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‘Lies My Father Told Me’

Folksbiene tries something new; restages old movie

 
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In ‘Lies My Father Told Me,’ writer Ted Allan relives his Montreal childhood.

The 99-year-old Folksbiene, under the executive direction of Bryna Wasserman, has been trying a lot of new things lately.

This season, its mainstage production is a musical version of the 1975 Academy Award-nominated film “Lies My Father Told Me.” It’s based on a memoir by Ted Allan about his youth in 1920s Montreal. Wasserman, who previously ran the Segal Centre for the Performing Arts in Montreal, introduced the musical there in 2005. Allan’s memories took many forms: first a short story, it was then a radio play, and later a play with music. A straight dramatic version ran at New York’s Jewish Repertory Theater in 1986.

The show at the Baruch Performing Arts Center crowds a huge set onto the relatively small stage and then introduces a cast of 17 — the largest the Folksbiene has ever employed — to tell the unsurprising story of little David, his beloved Zaida, and his perennial-failure father, Harry. While Zaida is loyal to the old ways of Torah and humble work — he’s a rag and bottle man — Harry is constantly scheming to make a fortune.

His inventions, such as a permanent crease in men’s pants, never quite work, but that doesn’t discourage him. As long as he can convince his father-in-law to give him seed money, he keeps going. While the loving and kind-hearted Zaida represents the traditional Jewish world, the mercurial and mean Harry symbolizes the materialism and narcissism of the new.

I think I’ve seen a lot of old Yiddish movies with the same plot. Regardless, the Jews who came to North America quickly got rid of their old ways and joyfully embraced the new. Unfortunately, that’s too nuanced a view for “Lies My Father Told Me,” even though the character of the adult David as narrator could have added some subtlety.

The 16 songs by Elan Kunin, all in English, are tuneful, though not particularly memorable, and show little humor except for one funny number, “Bankrupt.” David is played by the energetic Alex Dreier; Chuck Karel plays Zaida, the role performed by Theodore Bikel in Montreal. Both Dreier and Karel do a fine job (Karel has a beautiful baritone voice), and there’s a lot of talent on stage. This Montreal street has a resident prostitute, an anti-Semitic Irish neighbor, a bunch of kids, a lovable Communist, and others, but the script does not provide enough for them all to do. There are some enjoyable dance numbers, which feel cramped by the tiny space. A smaller, simpler set might have given the production a bit of breathing room. Zaida’s horse, Ferdeleh, is invisible but seems real enough; other characters might have existed in our imagination, too.

One odd choice comes in the second act, after David’s mother has given birth to another son. Until now the show has been strictly PG, but suddenly David announces he wants to nurse just as his baby brother is doing. This leads to a comical conversation with Zaida that feels weirdly out of place, as if we had suddenly been dropped into another show. That could be entirely a personal reaction, but some people might feel uncomfortable bringing young children.

“Lies My Father Told Me” is a deeply Jewish show, no matter the language it is performed in, and for theatergoers who enjoy nostalgic reminiscences, the musical should be satisfying. The world of Montreal Jewry does not seem all that different from the Lower East Side in the 1920s — a lot of people torn between the old and the new, young people adapting to a very different culture, and children finding fun wherever they are.

 
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From the heart

The Hot Club of Cowtown’s Jewish roots

There is some music that comes from a violin — music that is sad or yearning or fierce or mournful or forgiving or pleading or frantic — that bypasses the brain and goes right to the heart and soul.

Sometimes that music can cross cultural divisions, defy expectations, and mock stereotypes.

That might be why Elana James, a nice Jewish girl from the suburbs of Kansas City, is one of the founders of Hot Club of Cowtown, a trio that will bring western swing, jazz, gypsy, and eastern European music to Mexicali Live in Teaneck on March 14 at 8 p.m., as it has brought it to clubs and theaters around the world for nearly 20 years now.

“I’ve played violin since I was 4,” Ms. James said. “I’ve always felt that it is a very Jewish thing.

 

Still your bubby’s Yiddish

Just a bit louder

Somehow, it seems a bit incongruous to see the words Yiddish and rock in the same sentence.

It’s even more startling to hear the phrase Yiddish rock. Still, says Jeffrey Shandler — a professor of Jewish studies at Rutgers and a scholar of contemporary Yiddish culture — that genre of music not only exists but is thriving.

“There’s a tendency to think of the history of the language as ending, or starting to die out, with the Holocaust,” Dr. Shandler said. “That’s not the case. What changed was who uses the language, and how.”

