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New York Gets the Biggest Yiddish Festival of All

The largest Yiddish cultural festival since the 1930s is coming to New York.

Kulturfest: The First Chana Mlotek International Festival of Jewish Performing Arts, of which the Forward is a media sponsor, will celebrate the 100th anniversary of the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene with a weeklong series of Jewish music, theater, film and art events. The festival will bring over 200 actors, singers, comedians, artists and academics from more than 30 countries to stage plays, give concerts and participate in an academic symposium on the history of Yiddish performing arts.

“This is certainly the biggest festival of Yiddish culture that has ever been held in America,” said Zalmen Mlotek, the Folksbiene’s artistic director. “And for us it is, of course, the biggest event that the Folksbiene has put on it its 100-year history.”

Mlotek noted that supporters of the Folksbiene began to think about staging an international festival as a way to celebrate the 90th birthday of his mother, the ethnomusicologist and collector of Yiddish folksongs Chana Mlotek. The festival eventually transformed into a celebration not only of the legacy of Chana Mlotek, who passed away in 2013, but also of Yiddish culture more broadly and the Folksbiene’s 100th anniversary in particular.

“We thought, ‘What can we do to make the biggest impression in New York and around the world in order to let people know not only that there is still a Yiddish theater but that it has developed into a center for Jewish performing arts?’” Mlotek said. “It’s not the Folksbiene of old that would stage one play for 20 weeks and little else. Today we constantly have many things going on at once.”

Mlotek noted that Kulturfest’s origins lie in two previous international Yiddish theater festivals, which were held in Montreal in 2009 and 2011. “The reason why we have the chutzpah at all to try to do this festival is Bryna Wasserman,” Mlotek said, referring to the Folksbiene’s executive director, who organized the two Yiddish festivals in Montreal as part of her work in her former role as the director of Montreal’s Dora Wasserman Yiddish Theatre, which was founded by her mother in 1958.

“Bryna created two international Yiddish theater festivals in Montreal and they were extraordinarily successful. And because of her experience we decided that we would be able to do it here.”

The festival begins on June 14 with an opening concert at Brookfield Place in Manhattan, featuring Neil Sedaka, the Klezmatics, Yiddish theater and Broadway actresses Eleanor Reissa and Joanne Borts, the Montreal-based Yiddish rapper Socalled, and Yiddish singers Karsten Troyke of Germany, Polina Shepherd of Russia and the U.K., and Bente Kahan of Norway.

Although not all of the theater companies and singers will perform in Yiddish, Kulturfest producer Robin Schatell explained that “the thread that is bringing it all together is Yiddish… All of the performers are informed by that culture. All of the theaters that are performing in the festival are helping to perpetuate and carry on Yiddish culture, either traditionally like those working with texts in Yiddish such as the State Yiddish Theater of Romania or the Dora Wasserman Yiddish Theatre, or by staging plays originating in the Yiddish repertoire. They’re all helping to perpetuate the Eastern European Jewish cultural heritage.”

Mlotek said that two concerts in particular reflect the Folksbiene’s effort to ensure cultural continuity. In the first concert, in honor of Chana Mlotek, he will perform songs collected by his mother with his own children and their cousins, the five grandchildren of Chana Mlotek. The concert “Mir Trogn a Gezang/We Carry a Song,” named after a popular anthology of Yiddish songs that Chana Mlotek authored with her husband Yosl Mlotek, will take place on June 15 at the Museum of Jewish Heritage.

The next day, Central Park’s SummerStage will see a concert featuring stars of contemporary Hasidic music. Among the performers will be the Hasidic pop stars Lipa Schmeltzer and Avraham Fried, the cantor Yanky Lemmer, and the popular “neo-Hasidic hipster” band Zusha. The concert, Yiddish Soul, will be the largest collaboration to date between musicians from the Hasidic world and the Folksbiene.

“My dream is that this will be just the beginning” Mlotek said. “We will organize a whole series of events for the Hasidic world. There are literally thousands of children who speak Yiddish on the street in New York but don’t know the older Yiddish repertoire. We want to have concerts in Monsey, Brooklyn, Lakewood and Five Towns. If we need to get rabbinical approval we’ll do it. It’s important that Yiddish shouldn’t just be for a small number of people.”

Jordan Kutzik is a staff writer for the Forverts. Contact him at [email protected]

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