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Zalmen Mlotek and Folksbiene continue to bring life to Yiddish music and culture

Segal Centre for the Preforming Arts

Zalmen Mlotek presents "The Golden Land" which celebrates immigration to America of over 1 million Jews.

Zalmen Mlotek is the Artistic Director of The National Yiddish Theater- Folksbiene and an internationally recognized leader on Yiddish folk and theater music. Mlotek made his way to an Broadway stage in 1991 with Those Were the Days where he acted as co-creator, music director and conductor. The show was honored with a Drama Desk Award and nominated for two Tony Awards. The original version of The Golden Land was an off Broadway hit that toured nationally and was produced in Italy. Mlotek is also a teacher in Yiddish culture and music having taught classes at Columbia University, Yeshiva University, The University of California at Berkeley and Hebrew Union College.

The National Yiddish Theater – Folksbiene is the longest continuously producing Yiddish theater company in the world. It was founded in 1915 and is the only lasting Yiddish theater from the early 20th century. Folksbiene became an independent nonprofit in 1998 and now present more than 100 programs and performances to a combined audience of over 20,000 people. Folksbiene has outreach programs including The Folksbiene Troupe – a group of 7 performers who bring Yiddish theater to audiences who are unable to attend main stage productions, Folksbiene @ CUNY – which sponsors free performances of staged readings of classic Yiddish plays and concerts at City University of New York, and Kids and Yiddish – where kids of all ages and their parents can experience a mixture of music styles including of course Jewish folk music. Through these programs and shows, The National Yiddish Theater will continue to show us the magic that is Yiddish culture and magic.

Introduction By: Meg Zrini

Interviewed Conducted Via Email By: Giacinta Pace

Q: Why did you decide to get involved with The Folksbiene and what is your role?

Zalmen: In 1997 I was the composer and musical director for a play that the Folksbiene was producing- then at the Central Synagogue. The play was Yankl der Shmid or in English The Blacksmith's Folly and having had some experience in producing shows in NY, Off-Broadway (The Golden Land at the 12th Street Second Avenue Theater in 1986) and also on Broadway (Those Were the Days, 1990, nominated for two Tony Awards) I was disheartened by all the work we put into preparation of the show and then the audiences were smaller and smaller and older and older. I felt very strongly then, as I do now, that with the Folksbiene being the only professional Yiddish theater company in NY and in the United States for that matter there would be an audience, if it were marketed differently and more broadly. My role at this point is that of Artistic Director which basically means that I am responsible for the choices and quality of the performances that we undertake now.

Q: When there are so many other performance arts causes out there, why does this one stand out above the rest?

Zalmen: As one of the oldest continuously running theater companies in the world, the Folksbiene has an exciting and challenging role, to present performances, concerts, theater, to audiences for whom Yiddish is not their mother tongue- and for whom Yiddish has no nostalgic connection at all. It is a language and culture that is a window into the lives of a people that has gone through many struggles yet maintained a need to create, and perform, sometimes under the most difficult circumstances. It is a performance art that has depth and meaning for all that experience it.

Q: What do you hope for the future of this organization?

Zalmen: The National Yiddish Theater- Folksbiene has grown from an organization that presented one play a year- 3 times a week (Saturday nights and 2 performances on Sundays) to a performing arts organization that produces two or three main stage productions, a travelling outreach troupe, made up of young actors and singers who present revues of Yiddish Theater for audiences all over the metropolitan area--a children’s show called Kids and Yiddish, which introduces the joys of Yiddish to young parents and young children, in a Sesame Street meets Saturday NIght Live format, lectures, Yiddish classes, special programs for the Holocaust, major cultural galas in places like Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall, Town Hall, and others as fundraisers for the organization. Recently the company is mentoring a group of young Russian performers, who are developing their own theater piece, called Lost and Found, which explores how they as young 20 year old Russian Americans relate to their cultural past and present. We also now have a program that tours schools and camps in the summer. We hope to have a home in NYC one day that can be a center of creativity in different art forms related to this culture. We hope to have classes where people can learn about this culture. Concerts, readings, events for children, a museum celebrating the Yiddish Theater and its role in NY and American cultural life,  a home for our shows and a spot where tourists from all over the country and world can learn about and experience the newest and most creative expressions of Jewish culture.

Q: Anything else you would like to add?

Michael Priest Photography

Bob Ader, Cooper Grodin, Stacey Harris and Daniella Rabbani in The Golden Land.

Zalmen: Our present show The Golden Land, which celebrates the immigration to this country of over a million Jews at the turn of the last century, is a celebration of the determination of a people through songs and scenes, taking the material that these immigrants created and presenting them in ways that are accessible to today’s audiences. Yiddish is heard throughout, sprinkled in for flavor and authenticity, but the musical is basically in English. So when people assume wrongly that since this is being presented by The National Yiddish Theater, they will not understand. I want to stress that this is an experience that everyone can appreciate whether they understand a word of Yiddish or not, performed by a marvelous cast from December 20- 30th with a possibility of one more week.

We're all super excited "The Golden Land" recovered so nicely from being so hard-hit by Sandy losing that first week of previews.  The fun resumes on December 20. "The Golden Land" is providing New Yorkers, especially young people and their families, with a comprehensive overview of the Jewish immigrant experience in New York. (I think it's not a stretch to say that this show is a sociology lesson brought to theatrical life.) Emphasizing how the show’s Jewish story is a quintessentially American one, Folksbiene welcomes school groups from across the city on Thursday & Friday December 20 & 21 at 11am. The school groups will be invited to stay for a talk-back with the cast after the show.  If it is anything like what we did a few weeks ago with the Duke Ellington School in the Bronx last month, the conversations will be most illuminating.

We had this nice hit over the weekend to help celebrate Chanukah.