After 90 years of wending its way from its beginnings on New York City’s Lower East Side on Second Avenue through its “vagabond” years at assorted theaters and auditoriums, the Folksbiene Yiddish Theatre took center stage at Carnegie Hall on June 16 at A Benefit for the Future of Yiddish Theatre in America, co-chaired by Joseph and Elisa Stein, and hosted by Jeffrey Wiesenfeld. Some 2,500 fans — young and old, and many only recently introduced to its magic — delighted in an evening of talent in the service of Yiddishkeit and its future.
Female klezmer ensemble Mikveh launched the concert. The group’s virtuoso instrumentalist and vocalist, Susan Watts (a fourth-generation klezmer performer), coaxed her trumpet into replicating a shofar. Cantors Rebecca Garfein and Jack Mendelson, vocalist Adrienne Cooper, clarinetist extraordinaire David Krakauer, and the New Yiddish Chorale, which was led by Zalmen Mlotek, offered a musical rainbow of Yiddishkeit.
Honorees Eli Wallach and Anne Jackson reminisced about their stint as Jacob and Sarah Adler in the Joseph Papp production “Cafe Crown.” Apropos, Jackson recalled Ellen Adler’s 37th birthday when someone asked her mother, Stella Adler, how old she was. “Stella replied, ‘I’m 38.’ ‘How is that possible?’ she was asked. Stella explained, ‘She leads her life. I lead mine.’” Cindy Adams introduced honoree Barry Slotnick as “a fervent Jew, a compassionate American… an international lawyer… who feels strongly about the Yiddish theater.” With her signature edge, Adams added, “It’s the first time I can talk to Barry and it isn’t costing me $800 an hour.” Recalling his grandparents’ arrival at Ellis Island, Slotnick noted, “Yiddish was their first language.”
In his speech, honoree Fred Zeidman, chairman of the United States Holocaust Memorial Council, said: “Yiddish is so much more than a language.… At the [Holocaust] museum, we experienced a bit of that [richness] in November 2003 when we hosted a… tribute to survivors. Yiddish found expression… in an evening with the Folksbiene… We sang in Yiddish. We danced in Yiddish.” Zeidman, who grew up in Wharton, Texas, a town with 20 Jewish families and one synagogue had fond memories: “What we had in Wharton is [what is] celebrated on the stage of the Folksbiene Yiddish Theatre: the richness of tradition and memory.”
The evening’s feature attraction was Mandy Patinkin. The theatrical pyrotechnics of his iconic one-man bravura performance, “Mamaloshen” (which, as a nit-picking Yiddishist, I would have preferred to see transliterated as “Mameloshn”), thrilled the audience. Patinkin’s versions of such Yiddish classics as Abraham Goldfaden’s “Rozhinkes mit Mandlen” (“Raisins and Almonds”), and his Yiddish renditions of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” and the Leonard Bernstein/Stephen Sondheim ballad “Maria” from “West Side Story,” warrant a change from “Mamaloshen” to “Mandyloshn.” The evening’s finale featured some 300 school children skipping onto the Carnegie stage and singing along with Patinkin — in Yiddish. Priceless! At the post-concert party hosted by Mira and John Van Doren for Patinkin and fans were Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, Samuel Norich and Joe Franklin.
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A prelude to the Folksbiene Carnegie gala was the June 2 cocktail party at Elaine’s, at which twinkle-eyed honoree Wallach signed copies of his recently published tell-all autobiography, “The Good, the Bad, and Me: In My Anecdotage” (Harcourt), and mingled with Folksbiene boosters Ben Gazzara, Alec Baldwin and Richard Thomas. It’s evident that the Folksbiene has made new friends, as the honorary committee includes such non-Yiddish speakers as Jacques d’Amboise, Dominic Chianese, Betsy von Furstenberg, Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward — as well as Charles Schumer, Gifford Miller, C. Virginia Fields, and Joseph and Hadassah Lieberman.
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Though the June 9 awards presentation of the National Academy of Popular Music to benefit the Songwriters Hall of Fame on was scheduled for 8:30 p.m., at 4 p.m. the red carpet outside the New York Marriott Marquis was already swarming with paparazzi hoping to get a shot.
“We’re here to honor the greatest songwriters in the world,” said Hal David, chairman and CEO of the SHOF. “The songs we write are the mirror of our lives.” On receiving the Starlight Award, a stunning Alicia Keys said, “I’m feeling like, Holy s–t… so honored because of the respect that I have for music… for songwriting.” Beebe Bourne, CEO of Bourne Co., received the Abe Olman Publisher Award, the second woman to be so honored (the first having been her mother, Bonnie Bourne). Her father, Saul H. Bourne, founded the firm with Irving Berlin and Max Winslow in 1919. “We publishers are the guardians and promoters of the songwriters,” Bourne said. “The world would be a very quiet place without their music.”
Children’s film composers Richard and Robert Sherman were inducted into the SHOF. Among the most recognizable of their 150-plus Disney songs are “It’s a Small World After All,” and the “Mary Poppins” tunes “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” (which Mandy Patinkin sang in a Yiddish version at the Folksbiene’s Carnegie bash) and “Chim Chim Cheree.” (According to Chana Mlotek, the melody of “Chim Chim Cheree” is a derivative of Itzik Manger’s lullaby “Vaylu.”) The brothers remembered their father, songwriter Al Sherman, and Walt Disney. “If Walt Disney liked a song,” Richard Sherman said, “all Walt would say was, ‘Yup, that’ll work.’” Les Bider, vice chair of the SHOF, presented the Sammy Cahn Lifetime Achievement Award to Les Paul. “What Thomas Edison is to the lightbulb, Les Paul is to the electric guitar,” Bider said. Les Paul’s only printable comment before his socko performance was, “Today is my 90th birthday… I want to tell you how grateful I am to be here on earth.”