A Conversation with Zalmen Mlotek, Artistic Director, Folksbiene Theater
Transcribed By Marissa Schain
Dr. Pola Rosen (PR): Zalmen Mlotek, is the artistic director of the National Yiddish Theater Folksbiene and is an inspiration to many people both musically and intellectually. Thank you for making the time to be with us today.
Zalmen Mlotek(ZM): Thank you Pola, it’s always my pleasure to speak with you.
PR: First of all, congratulations on winning the Drama Desk Lifetime Achievement Award in 2007. I also wanted to mention the fact that the Theater was founded in 1915 and is going to be 100 years old. That is quite a milestone.
ZM: I’m very excited about that. We’re the only existing, professional, continuously running Yiddish Theater in the world. We’re the oldest as well. That’s no small feat as you can imagine especially in light of the economics of theater and also of changes in audience. The question is how do we continue this culture when the majority of our audience doesn’t understand Yiddish?
PR: That’s a perfect segue into the next question. We are a multi-national ethnically diverse population in the United States, more than any other nation in the world. You have a new program now called “Soul to Soul.” Can you expand on it?
ZM: It’s a theatrical concert that basically highlights the African-American musical tradition and a Jewish musical tradition; how the two cultures have worked together and sometimes been on the fence together throughout history. In the civil rights movement Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marched with Martin Luther King. Two African-American young men came to me with the interest in singing in Yiddish. This interest came from their own experiences as actors and musicians. One was studying the music of Paul Robeson, a great political activist of the 40s. The other one came to us because he was interested in a play that we were doing that called for an African-American actor. I taught them in Yiddish, I taught them how to sing in Yiddish, I taught them the nuances. And they fell in love with it.
We’ve been doing it now for audiences in Montreal, in the Hamptons. It’s a tremendous success. We’re now presenting this program with one other American-born actress at the City University schools (Brooklyn College, Lehman College, the Graduate Center and Queens College) this coming September for four free performances. They are a blend of Yiddish music, African-American spiritual and civil rights songs and jazz.
PR: Is it a difficult thing to teach a person that doesn’t know anything about Yiddish or the culture?
ZM: It’s a challenge but people are up to it; some people who have good ears. When you cast for a show for someone to speak Yiddish, many of the people who come in the door who audition do not speak Yiddish. We post the audition material on the website so they can listen to it and practice it before they meet us. When they come in, we say, okay, this is what they’ve gotten through in a couple of days; imagine what they can do in three, four weeks.
We found some tremendous talent out there who have embraced and wanted to learn to sing and act in this language. “Soul to Soul” is a mixture of English and Yiddish.
PR: Who decides on the content?
ZM: I am putting together the program and am extrapolating from Yiddish folk songs and African-American spirituals and jazz. Cab Calloway heard his mother sing a Yiddish melody, “This is how a tailor sews,” and it’s an old folk song. He heard it and turned it into this old jazz song (Zalmen sings the song; see the video online).
One of the interesting things we’re doing this fall is an Isaac Bashevis Singer klezmer musical that we’re premiering here in New York with NYU called “Shlemeil the First.” This will be in English because we feel it is an important way to break down the barriers of people who want to have a taste of Yiddish culture but aren’t quite ready to experience it in Yiddish.
PR: For those of you who don’t know who Shlemiel is, it’s the poor guy who’s walking in the street and it suddenly starts to rain and he doesn’t have a raincoat and he steps in a hole and falls down.
What are the some of the most popular plays you have done?
ZM: One of the most popular things we did was a play called “On Second Avenue” that was a musical review that starred Mike Burstyn. It got a Drama Desk nomination. Another very popular show was “Yentl” which we did in Yiddish. In the last couple of years we presented Mike Burstyn in “The Adventures of Hershele Ostropolyer” which was a folk tale about the Jewish Robin Hood. These were some of the most famous and popular audience pleasers.
PR: Do these plays have a common thread?
