Folksbiene Salutes Yiddish; ON THE GO


By Masha Leon

Published July 14, 2006, issue of July 14, 2006.
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Just before heading to Town Hall for the Folksbiene Yiddish Theatre’s June 12 gala concert, I stopped off at author Amy Tan’s SoHo loft, where she and Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor of the San Francisco Symphony, hosted a cocktail reception celebrating the PBS series “Keeping Score” — a multimedia project designed to make classical music accessible to people of all ages and backgrounds. I had a quick chat with Thomas, who at Carnegie Hall last April emceed “Thomashefsky’s Yiddish Theater: An Evening of Remembrances” — a tribute to his grandparents Bessie and Boris Thomashefsky. Speaking with writer-broadcaster Jamie Bernstein, my daughter Karen mentioned that I had corresponded with her father, Leonard Bernstein, a distant cousin on my father’s side. He died October 14, 1990, a week before we were to meet for lunch.

* * *

“I’m probably the first of Israel’s generation in 30 years to speak Yiddish — and probably the last,” lamented Israel’s New York consul general, Arye Mekel, addressing the crowd at the Folksbiene’s “Broadway Salutes Yiddish” gala. “It is important that all of us Jews in America and Israel do what we can to keep it alive.” Produced by Moshe Rosenfeld, with musical direction by Folksbiene executive director Zalmen Mlotek, the talent lineup included Star Trek’s Mr. Spock aka Leonard Nimoy (another distant Litvak cousin, but on my mother’s side). Describing his audition for Maurice Schwartz, the actor and director who founded the Yiddish Art Theater, Nimoy recalled Schwartz’s wife’s reaction: “‘He looks like a goy!’ I replied in Yiddish. Schwartz nearly fainted. I got the job.” To underscore his Yiddish credentials, Nimoy sang Itzik Manger’s “Oyfn Veg Shteyt a Boym,” then offered the Vulcan split-finger parting gesture, which, he explained, he first saw as a boy in shul!

“I’m 83 years young, and you’re my people!” exclaimed a hyper Fyvush Finkel. With son Eliot Finkel at the piano, papa Finkel schmaltzed it up with an overheated “I’m a Boarder by my wife!” Judy Kaye soared in her version of Sophie Tucker’s “Some of These Days!” Lyricist Sheldon Harnick and Lori Wilner sang “Do You Love Me?” from “Fiddler on the Roof.” A glamorous Mina Bern performed “Shabes, Shabes,” and Robert Abelson blitzed through a Yiddish “Largo al factotum” (Figaro! Figaro!) from “The Barber of Seville.” A buff Tovah Feldshuh showcased “Before the Parade Passes Me By” from “Hello, Dolly” in which she is now starring at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, N.J. A hysterical dialect face-off between Eleanor Reissa (a Galitzianer) and Bruce Adler (a Litvak) preceded Adler’s virtuoso performance of “Tchaikovsky,” a patter song by Kurt Weill and Ira Gershwin, first sung by Danny Kaye in his Broadway debut in “Lady in the Dark.” And how not to roar at Avi Hoffman’s outrageous excerpts from his hit one-man show, “Too Jewish?” — with its references to Eugene O’Neill’s “Der Iceman Kimt” and its transposition of the song “Oklahoma!” into “Oy Glaucoma!” Need more be said? Yes, there was much more, including a momentous announcement by Folksbiene chairman of the board Jeff Wiesenfeld that henceforth the 92-year old theatre group will be known as “The National Yiddish Theatre/Folksbiene.”

Gala honorees included Feliks Frenkel, a leader in the Russian Jewish community so smitten by the Folksbiene’s most recent production, “On Second Avenue,” he decided to join the board. “Those who do not know their history,” Frenkel said, “tend to lose it!” Mira Jedwabnik Van Doren was seen in a video presentation commenting on excerpts from her documentary film, “The World Was Ours,” a tribute to Vilna. The evening’s third honoree was Bel Kaufman, granddaughter of Sholom Aleichem and author of “Up the Down Staircase.” She recalled how before she could write she received a letter from her grandfather “urging me to grow up so I could write. He signed off with ‘Regards to your dolls.’ I am the only one alive to remember him.” On May 14, she celebrated her 95th birthday at a party hosted by Louise Kerz Hirschfeld at her East Side townhouse — each nook and cranny of which showcased her late husband Al Hirschfeld’s caricature gems. Among those singing “Happy Birthday Bel” were: her husband, Sidney Gluck; actor Eli Wallach and his wife, actress Anne Jackson; Ellen Adler; Betsy von Furstenburg, plus Folksbiene gala chairs Regina and Joseph Gill.

* * *

Among my most memorable Catskills anecdotes is how I first met stand-up comic and TV-host Jan Murray, who died July 2 at the age of 89. It was July 1983 at Brickman’s Hotel, and Murray was the late show headliner. As he strode out on stage, I quickly grabbed my spiral notepad and jotted down: “red shirt, white pants, black jacket.” Suddenly Murray loomed above our ringside table. “What is this! You can’t write down my jokes! No one writes down my routines!” I smiled meekly. “What have you got there?” he demanded. I handed him my notepad as 800 guests eyeballed our table. “What do you mean ‘red shirt, white pants, black jacket?’ Who are you with?” Flippantly I said, “Women’s Wear Daily,” then recanted: “Actually I’m with the Forward, the Forverts.” He gave me a look, turned on his heels and slammed the pad down on the piano on stage. “That’s where it stays for the rest of the show!” Then, in what is every performer’s nightmare, he became tzemisht, losing the rhythm of his routine. “Look at what the Forverts lady did to me!” he anguished. “Oy! What do I do?” At first I thought he was joking. He wasn’t. I was guilt-stricken. After a few minutes of brilliant ad-libbing, Murray was back on track.

As we were leaving the nightclub, guests “tsk, tsked” me. The nightclub manager cautioned, “Don’t you ever do that again!” But the next night all was forgiven as Murray invited us to his nightclub table with evening headliner Phil Foster. “There is a lady here who writes for the Forward,” said Foster, directing the spotlight on me. “Now I don’t know if you remember, but in our house every Friday night when my father came home from work, he would have to hopscotch from page to page on the freshly washed floor. It was the only way he could get to read the Forward.” The image resonated with many in the audience. “Sweetheart. That’s just what my mother used to do,” a woman at the next table poked me in the shoulder. Over the years, our paths crossed at many Catskills hotels. Whenever Murray spotted me, he’d tell the guests: “Ah, there she is, the Forverts lady. What she did to me!”

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