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Conversation with Zalmen Mlotek

Folkbiene’s “from Rosenfeld to Robeson” heads for Stamford

By Cindy Mindell

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the National Yiddish Theatre-Folksbiene (NYTF) in Manhattan, the Drama Desk Award-winning, longest continuously-producing Yiddish theater company in the world. Through plays, concerts, literary events, and workshops in English and Yiddish, with English and Russian supertitles, the company presents the Jewish experience through the performing arts and transmits a rich cultural legacy in innovative ways.

As part of its centenary celebration, NYTF created the production “From Rosenfeld to Robeson,” which debuted last summer at the “Singer’s Warsaw” Festival of Jewish Culture in Warsaw, Poland. Performed by Elmore James, star of Broadway and international opera stages, and Zalmen Mlotek, Folksbiene’s artistic director, the musical journey explores the repertoires of Morris Rosenfeld, the acclaimed early 20th-century Yiddish poet of the Lower East Side sweatshops, and Paul Robeson, the internationally renowned African-American singer and civil rights activist. Together, James and Mlotek explore the pathos inherent in love ballads, songs of the sweatshop and slavery, and melodies of spirituality, protest, and hope. According to organizers, this new concert breathes fresh life into its interpretations of classic Yiddish songs, songs of revolutionary poets, Holocaust-era partisans, and Broadway favorites.

James and Mlotek will bring “From Rosenfeld to Robeson” to Temple Beth El in Stamford on Thursday, March 19 in a free concert presented by the Holocaust Memorial Committee and the UJF Levy Romanowitz Fund, as a tribute to Hesh Romanowitz z’’l, and co-sponsored by several community organizations and Stamford-area houses of worship.

Mlotek spoke with the Ledger about the state of Yiddish culture today – and hopes for the future.


Q: We last spoke with you in December 2012, when you came to Stamford to direct “My Yiddishe Chanukah,” a gift to the community from Hesh Romanowitz z”l and his fellow area Yiddish-lovers. What’s new with the Folksbiene since then?

A: We’re in the midst of pretty exciting ventures. We started the 100th anniversary with a tribute to the 50th anniversary of “Fiddler” that we did at The Town Hall [in New York last June. We had major stars from the show involved and we honored Sheldon Harnick. On March 31, we’re doing a big gala at Carnegie Hall with Itzhak Perlman and the leading klezmer musicians who did In the Fiddler’s House, and I’m also going to have a choir of 300 kids on stage singing in Yiddish with Perlman at the very end.

This is to celebrate our 100th anniversary and point to the future. From June 14 through 21, we are producing an unprecedented international festival of Jewish culture in New York where we’re bringing in musicians and artists and theater companies and speakers from literally all over the world to present their cultural manifestations, not just in Yiddish but things that have been inspired by Yiddish or inspired by Jewish culture.

We’re doing a big event in Central Park where we’re having the leading chazzanim and Chassidic superstars; we’re doing a major opening event with the Klezmatics and many international stars at Brookfield Place winter garden in lower Manhattan. There will be activities all over the city, in practically every venue around town, we’re centering much of the activity around the Museum of Jewish Heritage at Battery Park: a film festival, an academic symposium.

The idea is to really announce to the world that yes, we’ve been around for 100 years, and yes, were inventing ourselves as not just an ambassador for Yiddish but an ambassador for Yiddishkeit, for Jewishness.

Yiddish – the language and the culture – as it accompanied our people for so many years, we feel that even though it won’t be the language that most Jews will speak in the next 100 years, there’s a richness of culture that can accompany them and that can inform their lives and that can inspire them in ways that other cultures have not yet been able to. In that regard, we’ve invited theater companies from Australia, South Africa, France, Poland, Romania, Israel, and artists from Holland, Spain, the former Soviet Union, Argentina, Mexico, Japan; a truly unprecedented gathering of artists will be coming together celebrating Jewish culture.

We are presenting it in celebration of our 100th anniversary as a manifestation of how Yiddish was a central part of the Jewish panorama 100 years ago and Yiddish and Jewish culture can and should still be, not necessarily only as a spoken language.


Q: How did the Stamford concert in memory of Hesh Romanowitz come about?

A: We’re celebrating the Yiddish heart of Paul Robeson, who was a great advocate for the oppressed and who embraced Yiddish culture because he was involved with Solomon Mikhoels of the Yiddish theater in Moscow. So our purpose, in presenting an evening of Paul Robeson, is to really celebrate all the different ways Yiddish culture has manifested itself. In the voice and talent of Elmore James, it’s quite electrifying and exciting music.

Hesh was a dear friend; he went to the same Yiddish summer camp that I did, Camp Boiberik, and every time I would see him he would speak in Yiddish to me. I was introduced to him by my wife’s uncle and aunt, Saul and Mimi Cohen, also of Stamford, and Hesh and [his wife] Sheila became very strong supporters of the Yiddish Theatre. Hesh sponsored a concert in Stamford, a Yiddishe Chanukah program that we did in 2012 and he actually did everything for that concert, including schlepping the grand piano from one room to the other with some help. He was hands-on; this was somebody who cared about Yiddish culture in such a passionate way that he wanted to make sure that everything was taken care of.

It’s in his loving memory that Sheila has endowed this concert and for me, it’s a personal connection because of his heart. For me, I met many people, and when I would speak with Hesh, I felt this kind of mishpocha kind of feeling, this hamish feeling, because he really cared. As we’ve learned about his incredible philanthropy, not necessarily only from a monetary point, but his goodness as the kind of pediatrician that he was, how the whole community came out to celebrate him – that was a nice surprise for me because I didn’t know that about him to that extent; but it wasn’t a surprise because I could imagine that in his work he was the same kind of all-giving person.

