The person responsible for Mandy Patinkin’s Yiddish education was neither a relative nor a Hebrew school teacher. It was legendary theater producer Joseph Papp.
In the early 1990s, Papp approached Patinkin — already an acclaimed singer and stage performer — and asked him to sing in Yiddish at a benefit concert for the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. When Patinkin confessed that he didn’t know any Yiddish songs, Papp suggested it was time for him to learn.
Patinkin obliged, memorizing “Yossel, Yossel” for the YIVO concert. After hearing the performance, Papp told Patinkin that he had found his forte.
Papp, who died in 1991, did not live to see just how right he was: Patinkin spent the next decade working on his Yiddish repertoire, releasing an album of Yiddish music and bringing a concert of his Yiddish songs to Broadway. Next week, Patinkin will put his forte onstage in New York City at Carnegie Hall, in a June 16 benefit gala for the Folksbiene Yiddish Theatre.
“I am thrilled to be doing this for the Folksbiene, which is dear and near to my heart,” he said.
Mandel Bruce Patinkin, 52, grew up on the South Side of Chicago in a Conservative Jewish family that defined his very existence.
“Everything I am came from my parents,” he told the Forward in a telephone interview. “I don’t take that much credit for who I am and what I am.”
Patinkin’s parents instilled in him a sense of Jewish identity, sharing Sabbath dinners on Friday nights and celebrating holidays together. His parents also spoke Yiddish, although they did not teach it to young Mandy; it was a language reserved for adults.
“My folks spoke it with my grandparents when they had a secret and wanted to keep it from the kids,” Patinkin said.
His parents nurtured his artistic leanings, enrolling the teenage Patinkin in a theater class at the Young Men’s Jewish Council Youth Center. When he was 14, he landed one of his earliest parts in a show — a relatively minor role playing a sailor; the part, however, required both acting and tap dancing, and helped define him as a performer with a range of skills. He continued to fine-tune those abilities over the years, attending The Juilliard School.
He has taken on a diverse range of artistic projects during the past three decades. On Broadway, he won a Tony Award for creating the role of Che in the 1979 musical “Evita,” and followed that with Tony-nominated parts in the original productions of “Sunday in the Park With George” (1984) and “The Wild Party” (2000). He tackled television in an acclaimed production of Arthur Miller’s “Broken Glass” and as a series regular on CBS’s “Chicago Hope.” And although Patinkin defines himself as an actor first and a singer second, he also has released a string of albums covering everything from children’s music (“Kidults”) to showtunes (“Oscar and Steve”).
In 1997, he put his Yiddish repertoire on CD, with the release of “Mamaloshen,” a blend of Yiddish classics and Yiddish translations of such contemporary American songs as “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” and “The Hokey Pokey.” He also included “Yome, Yome,” a song his father used to sing.
A year later, Patinkin took “Mamaloshen” to Broadway as a solo concert. “My dream was to put [Yiddish] in a concert form so people could come who didn’t speak English and understand it,” Patinkin said.
To help audiences understand the show, phrases appeared on the walls during the performance to convey themes; after the performance, fans told Patinkin, “We don’t understand a single word of you, but we understand everything.”
At the Carnegie Hall concert for Folksbiene, Patinkin will reprise “Mamaloshen,” this time backed by the New Yiddish Chorale (under the direction of Zalmen Mlotek) and a 200-voice children’s chorus.
Patinkin explained the universality of Yiddish as a folk language coming to life. “It’s a people’s language. The nature evokes feelings because there is a clarity of the sound of words,” he said. “It has made me grateful that my heritage is a Jewish language, that circumstance brought me to it.”
He said the nature of his Yiddish songs resonates with American audiences, Jewish and non-Jewish alike, because of the music’s classic immigrant themes. “Mamaloshen” is the story of an immigrant, Patinkin said: “It happens to be a Jewish immigrant because it’s me.”
Despite his lengthy résumé as a performer, Patinkin is not keen to discuss his favorite roles, early aspirations or professional accomplishments. He prefers, it seems, to talk about family.
“My earliest dream was to have a family,” he said. At 25, he met his wife, actress and writer Kathryn Grody. He married her when he was 28. (“June 15 is our 25th anniversary,” he said, “a day before the concert at Carnegie Hall.”) Together they have two children: Isaac Grody-Patinkin, 23, and Gideon Grody-Patinkin, 19.
A year ago, Patinkin was battling prostate cancer; he had surgery in May 2004. A month ago, he was healthy enough to participate in a 300-mile bike ride in Israel to benefit the environmental group Hazon and the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies. “I have never been higher or more thrilled,” he said.
Pressed for any comment about his acting career, Patinkin related an early lesson he learned from a production of “Carousel” when he was a teenager. “When you love someone, tell them,” he recalled the director telling the student performers. Patinkin said he internalized that message and enacts it in every performance.
And just who is the recipient of all that love?
He laughed and answered simply, “Everyone.”