To demonstrate its use in the musical arena, Rutgers’ department of Jewish studies has joined with the Allen and Joan Bildner Center for the Study of Jewish Life at Rutgers to bring the rock band Yiddish Princess to campus on March 10 to perform a free concert.

 

Violinist Joshua Bell on rude criticism,  his teachers, feeling Jewish, and more

One thing that violinist Joshua Bell is not is: pretentious. Although he’s one of the most honored violinists in the world, he doesn’t put on airs.

He admits liking jazz, mentioning that he has performed with such artists as Winton Marsalis and Sting. His hobby: watching football on television. He also enjoys Broadway shows, and recently saw “Phantom of the Opera” — “I had a ball” — although his all-time Broadway favorite is “West Side Story.” And he admits that he’s hurt by negative criticism.

Mr. Bell will be performing at Bergen PAC in Englewood at 8 p.m. on March 27, in a program that includes Beethoven, Brahms, Bartok, and Grieg. (Reserve tickets at (201) 227-2030 or www.bergenpac.org.)

Mr. Bell will use his famous Gibson-Huberman violin, made in 1713 by Antonio Stradivari, which he bought for just under $4 million in 2001. (It’s worth about $15 million today.) Bronislaw Huberman was a famous violinist who rescued some 1,000 people from Nazi Germany in the 1930s by having them play in the all-Jewish Palestine Symphony in Israel, now called the Israel Philharmonic.

 

RECENTLYADDED

Q&A with Jorma Kaukonen on Jefferson Airplane and Judaism

Jorma Kaukonen, who played guitar in classic rock bands Jefferson Airplane and Hot Tuna, recently released “Ain’t In No Hurry,” his first solo album since 2009.

While Kaukonen’s guitar skills are legendary, few people know that he bought his first electric guitar by cashing Israel Bonds he received from his Jewish grandmother. On the eve of Jefferson Airplane’s 50th anniversary, the 74-year-old Kaukonen, who lives in Athens, Ohio with his wife, a Jew-by-choice, talked about his Jewish family roots, the Torah scroll his great-grandfather worked on, and why so many blues guitarists are Jewish. This interview has been condensed and edited.

Q: So you’re half Jewish and you didn’t really have a Jewish upbringing, but I’ve read that if things went differently you could have been Orthodox?

JK: Interestingly enough, my father’s parents came over from Finland in the 1800s and my mother’s came over from Russia. So I’m Jewish on my mother’s side, which of course makes me Jewish. But my grandparents were a really interesting pair of people. My grandmother was a very, very secular Jew, even though she was a lifelong member of Hadassah and all that kind of stuff. And my grandfather, had he not been married to my grandmother, would have been an Orthodox Jew, but that’s not how it played out.

 

Connecting through music

Yemenite singer from Tenafly to take stage in Dumont

An Israeli who has lived in Tenafly for almost two years and a Los Angeles native who has lived in Israel for the past seven years are teaming up for a series of area concerts featuring contemporary arrangements of Hebrew, Arabic, and Yemenite songs.

One of the concerts is set for next Saturday night in Dumont.

The duo is promoting the record they released in February: “The Seal of Solomon,” which they recorded as “Shlomit and Rebbe Soul.”

Shlomit is Shlomit Levi. She grew up in Kiryat Ekron, a largely Yemenite community in central Israel. Her parents came from Yemen as teenagers in the 1950s. Her singing career included recording with Orphaned Land, an Israeli heavy metal group, and performing with Boaz Sharabi.

 

A parent’s plea

‘Do This One Thing for Me’

Jane Elias is a very good daughter.

Her one-woman play, “Do This One Thing for Me,” now at the TBG Theatre on West 36th Street, is a love letter to her father, a Greek Jew who survived Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen.

Whether the play has relevance to a general audience is another matter.

Elias is an actor and writer whose work has been developed with Naked Angels, Access Theater, Core Artist Ensemble, and Stony Brook Southampton. While touching in parts, “Do This One Thing for Me,” written and performed by Elias and directed by Tracy Bersley, feels like a work still in development. Elias has not yet translated her personal experience into a more universal one, or perhaps the play is not personal enough to become more than one woman’s story. It often feels that Elias is skimming over the surface of her emotions, hesitant to descend into depths that may be murky or frightening. Her father seems like a genuinely nice man, but a play should do more than express the anodyne sentiments appropriate to a family celebration.

 
 
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