Last year Yiddish Soul was the highlight of the Folksbiene’s Kulturfest, a festival that featured hundreds of performances over eight packed days and attracted tens of thousands of attendees.
At the time, I wrote in the Yiddish Forward that this high-profile concert of Hasidic and cantorial music, presented as part of SummerStage in Central Park, was the festival’s most important program. I believed this to be the case not only because it was one of the festival’s strongest concerts but also because it attracted an unusually diverse audience of Hasidic, secular and Modern Orthodox Jews who came to enjoy an evening of Yiddish music. I argued that the concert could help the fortunes of Yiddish among Modern Orthodox Jews who generally see the language as old-fashioned and irrelevant at best.
This time around Yiddish Soul was even more important for the Folksbiene as this installment of Kulturfest features significantly fewer programs than its first incarnation and lacks a grand-opening concert. Yiddish Soul 2016 was therefore destined to serve as the festival’s undisputed high point and greatest draw. Fortunately, it didn’t disappoint. In fact, it was even stronger than its predecessor.
The concert, masterfully arranged by musical director Avremi Gourarie and musical supervisor Zalmen Mlotek, was a world-class show that brought together disparate musical worlds. The pair presented a nearly three-hour long program combining modern Hasidic pop, cantorial music and Yiddish folksongs; yet, the show never seemed to drag and the unusual mix of genres never clashed.
Perhaps the concert’s biggest surprise was the Maccabeats, an a cappella group founded by Yeshiva University students in 2010, known for its parodies of American pop songs with new lyrics about Jewish tradition. I must confess that I’m not a fan of the Maccabeats; the group’s quasi-Jewish music strikes me as corny at best. In a concert with such world-class performers as the Lubavitch rock singer Benny Friedman, the Hasidic pop star Lipa Schmeltzer, the “hipster-Hasidic” band Zusha and the extraordinary cantors Yaakov Lemmer, Netanel Hershtik, and Joseph Malovany the decision to include the young Yeshiva University graduates seemed to be just a gimmick, a way to help attract a younger audience. As it turned out the Maccabeats more than held their own, both singing parts of their own repertoire in Yiddish and accompanying the other singers, particularly Benny Friedman.
True, their Hanukkah-themed parody of Taio Cruz’s “Dynamite” sounded a bit absurd in Yiddish but their beautiful version of Mosh Ben Ari’s “Od Yavo Shalom Aleinu/Salaam” in an excellent Yiddish translation was a highlight of the evening. Also memorable was their rendition of Cantor Moishe Oysher and the Barry Sister’s “Halevay,” in which the Maccabeats sang the Barry Sisters’ part and Netanel Hershtik sang Oysher’s lines. At first the unusual mix of singers performed the song’s lyrics in a combination of Yiddish and English as in the original but they soon added their own lyrics poking fun at the fact that they don’t actually know Yiddish. In another context such a joke could have easily fallen flat but after hearing the Maccabeats and Cantor Hershtik beautifully sing a series of songs in Yiddish it served to emphasize just how much effort they had put into getting the language right.
Other strong performances included Cantor Joseph Malovany’s version of “Reb Motenyu” (Oy Tsadikim) which got the audience on its feet and Zusha and Lipa Schmeltzer’s world-class rendition of “Tum Balalayka,” which featured strong harmonies that showed just how well the members of Zusha can sing in genres well outside the comfort-zone of their usual Hasidic reggae style.
While there were dozens of memorable performances the highlight of the evening was undoubtedly Lipa Schmeltzer’s Yiddish reimagining of Billy Joel’s classic “Piano Man.” The flashy pop singer and self-styled Hasidic Lady Gaga mesmerized the audience from the very first note. The crowd sang along, laughed and danced as Schmeltzer presented his Jewish vision of the song in which Joel’s sad bar became a synagogue, Kiddush-wine was drunk instead of beer and the piano was replaced by the Shofar that will ring in the Messianic era.
Schmeltzer’s “Piano Man” was symbolic of the Folksbiene’s and Zalmen Mlotek’s vision for the concert. They aimed to show Yiddish in a modern light by presenting popular songs in the language while at the same time trying to familiarize people from the religious Yiddish-speaking world with such classics as “Ale Brider,” “Tum Balalayka” and “A Khazndl af Shabes.” The concert also fulfilled its organizers’ goal of serving as a bridge between secular and religious Jews, a place where, as the evening’s MC radio host Nachum Segal put it, “we can come together as one to celebrate our language and history.”
Despite the audience’s diversity, noticeably fewer Hasidim came to the show than last year. Instead of Hasidim from Williamsburg, Boro Park and Monsey the largest segment of the audience was made up of Modern Orthodox Jews. The concert also attracted a large number of secular Jews, most of whom appeared to greatly enjoy the program. Some, however, had complaints, not about the quality of the singers or musicians but rather about who they were. In the middle of the show a woman stood up and shouted “Where are the women? Women can sing beautifully too you know,” and promptly left the venue.
It is, of course, a serious and fraught issue. Besides the Folksbiene’s Executive Director Bryna Wasserman not a single woman appeared or spoke during the three-hour show. Not one woman played an instrument, let alone sang. In the days following Yiddish Soul some secular Klezmer musicians and Yiddish singers took to Facebook to decry the Folksbiene’s decision to “discriminate” against women in order to assure that a religious audience would attend.
I have a lot of sympathy for such arguments but in this case I don’t agree with them. If all of the Folksbiene’s concerts and plays only featured men it would be an entirely different story. But it’s just the opposite: the company puts on a womanless show just once a year so that religious Jews who would otherwise be unable to attend can enjoy it. It’s worth it to do it once a year, especially if it allows the Folksbiene to present such great cantors and singers as Lipa Schmeltzer, Yaakov Lemmer and Benny Friedman.
On the other hand, it wouldn’t hurt if next year’s Kulturfest featured a second concert on the same scale in which the Yiddish world’s many talented women singers and musicians could perform.
(Published online in the Yiddish Forward on June 19th, translated by the author)
Jordan Kutzik is a staff writer at the Forverts.