The stars illuminating Symphony Space’s Peter Jay Sharp Theater at the December 2 “Miracle of Miracles” Hanukkah Gala were “Sunshine Boys” (almost 90) Theodore Bikel, (91 year young) Fyvush Finkel and (102 year sharp-as-a-tac stunner) Bel Kaufman. Honoree Bikel — who has portrayed Tevye more than 2500 times worldwide — witnessed the arrival of Hitler in Vienna and escaped to Palestine. It was noted, “When the Jews of Russia needed advocates, Bikel was the prominent vociferous voice performing their songs of defiance.”
Bikel, with irrepressible Emmy Award winner Finkel, performed a scene from “Fiddler on the Roof,” the Sheldon Harnick-Jerry Bock blockbuster musical which is about to celebrate its 50th anniversary.
Emcees Joanna Borts (who appears in the award-winning Broadway production “Once”) and Rachel Yucht joined in singing an ethereal Ladino song “Ochos Kandelikos” (Eight Candles).
Looking like a fashion plate in a pale silk lilac jacket over maroon silk pants with a Hermes scarf around her shoulders, ad-libbing Kaufman introduced herself to the sold out audience as the “granddaughter of Sholem Aleichem,” creator of the character Tevye. When the thunderous applause subsided, she joshed, “You greeted me before I said a single word…. Bikel is our personal, private Tevye. But, there was a real Tevye, a small, slight man. He had no daughters.” There was a murmur in the audience. Author of the blockbuster “Up The Down Staircase,” which was made into an award-winning film, Kaufman concluded, “I am truly happy to be standing here in front of you. I love you Theo.”
“Never in my life did I have a love declaration from a woman who is 102 year old,” said a beaming Bikel. “I love music. I love Yiddish. It keeps me young.” Yiddish-lover and Academy Award nominee (for “The Defiant Ones” starring Tony Curtis and “Sidney Poitier”) Bikel can boast an acting portfolio that includes a fake Hungarian count in the classic film “My Fair Lady,” a Russian submarine captain in “The Russians are Coming! The Russians are Coming!” and an adoptive father of a Klingon in the TV series “ Star Trek: Next Generation.” The audience was on a high.
Produced by the National Yiddish Theatre-Folksbiene, the event was conceived by Folksbiene director Zalmen Mlotek. The evening offered a lineup of talent that included Elmore James — who, it was noted, was inspired by Paul Robeson — in a beautifully articulated Yiddish singing “Vi Azoy Trink der Kayzer Tey” (Here’s how the Tsar drinks tea); Greek-Israeli singer and bouzouki virtuoso Avram Pangas offered Sephardic Hanukkah medley; multiple-threat cantor Magda Fishman — voice, trumpet, drum and more —bringing a bit of Woodstock to the event, getting the audience to join in singing a wall-vibrating “This Little Light of Mine — Let It Shine!”
Following the curtain calls, a crush of photographers, well-wishers, fans jammed backstage as the trio—elated and exhausted—bravely posed for photo-ops and smiled, smiled, smiled.
Isaiah Sheffer, founder of Symphony Space, who died last year, must have been kvelling — wherever he may be producing another extravaganza.
Radio personality Isaiah Sheffer died today in New York at age 76. Sheffer was co-founder and artistic director of the performing art center Symphony Space on the upper west side of Manhattan, and was known nationally as the long time host of the public radio series “Selected Shorts,” which began in 1985. Sheffer started Symphony Space in 1978 with the conductor Alan Miller, and turned a run down theater into one of the most active cultural centers in New York. Sheffer stepped down from the post in 2009.
Isaiah Sheffer was born in the Bronx and was a child actor in the Yiddish theater. He had a lifelong connection to both Yiddish and English radio. His uncle was the noted actor and Yiddish radio personality Zvi Scooler. Starting as a young man in the 1960s, Sheffer’s sonorous voice could be heard on radio station WEVD, the station of the Jewish Daily Forward, where he was the English language host and newscaster. Sheffer was also the author of numerous plays and musicals including “Yiddle with a Fiddle,” “The Rise of David Levinsky” and “Dreamers and Demons: The Three Worlds of Isaac Bashevis Singer.”
“There isn’t an after party because I know pretty much everyone here,” composer David Amram announced at the end of his 80th birthday celebration at Symphony Space on November 11. “I figured that with 500 of you, plus your dates, plus the 60-piece orchestra, the rest of the performers and our families, we’d need Madison Square Garden. And it was booked.” He was exaggerating, but not much: The hall was packed with fans and well-wishers, and the concert program listed more musicians than could comfortably fit backstage at any one time — they were told to arrive in shifts.
The sprawling evening of music was a fitting tribute to Amram, a musical polymath who, during the course of an almost unimaginably prolific career, has collaborated with artists as diverse as Dizzy Gillespie, Charles Mingus, Joseph Papp, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Elia Kazan and Tito Puente. He is the author of countless jazz, symphonic, and chamber music pieces; the Holocaust opera “The Final Ingredient”; the film scores for “Splendor in the Grass,” “The Manchurian Candidate,” and “Pull My Daisy”; and dozens of works that incorporate musical elements from the world’s great folkloric traditions.
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