Tales of Struggle Told in American Immigrant Yiddish - Manhattan Express | Manhattan Express

Tales of Struggle Told in American Immigrant Yiddish

The cast, during a recent rehearsal for the July 4-Aug. 6 run of “Amerike.” Photo by Lou Montesano.

BY TRAV S.D. | A century and more ago, the world possessed 10 million Yiddish speakers. Tens of thousands of them immigrated to the United States every year, many of them choosing to make their homes in New York City. In 2017, the world looks very different. The number of Yiddish-speakers, worldwide, is now six percent of where it was during its peak, and efforts are underway to curb immigration to the United States on the basis of religion and national origin. But one institution from that earlier age remains to remind us of the importance of ancient cultural legacies, and the countless way immigrants have enriched and benefitted America.

At 102 years old, the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene (NYTF) is still going strong. In July, they will celebrate the immigrant experience and the place of Jews within it by reviving their popular Yiddish language history musical “Amerike — The Golden Land” and by holding a unique two-day Immigration Arts Summit. Both will be presented at the Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust, located in Battery Park City.

“Amerike – The Golden Land” is described as “a richly textured evocation of New York City as it absorbed wave upon wave of Jewish immigrants from 1897 through the 1940s, filled with authentic period songs and the stories of actual immigrants.” The production will be presented in authentic American immigrant Yiddish, supported by English and Russian supertitles, with live video, and a seven-piece klezmer band. The show was co-created by NYTF artistic director Zalmen Mlotek (who serves as the production’s music director) and Moishe Rosenfeld.

According to Rosenfeld, “Amerike” began in 1982 as a benefit concert at an 85th anniversary celebration for the Jewish immigrant newspaper The Forward, which was held at the Stevensville Hotel in the Catskills. It was developed into a full-length show and has enjoyed many successful revivals since the mid-1980s (the most recent was in 2012).

“When we first put this show on,” Rosenfeld said. “The older people in the audience were immigrants. They and their children spoke Yiddish and understood every nuance. The piece’s power to communicate was deep and powerful. The laughs were robust and it was a huge success. Now we’re so far removed and we don’t have that Yiddish-speaking audience and so our objective is to reconnect and bring these works back to life.”

L to R, the “Amerike” creative team: Christopher Massimine, Motl Didner, Bryna Wasserman, Moishe Rosenfeld, Zalmen Mlotek, Merete Muenter. Photo by Lou Montesano.

The Folksbiene’s most recent production, a revival of the 1923 operetta “The Golden Bride,” was a smash success, and according to NYTF CEO Christopher Massimine, provided impetus to revive the present work. “In a way the two shows are opposites,” he said. “ ‘The Golden Bride’ was a fantasy about American life in the 1920s. ‘Amerike’ is the realistic story of the immigrant experience: the xenophobia people faced, and the political unrest.”

Sound a little like 2017? Rosenfeld offered that this too was an inspiration for the revival: “Because of the times we’re living in, a musical about immigration at the turn of the century made sense. We’re going to be doing this show right across the water from the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. There’s an important synergy. The Jewish immigrant story is the story of all immigrants. We all had trouble coming over [to America.] We all had struggles, but we made it ours.”

In that spirit, addition to the production, NYTF will be hosting a two-day Immigration Arts Summit on July 17 and 18. The summit will feature a keynote address by John Leguizamo, with participation of such diverse figures as former NBC television journalist Ann Curry, Larry Kirwan of the band Black 47, performance artist Jenny Romaine, and Frank London of The Klezmatics. Also performing will be a culturally variegated collection of New York City arts organizations, including the Pan Asian Repertory, Repertorio Español, Irish Repertory Theatre, the Kairos Italy Theater, the Irish Arts Center, the Turkish American Repertory Theatre, the Romanian Cultural Institute, and Israel’s Office of Cultural Affairs in the USA. The Summit concludes with a free outdoor concert at the Robert F. Wagner Park on Tues., July 18 at 7pm.

“Amerike – The Golden Land” and the Arts Summit will be presented at the Museum of Jewish Heritage (36 Battery Pl., at West St. & First Pl.). Opening Performance on Tues., July 4 at 7pm. Then, through Aug. 6: Wed. at 2pm; Thurs. at 2pm & 7:30pm; Sun. at 2pm & 6pm. For tickets ($35-$60), call 866-811-4111 or visit nytf.org (where you will also find info. on the Summit; $10 for one day, $15 for both). Directed by Bryna Wasserman; movement & staging by Merete Muenter; music direction & arrangements by NYTF artistic director Zalmen Mlotek.

“Amerike” production sketches by Izzy Fields, the show’s costume designer. Image courtesy NYTF.

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