the mission of NYTF: “We want to teach our children about our Yiddish legacy, our art and culture, and to present performances that will entice audiences of all denominations, all facets of society, to come back for more. We are a window to the world, and a mirror of our own culture.”
By Jeanette Friedman