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The Essence

A Yiddish theater dim sum

 
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This year’s New York International Fringe Festival offers a delightful introduction to the original international language — Yiddish! Three talented and familiar performers on the local Yiddish theater scene — Steve Sterner, Alan Lewis Rickman, and Yelena Shmulenson — have updated a revue they introduced in 2007 at the New Yiddish Rep, added new material and songs, and are presenting it at the Moss Theater at 440 Lafayette, right across from the Public Theatre.

Through songs, skits, and narrative, “The Essence” attempts to give the audience an overview of Yiddish theater from its origins in Romania to its establishment on New York’s Lower East Side, with some sidelong glances at the Yiddish theater in the Soviet Union and Israel. Writer-director Rickman avoids the standard sentimentality (although not the Eastern European biases against German Jews) and provides the audience with a fast-moving, funny, and informative show. One of the funniest bits is his deadpan interpretation of the lyrics to “Papirosen” as Sterner sings the maudlin Yiddish version of “The Little Match Girl.” Sterner is also hilarious as a Yiddish-speaking Jesus Christ in a skit dramatizing the fact that Christian missionaries are still publishing the Gospels in Yiddish. Who could their intended converts be?

Even for the viewer familiar with the colorful history of Yiddish theater, there’s a lot of interesting material here. Who knew that John Barrymore was a fan, going frequently to the Lower East Side? Or that Bing Crosby, “one of the whitest people on earth,” loved the Yiddish theater? Rickman makes the point that the acting styles of Yiddish theater, its set designs, its cult of personality, all affected the American theater as well. There was constant crossover, with Yiddish theater stars going to vaudeville and Broadway, and Yiddish theaters translating and performing English-language shows. When Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” was produced in Yiddish, people swore that it must have been the original, and the Broadway version a translation. That makes perfect sense to many Jews who know the play.

Fans of the Coen brothers will recognize Rickman and Shmulenson as the Yiddish-speaking husband and wife at the beginning of their film “A Serious Man,” and both actors have appeared off-Broadway, in film, television, and many productions of the Folksbiene — National Yiddish Theater. Musical director Sterner also has performed in many Folksbiene productions, as well as “Oh, Brother!” “Yiddle with a Fiddle,” and “Vagabond Stars.” He is the house pianist at the Film Forum, accompanying silent movies.

Although “The Essence” pays attention to the sad story of the Yiddish theater in the Soviet Union, where its champion Solomon Mikhoels was murdered by Stalin, the leader he’d revered, and in Israel, the only country that expressly prohibited Yiddish theater, most of the show is a celebration of the wit, charm, and verve of this integral part of Jewish culture. And the future looks promising, according to Rickman. After all, Yiddish is the preferred Jewish language of the gay community, and we all know that there is no theater without them.

Go to www.essenceofyiddishtheatre.com for more information.

 
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Her own voice

Neshama Carlebach talks about her father, her faith, her music, and kol isha

To say that Neshama Carlebach was born into a family that surrounded her with music is to understate blandly and grandly and ludicrously.

She was born into a family that understood music to be, as she puts it, “the heartbeat, the pulse, the life-saving force. It helps connect you to the people beside you, to yourself, and to God. It allows you to look at yourself, and to think about why you’re here.

“Music is the voice of the soul.”

Her father, Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, was a man of intense charisma, who used the music he created and played and sang to mesmerizing effect, at times bringing people back to the Judaism they had never known before they left it. It is not an overstatement to say that his music has reinvigorated religious services across the religious spectrum; much of the joyous life that exists in some parts of the liberal world can be traced back to him. His songs and niggunim are so well known that many of us think they must be folk melodies with age-old roots, not 20th-century composed works.

 

Safam turns 40

‘Jewish supergroup’ to play concert in Fair Lawn

So they’re not as old as, say, the Rolling Stones — they’ve been together a mere 40 years, compared to the Stones’ 52 — and they are famous in a much smaller world. Still, in that world, Safam is a very big name.

So the fact that it is choosing to celebrate its 40th anniversary in Fair Lawn is big news.

Safam’s four founding members — who, impressively, still are Safam today — met at the Zamir Chorale. Most of them were graduate students, and all of them lived in Boston. Each was pursuing a career, but they all loved to sing. Soon they realized that as much as they loved singing choral music, it was not enough for them.

 

‘The Megillah of Itzik Manger’

When Adar begins, joy increases.

And Adar II means a double helping of the joy encountered in the National Yiddish Theatre — Folksbiene’s critically acclaimed musical production of “The Megile of Itzik Manger,” which has returned to Baruch Performing Arts Center for a two-week limited engagement through March 16.

Several of the inspired design team, including production designer Jenny Romaine and lighting designer Natalie Robin, have returned, and Moti Didner, the Folksbiene’s associate artistic director, is directing once more. That is great news.

 

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Educator takes on roles of songwriter, singer, and instrumentalist

With so many good things happening recently, it’s not surprising that Rabbi David Schlusselberg of Teaneck is on a high.

In March, he was granted semichah — Orthodox rabbinic credentials — by Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary. He also recorded his first CD, “Mizmor L’Dovid,” for which he not only wrote the songs but provided the vocals and played many of the instruments.

Rabbi Schlusselberg, 27, is thrilled with both accomplishments. “I love teaching at the Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School in Livingston,” he said. An instructor of Talmud, Bible, and Judaica electives, Rabbi Schlusselberg said he definitely plans to continue at the school — this despite the fact that since the CD came out, his 12th graders have made him feel “like I’m famous.”

 

Her own voice

Neshama Carlebach talks about her father, her faith, her music, and kol isha

To say that Neshama Carlebach was born into a family that surrounded her with music is to understate blandly and grandly and ludicrously.

She was born into a family that understood music to be, as she puts it, “the heartbeat, the pulse, the life-saving force. It helps connect you to the people beside you, to yourself, and to God. It allows you to look at yourself, and to think about why you’re here.

“Music is the voice of the soul.”

Her father, Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, was a man of intense charisma, who used the music he created and played and sang to mesmerizing effect, at times bringing people back to the Judaism they had never known before they left it. It is not an overstatement to say that his music has reinvigorated religious services across the religious spectrum; much of the joyous life that exists in some parts of the liberal world can be traced back to him. His songs and niggunim are so well known that many of us think they must be folk melodies with age-old roots, not 20th-century composed works.

 
 
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