ZM: There’s something about the Yiddish theater that people want to come to. I believe it has a lot to do with the comedy. There’s an underlying sadness that doesn’t necessarily come out. Klezmer music is popular because it has this vibrant kind of exciting sound but at the same time you can hear the crying of the clarinet or the violin. This is the Jewish experience. That’s why the Yiddish theater was so important at the turn of the century. So many Jews were coming into this country wanting a connection with their home and their country. The theater was where they would see their lives and customs depicted and portrayed. Today we’re fulfilling a different role. We’re giving people a taste of what Yiddish actually sounded like and how it has influenced contemporary people like Jerry Seinfeld and Ben Stiller.
PR: I’m wondering about universities like Oxford in England and Columbia in NYC that have Jewish Studies programs and Yiddish programs. Do you have any linkages?
ZM: We try to key into those programs all over. We offer them special discounts and programs. In addition to going to colleges, we also go to high schools and public schools.
PR: Can a school come to visit the theater?
ZM: Sure. Some of our programs are connected with the Holocaust. One of our strongest points is that we want to show students and teachers today that there was a civilization before the Holocaust, before 1939. There was this thriving Jewish community that existed in Russia, Poland, and Lithuania. It was thriving, it was sophisticated, and it created books, music, literature, tons of material that was lost, but then rediscovered. One of our missions is not only to preserve it but also to use that and create new works.
For instance, in “Shlemeil the First” we have Robert Brustein of the American Repertoire Theater adapt this play into English and David Gordon, the noted choreographer and director, has taken this whole zany, Marx Brothers, post-modern approach to looking at the “Wise Men of Helm,” and created this topsy-turvy set where women turn into men, men turn into women right before your eyes. This whole world of Klezmer music is quite an event. We’re hoping pieces like that attract young people.
PR: It sounds like something we should definitely not miss. Since there is a Shlemeil the First, is there a Shlemeil the Second?
ZM: We hope so. There is a “Shlemeil the First” that we play for three weeks in December at NYU at the Skirball Center.
PR: Tell us a little bit about your own personal background. How did you come to this career in Yiddish theater and music?
ZM: When I speak of my own personal background, of course I have to speak about my parents. My mother will be turning 90 in April and is working 3 days a week as the music archivist at the Center of Music History. She is amazing. She is currently working on her 5th anthology.
PR: She was the Sherlock Holmes of Yiddish music. If somebody didn’t know where a song came from or who wrote it, it would appear in the local paper as a little strand of music and she and your father would identify it.
ZM: Isaac Bashevis Singer called my parents the Sherlock Holmes of Yiddish Music because of my mother’s encyclopedic knowledge of where all the songs were located and published. My father was a Yiddish educator and a writer. I grew up in this atmosphere of Yiddish thriving and interest in Yiddish songs. They would collect songs from readers from all over the world. New songs were coming into our home all the time. I was very much involved in music. I went to the Conservatory of Music to become a conductor. I studied under Leonard Bernstein. It was he who actually said “Does the world need another Verdi conductor when you have this heritage that only you know so well and can present in against a background of Klezmer music and theatrical music?” I have taken that message that he and his late assistant Jack Gottlieb gave me in 1978 and basically turned my life around and become active in the Yiddish musical world.
When I found out about the Folksbiene Theater, I had been asked to write music. I went to the supporters and said you have the opportunity to turn this theater around and bring it into the 21st century. They took the chance on me and we modernized the company and brought in new productions and pieces in Yiddish and a family production called “Kids in Yiddish.” I feel blessed that I’m a part of this theater. I have to say Bryna Wasserman of Montreal who took the Yiddish Theater there and built a huge theatrical center in Montreal is now our new executive director. She’s a huge dynamo of vision. I’m very excited working with her as we approach a new century for a new population.
PR: We wish you every success and look forward to celebrating your 100th birthday with you.#
This videotaped interview can be seen online at www.educationupdate.com.