The National Yiddish Theater/Folksbiene has come a long way in its 96th season. In fact, the highlight of its annual cabaret dinner on Dec. 8 at the Bohemian National Hall on the Upper East Side, were two African American actors who brought the house down with their versions of classical Yiddish medleys.
Elmore James, a veteran of five Broadway shows and the Metropolitan Opera, dazzled with “Es Brent” and “Ot Azoy.” Tony Perry, featured in the film “Mickey,” thrilled the audience with his rendition of “Vos Iz Gevorn.”
The chancellor of the City University of New York (CUNY), Matthew Goldstein, gave a Folksbiene award to his heroes, Marion and Elie Wiesel. “Having survived the worst of what humans can do, you represent the best of what humans are capable,” he said.
The Nobel Peace laureate said he learns gemara [Talmud] every day and also enjoys the theater. “I come from Yiddish, I speak it, and I love it. I hear children singing, it warms my heart.”
Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Presidents Conference, presented a Folksbiene award to Ronald Lauder, a past chairman of the conference. “Ronald made a commitment to bring back thousands of Eastern European Jews back to their heritage,” Hoenlein said.
Lauder, currently the head of the World Jewish Congress, recalled a tour of Poland in the 1980s with his adviser, the late Rabbi Heskel Besser. They placed an ad in one city asking people who think they’re Jewish to come to the hotel for a dinner meeting. About 100 showed up.
The rabbi started singing Yiddish lullabies, and soon many in the crowd joined in, hesitantly. Many of them had been children saved from the Holocaust and raised by Christian neighbors. Besser revived early Jewish memories.
“What changed their lives,” Lauder said, “is the Yiddish language.”
Lauder related another visit to Poland in 1988 with Malcolm Hoenlein.
“It must have been one of the coldest places I’ve ever been,” Lauder said. “I was shivering.”
But Hoenlein kept himself warm with a bottle of vodka. He made a speech in perfect Yiddish.
Lauder was surprised. “Malcolm, I didn’t know you spoke Yiddish.”
“Neither did I,” Hoenlein said.
Folksbiene chairman Jeffrey Wiesenfeld observed that “we have the best formula, aside from Birthright Israel, to connect our young people with their tradition.”
Tim Boxer is editor of 15MinutesMagazine.com.