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Ethnic Theater - Jewish

"From the Golden Land to the Promised Land"
Gala for The National Yiddish Theatre
Rose Hall, Manhattan

The Folksbiene Theatre (officially The National Yiddish Theatre — Folksbiene) has just celebrated its 95th birthday. It was the annual gala/fund-raiser/awards night, titled “From the Golden Land to the Promised Land,” for the venerable New York-based company. (Folksbiene, as it happens, is the oldest continuing theater in America, and the oldest continuing Yiddish theater worldwide.)

Venue for this annual event was not the company’ new commodious downtown home at the Baruch Center for Performing Arts but even larger quarters--uptown at Lincoln Center’s lush new Rose Hall (in the Time Warner building). This was, most certainly, a prestigious mainstream setting.

Festivities opened on a high note, as Frank London’s Klezmer Brass band marched down the aisle, horns blaring, and audience joining in exuberant applause. From the first moments, the audience and the show connected. One big mishpocheh!

And indeed the Folksbiene people had trotted out the big guns—in its presenters, its winners, and its entertainers. Noted figures in the entertainment world from Israel and this country were on hand, both in person and in spirit—offering endearing tales, songs and skits—and paying tribute to Yiddish theater.

Co-hosts of the evening were two theater personalities who have made their mark in mainstream, as well as Yiddish, theater--Fyvush Finkel and Eleanor Reissa. Miss Reissa, who was Artistic Director of the Folksbiene through five crucial years, is an award-winning director, playwright, actor, choreographer, singer. Mr. Finkel, though best known in recent years for his long-running role in the television series, “Picket Fences,” has had a distinguished acting career in stage, screen, and television—and has also had his share of awards.

Highlight of the gala was the Israeli folksinger Chava Alberstein. Though she sings in five languages, she focused for this occasion on Yiddish songs which proved to be totally enthralling. A cultural icon in her own land, Miss Alberstein easily reached across the footlights to capture her American audience.

Also from Israel were the appealing entertainers of Yiddishpiel--The Yiddish Theater of Israel, and, from Montreal, of the Dora Wasserman Yiddish Theater. Eleanor Reissa herself, in top musical form, added further songs. While much of the entertainment was in Yiddish, overhead translations in English (and Russian) rescued the non-Yiddish speakers.

The gala managed to integrate pleasure with more serious moments — balancing the acceptance speeches with the entertainment. Among the honorees were Joel Klein, Chancellor of the New York City Public Schools and, in memoriam, Yosl Mlotek for his contributions to Yiddish culture. Special presentations also went to Aaron Lansky, founder of the National Yiddish Book Center, and Bryna Wasserman, Artistic Director of the Segal Centre for Performing Arts and Director of the Dora Wasserman Yiddish Theater, Montreal. There were also special tributes in memory to Yiddish actors Mina Bern, Sara Rosenfeld, and Avrom Sutzkever.

A good deal of time was devoted, by documentary and on stage, to the life and career of Yosl Mlotek, (father of Zalman Mlotek, Artistic Director of the Folksbiene). No doubt the senior Mlotek, throughout his life, made monumental contributions to the cause of the Yiddish language and culture. And how appropriate to have acknowledged his work on this particular date (which is his tenth Yortsayt)! But, since the real star of this gala was the Folksbiene itself, on its 95th birthday, planners would have done well to have considered a program of less Mlotek, more Folksbiene.

But why quibble?  This tribute to Yiddish theater was a joyous occasion for Folksbiene lovers, who were happy to see that the venerable old lady continues to thrive.

-- Irene Backalenick
May 4, 2010

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