The Last Professional Yiddish Theater Looks Ahead

A Staged Reading Closes One Season as a Gala Event Opens the Next

By Itzik Gottesman

Published May 16, 2003, issue of May 16, 2003.
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Leon Kobrin’s classic Yiddish play “The Girl Next Door” (“Di Nekstdorike”) revolves around the question: Who would make a better wife — an observant and modest, pretty shtetl girl or a sleazy, shameful adulteress who pretends to be an American “lady”? It seems that for poor Velvele, the choice is not so cut and dried.

A staged reading of Velvele’s comedic dilemma was a fitting way to end the 88th season of the Folksbiene Yiddish Theater in New York, the only professional Yiddish theater in the United States. Throughout the 2002-03 season, the Folksbiene presented a series of readings in addition to its full-fledged production of “Yentl” last winter, thus allowing Yiddish theater enthusiasts to at least hear a number of rarely heard Yiddish plays that would otherwise be unknown today. The series, “Hidden Treasure,” was organized by the troupe’s associate artistic director, Mark Altman, who has been voraciously reading Yiddish plays in search of one that would appeal to the current Yiddish theater audience members, many of whom must read the projected English translations to understand the play. With its comic clash of Old and New World values, “The Girl Next Door” probably hit the mark that Altman was looking for.

Kobrin, who died in 1946, helped introduce realism onto the Yiddish stage and earned a reputation as a dramatist sensitive to the problems of assimilating American Jews. He never quite broke free from melodrama in many of his plays, but his characters possessed a psychological depth that earlier playwrights had not achieved. Kobrin’s heroes often suffered from the serious flaws of indecision and ambivalence, as in his tragic dramatic masterpiece “Yankl Boyle” (1913), in which Yankl loses his mind from his inability to make decisions about his love life.

According to Zalmen Mlotek, executive director of the Folksbiene, the play will have a full production run next season, at the performance space of the new Jewish Community Center on the Upper West Side. Though it is hard to judge from a reading, with some imaginative staging “The Girl Next Door” could be a hit.

To kick off the next season, the Folksbiene will present a gala concert celebrating the Yiddish theater on June 4, titled “An American Treasure: A Gala Concert Celebrating the Yiddish Theater — A Window to a Jewish Past, a Mirror to the Jewish Soul.” This star-studded event at the 92nd Street Y will feature performances by Theodore Bikel, Mike Burstyn, Fyvush Finkel, Claire Barry, Frank Gorshin, Adrienne Cooper, Eleanor Reissa and many others.

The concert will also honor two supporters of the Yiddish theater, Daniel Libeskind and Leo Melamed, both of whom have a personal connection to Mlotek.

Libeskind, the architect who has been assigned the historic task of rebuilding the World Trade Center, was born in Poland after the war, the son of Holocaust survivors. He was the arts and crafts counselor at Camp Hemshekh, the socialist Bundist children’s summer camp in upstate New York, where Mlotek was a camper and later music counselor. According to Mlotek, Libeskind participated in the classic Jewish immigrant experience of arriving by boat to the United States, awed by his first sight of the Statue of Liberty. The architect and his wife, Nina Lewis-Libeskind, are firmly committed to helping the Yiddish theater. On May 8, a plaque honoring Libeskind was laid into the sidewalk in front of the 2nd Avenue Deli in Manhattan, among those for other Yiddish-theater luminaries.

Melamed, the former chairman of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, is also generally acknowledged as a founder of financial futures on the stock market. He was born in Poland and fled with his parents in 1939 to Siberia and then to the United States, settling in Chicago. There, he grew up in a Yiddishist home where his father, Yitskhok Melamdovitch, was one of the leaders of the Sholem Aleichem Folk Institute. His father was also a friend of Joseph “Yosl” Mlotek, the longtime education director of the Workmen’s Circle, culture editor at the Yiddish Forward and father of Zalmen Mlotek. Melamed has always had a close connection to Yiddish culture and has long been a supporter of Yiddish cultural causes in Chicago.

With this benefit concert, the Folksbiene hopes to give a boost to a funding campaign that will eventually lead to a permanent home for the troupe and, from there, on to bigger and better things.

Itzik Gottesman is the associate editor of the Yiddish Forward.

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