I believe that the great humanist that Hesh was is reflected in the fact that we have reached out to this African-American man, Elmore James, and he actually came to us wanting to learn Yiddish because of his interest in Paul Robeson. I think that it’s a tribute to Hesh’s humanism and conscience of social justice that I believe would resonate very much for him in hearing this concert and I believe that’s one of the reasons that Sheila chose it.


Q: How is Paul Robeson connected to Yiddish music?

A: Paul Robeson was a great singer but at the same time he was a great social activist and he became involved in the Communist Party in the ‘30s and went to Russia. His passion for the ideal of Communism was so strong in him because, as an oppressed African-American, he could see the justice of it. Of course, this was before Stalin corrupted it. But in that way, he was an idealist and he went to Russia and befriended many of the Jewish communists there, including actor Solomon Mikhoels, the director of the Moscow State Jewish Theater [and head of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee in the Soviet Union]. Unfortunately, Mikhoels suffered the same fate that many of the Yiddish writers and physicians and activists did – Stalin had them all murdered.

When we speak about Robeson’s contributions, we speak about the awareness he brought to a whole new community in America of social justice and also this whole avenue of Yiddish song that resonated for him; it was songs of social justice that resonated with Robeson the most.

We did a program called “Soul to Soul” with Cantor Magda Fishman at Temple Beth El in Stamford, and created a piece in which we celebrate the commonalities of the African-American musical heritage and the Yiddish musical heritage. Magda will be a part of this concert. The Stamford program is focused on Robeson himself.


Q: Where does Morris Rosenfeld come into play?

A: Morris Rosenfeld was a poet who chronicled the life of the working poor immigrants. He was a leader of what was known as the “Sweat Shop Poets” movement.

Rosenfeld’s work resonated deeply with Paul Robeson, who shared his convictions that social and economic justice were central to alleviating the suffering of the American underclass, which included both the African-American community as well as the waves of immigrants living in urban slums and living as wage slaves in dangerous and unfair conditions.


Q: How did Elmore James become involved in “From Rosenfeld to Robeson?”

james elmore

Elmore James

A: Elmore James is a former Broadway actor and sang at the Metropolitan Opera as well. He was exploring his own repertoire and came across Paul Robeson and when he came across the Yiddish, he was looking for somebody to teach him the Yiddish. He went into a bookstore and the owner said, “You should call Theodore Bikel if you want help in the Yiddish.” So he called Theo Bikel and Bikel said, “Actually, the person you should speak to is Zalmen Mlotek, who knows this material and can really help you.”

That’s how I became friendly with Elmore and when I heard his voice I was really excited, so much that I spent a lot of time with him teaching him material and exploring other songs with him. Now, this is a concert that we’re touring around the country. We did it in Warsaw for their Festival of Jewish Culture last October and it was very well-received.


Q: How do you teach a Yiddish beginner like Elmore James?

A: Because any singer who wants to be able to communicate has to know what every word means – besides the correct pronunciation, really to understand the nature of the word – we would spend hours and hours going over words and pronunciation. He has a tremendous ear so he would get the pronunciation. But it was really integrating the sound of the language and the music and the depth of the language so that it could come out of his mouth and out of his soul in a natural way, in his own way. That has taken time, but he’s developed into what I consider a true artist of this repertoire because he treats it with the same kind of respect that he treats any piece of music and that’s crucial for any singer. Our sessions were really about putting the songs and the words into the context of life – not only Jewish life but historical life.

So when we sing a song of the Holocaust, it would have special resonance on another level because we’re dealing with history. When we deal with the Civil Rights movement, it also resonates, on another, deeper level as well.


Q: There seems to be a gamut of Jewish cultural revival in Europe, from bona fide international festivals to carved “lucky Jew” figurines in Poland that trade on and perpetuate ugly stereotypes. What’s your take on this range of expressions of Jewish life?

A: It runs the spectrum, just like any place in America and any place in the world, and it runs from the kitsch to the authentic and to the honest and intellectual pursuit and everything in between. You have tremendous creative, artistic achievements going on in lots of cities all over Europe. They haven’t made it big time yet but we’re hearing about them and we’re seeing it and they do have these festivals in London and Paris and Krakow of new Yiddish culture.

I see it as just another sign of how vital and how vibrant and how rich this culture is, that people who have no nostalgic connections whatsoever are finding ways to manifest and create it in their own way. So I see it all as positive and, while I don’t personally like everything, there’s a lot that is exciting to see. You’ll have a little bit of the kitsch and a little bit of the souvenir “Jew doll” but at the same time, you’ll also see a real interest from people who are wanting to dig and wanting to create in new ways.


“From Rosenfeld to Robeson” starring Elmore James and Zalmen Mlotek, with special guest appearance by Cantor Magda Fishman will be presented on Thursday, March 19, 7:30 p.m., at Temple Beth El, 350 Roxbury Road, Stamford. Admission is free. For information call (203) 322-6901 or visit tbe.org.

Co-sponsored by ADL, Chavurat Aytz Chayim, Congregation Agudath Sholom, Jewish Historical Society of Fairfield County, Selah, Temple Beth El, Temple Sinai, UJA/JCC Greenwich, United Jewish Federation of Greater Stamford, New Canaan and Darien, Union Baptist Church, and Young Israel of Stamford.

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