For almost 100 years the National Yiddish Theater-Folksbiene in New York has churned out productions in the old language of Eastern and Central European Jews, nursing and expanding a cultural connection. Theater officials are now stretching their horizons with plans for an ambitious international Jewish arts festival in New York in 2015, featuring performances and workshops in many languages exploring Jewish identity.
The plans for Kulturfest: The First Chana Mlotek International Festival of Jewish Performing Arts will be announced Tuesday at a gala concert honoring Neil Sedaka and others at Town Hall in Manhattan. A weeklong festival with 100 events including concerts, film screenings and theater is envisioned by Bryna Wasserman, the executive director of Folksbiene, and Zalmen Mlotek, its artistic director.
The big ambitions do not come cheap. Folksbiene, with a staff of about 10 full-time employees and a budget of about $1.5 million has received $250,000 from two donors for the festival but has a $2 million fundraising goal. And it faces a big question: In an era in which Jewish artists and Jewish festivals in many disciplines abound, what will Kulturfest add?
"It should provoke a debate: Is this just homage to Yiddish culture?" said Thane Rosenbaum, a Jewish novelist who has written widely about Jewish culture. "Is this really about world Jewish culture? Is there is a distinctly Jewish art today, and what is its connection to Yiddish?"
Rosenbaum, who moderates an annual series of discussions on Jewish culture and politics at the 92nd Street Y, predicted that Folksbiene's "interest in memorializing Yiddish culture and making it relevant," will turn the festival into a "pep rally" for the more than 1,000-year-old language. Yiddish, a Germanic-based language, has contributed terms like "oy vey," and "bagel" to the English vernac ular and is still taught.
"It is still a dying language," Rosenbaum said, noting that Yiddish has few speakers outside Hasidic enclaves. "Are there original plays being written in Yiddish?"
In recent years Folksbiene has confronted that issue by expanding its mission from preservation to a focus on original work that renews Yiddish culture, Mlotek said. An example is a 2011 production with Theater for a New Audience of "Shlemiel the First," by Robert Brustein, a klezmer musical in English adapted from Isaac Bashevis Singer's stories.
"When I took over 15 years ago, I realized it was more important for the culture to be the focus as opposed to the theater, so we added concerts, we added children's shows, we created English and Russian supertitles for all of our shows," Mlotek said.
Kulturfest, he said, will have several tasks: reinterpreting the legacy of Yiddish theater, literature, music, film and art; exploring how Yiddish has migrated into other cultures and art forms; and figuring out how Yiddish and Jewish culture influences new work. In her role as executive director and artistic director at the Segal Center for Performing Arts in Montreal, Wasserman organized international Yiddish theater festivals in 2009 and 2011. She called them rehearsals for Kulturfest.
The 2015 event is timed to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Folksbiene (Yiddish for "people's theater"), the longest continuously running Yiddish theater in the world.
Kulturfest's official title, the First Chana Mlotek International Festival of Jewish Performing Arts, is a tribute to the music archivist at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, who happens to be Mlotek's mother. The seed money for the festival comes from the Stanley and Marion Bergman Family Charitable Fund and the Mlotek Family Foundation, headed by Mlotek's brother, Mark (who is also the board president of Folksbiene).
Folksbiene officials hope that Kulturfest also shines a light on Folksbiene. The theater does not have a permanent home; it is the last survivor of a dozen Yiddish theaters that flourished in New York in the early 20th century.
Once a semiprofessional company serving immigrants, in 1998 Folksbiene acquired a professional staff and performers. By 2006 it had changed its name to the National Yiddish Theater-Folksbiene and offered literature and music and staged free performances at colleges.
Shane Baker, executive director of the Congress for Jewish Culture, founded to promote Yiddish culture, argued that Kulturfest is groundbreaking because it is interdisciplinary and international, both scholarly and artistic, and has the Yiddish component.
"To bring together all the arts is a wonderful and brilliant idea," Baker said. "There has to be a dialogue. I imagine one of the things they'll be looking at is what is Jewish culture. I'm a gentile fluent in Yiddish, and I play in Yiddish theater."
Theodore Bikel, an actor and singer known for his thousands of performances of Tevya in "Fiddler on the Roof," said the festival will be a worthy undertaking if participants come away with a desire to learn Yiddish.
"That question comes up: Is someone a Jewish artist or a Jew who happens to create music or books?" Bikel said. Yiddish is paramount to the Jewish experience because "it has never attempted to shed its Jewish identity," he said. Even Hebrew, he said, is not always particularly Jewish.
Wasserman said the only mandate for participating artists is that they explore Jewish identity.
"We'll speak many languages, and there will be an openness to the Sephardic community," she said. Yiddish is the language of Ashkenazi Jews.
Still, Mlotek wants Yiddish to take a leading festival role. "We're encouraging young artists to use the Yiddish culture and reinterpret it for the widest possible audience. Use a song, a character, a poem," he said, "or a moment in Jewish history."
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