Articles written for AUFBAU by Leonard J. Lehrman

New Yiddish Music On Stage and On CD>BR? A Step from the Past into the Future
AUFBAU 65:1 January 8, 1999 p. 13
936 words
by Leonard Lehrman & Helene Williams

Eleanor Reissa and Zalmen Mlotek are two of the most energetic, gifted, and committed people working in the field of Yiddish music and theatre, so there was great cause for rejoicing when they decided to offer to take over the world's longest continuing Yiddish theater, the Folksbiene (founded in 1915), and their offer was accepted.

When did they decide to make that offer? In November 1997: As part of the Berlin Jewish Festival presided over by Andreas Nachama, that year on the theme of New York, they were, as they told Aileen Jacobson of Newsday: "in Germany presenting Yiddish theater-- yes, there is interest in Yiddish in Germany[!]...." as well as in Montreal, Tel Aviv, and Romania, with all of whom possible exchanges are currently under discussion.

Then the Folksbiene's home at Central Synagogue burned down. While rebuilding is under way, however, the troupe is ensconced at Theatre Four, 424 West 55 Street, sharing quarters with the 20-year-old Women's Project & Productions, which calls itself "the nation's oldest and largest women's theatre in the country."

"Zise Khaloymes" [A Transitional Work]

The new, temporary ambiance is actually a propos for the transitional work chosen to inaugurate the new management: "Zise Khaloymes," a saga of modern American Jewish female identity, to which mothers or daughters can bring each other for free. ("Mention Code SWD233.") There is also a special performance scheduled Sunday evening, January 17 "for Children of Holocaust Survivors," called "2nd Generation evening."

"Zise Khaloymes" literally means "Sweet Dreams," but was intended more figuratively, as writer-director Reissa explained, to mean "Wishful Thinking." And indeed it was wishful thinking to create a starring role from Reissa's own personal experiences, with therapists, boyfriends, agents, plastic surgeons, etc. and then bill veteran Mina Bern to co-star as her mother, along with the main character's somewhat incongruously but fluent Yiddish- speaking African-American friend, played by 28-year-old Raquel Polite (replacing the originally-billed Kudra Owens who got "another engagement").

Perhaps if the multi-talented Reissa had played the role herself (she has had to, so far, in two performances), the play might work better. For while Ibi Kaufman in the main role of Debbie Smith may be in "her 8th season at Folksbiene," she simply does not convey the emotional range from vulnerability to exhilaration that a central part like this calls for.

[Reissa appears to have been caught between two dicta she wisely offered as advice 12 years ago to a burgeoning production of E.G.: A Musical Portrait of Emma Goldman, which later went on to 50 productions in 7 states and 5 countries (Reissa had herself played the role of Emma in Tintypes Off-Broadway): 1. (to the composer/librettist/director/music-director:) "You can't do everything yourself." 2. (to the principal actress:) "The audience has to want to love this character. You have to make her fuckable." In following #1, she has unfortunately allowed #2 to fall by the wayside.]

Blond, long-legged Julia Christina of Salzburg, the only non-Equity member of the cast, seems to be the only one having fun in it, portraying a variety of roles from masseuse to spa receptionist to doctor to realtor. The three talented men in the cast, Keith Howard, Harry Peerce, and I.W. Firestone, each have three roles as well. A new trio of singing klezmorim spiritedly accompanied the special holiday matinee we attended. Weekday performances being something new for the company, Reissa extolled audience members: "You are all pioneers!"

Musically, the production has been directed by Zalmen Mlotek, who also contributed words to the finale and some of the music to the title song. Frank London of the Klezmatics is billed as co-composer, but nearly half of the 18 numbers are folksongs, with others credited to Ben Yomen, Peter Hirshbein, Fishl Kanapoff, David Bergelman, Paul Larnkoff, Hersh Wolonitz, Janet Fleishman, and "the repertoire of Mary Soreana." Should a cast album emerge, it would be good to get some background on all of them.

"Di Goldene Keyt" Ben Yomen and Zalmen Mlotek are represented respectively as composer and arranger/pianist/conductor on "Mir zaynen do tsu zingen," the first CD issued by "The Yiddish Chorale" known as "Di Goldene Keyt (The Golden Chain) Ltd."

Six a cappella pieces have been sensitively arranged by the group's 50-year-old composer-in-residence Mark Zuckerman, who also sings with them (in the back row on the right in the album's photo); two are his original compositions. English translations have been thoughtfully provided for the first 8 numbers, including showpieces by Leyb Yampolski and Vladimir Heifetz in which Mlotek's piano virtuosity shines, and the classic "Mayn rue-platz" by Morris Rosenfeld, which inspired and was incorporated into Howard Zinn's play Emma, which in turn inspired [the aforementioned] E.G.: A Musical Portrait of Emma Goldman.

Tovah Feldshuh reads an English narration by Zuckerman and Mlotek in the CD's major work, the Wolf Younin/Maurice Rauch oratorio, "Fun viglid bis ziglid," with piano accompaniment by Edward Kortis and, unfortunately, no texts provided. Thanks to a grant, 100 copies of this CD are being made available free of charge to libraries, student and public radio stations, and senior care facilities. To get a free copy, send a request on organization letterhead to: Di Goldene Keyt, P.O. Box 578, Roosevelt, NJ 08555. Or E-mail (Personal copies are available at $15.00.)

The album should be an inspiration showing what a devoted group of amateurs can do under well-schooled and -focussed leadership dedicated to maintaining and moving forward with tradition.

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