Motl Didner on the History and Success of Folksbiene and Its Most Recent Historical Production ‘The Sorceress’

Motl Didner. Photo credit: Victor Nechay – Properpix.com.

Moti Didner has indeed chosen the right career path. As the Associate Artistic Director of the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene in NYC, his daily world revolves around the theater and Yiddish language, two of his life-long passions.

In addition to directing, producing, and occasionally appearing on stage in critically acclaimed productions, he oversees the Folksbiene’s Outreach and Education program, which include Yiddish language and performing arts classes and workshops for children and adults. Motl is a fourth-generation Workmen’s Circle member and a former member of the WC/AR National Executive Board. He offers “Instant Yiddish” classes before Folksbiene performances and teaches Yiddish 101 classes. 

The National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene [NYTF] is currently located at the Museum of Jewish Heritage and is the longest continuously producing Yiddish theatre company in the world. The Award-winning NYTF company presents plays, musicals, concerts, lectures, interactive educational workshops, and community-building activities in English and Yiddish, with English and Russian supertitles accompanying performances. 

The recent success of “Fiddler on the Roof” in Yiddish has put Folksbiene in the spotlight. It has won multiple awards, including a Drama Desk Award, Outer Critics Circle Award, Drama Critics’ Circle Award, and Lortel Award. The theater just showcased “The Sorceress: A Yiddish Musical Fantasy.”

I recently chatted with Motl about his recent success, the background and amazing history behind recently restoring and bringing “The Sorceress” to NYC, and the challenges that come with producing Yiddish theater here.

This conversation has been condensed and edited for publication purposes.

What brought you to Folksbiene? Did you have a solid Jewish background yourself?

MD: I grew up with a strong sense of Jewish identity. I did not grow up in a Yiddish speaking family. My grandparents spoke Yiddish, not my parents, but it was a secret language. That’s a very common story amongst Jewish families. I went to an American Hebrew School until I was 17, but Yiddish helped me unpack a part of my identity.  I was in my late 20s when I started studying Yiddish formally at the Workmen’s Circle and YIVO at Columbia University and later went on to join Folksbiene. It was just a matter of marrying my two loves of theater and Yiddish language.

There seems to be a rebirth in interest in Yiddish theater. How do you explain that?

MD: It’s not a very new development. It seems to come to fruition that the resurgence of interest in Yiddish is rooted even as far back as the 60s when universities started Jewish Studies studying Yiddish as part of world literature. So, it began as an academic movement, and in the 1970s and 1980s, there was a significant revival of interest in Klezmer music. That was the avant-garde when a new generation of artists started to express themselves in Yiddish, like with the Klezmatics as a prime example. Then younger people began to come to the theater as Yiddish theater started professionalizing through the 1990s and beyond. Now we are reaching new heights, of course, with “Fiddler on the Roof.” We have the cream of the crop with actors in New York coming to audition. They don’t speak the language, but they are willing to learn to do productions with us.

Yiddish is not a very popular language in 2020. How do the actors learn the language?

MD: Before they get the job, we give them a page or so of text in transliteration, a straightforward English translation where you can match up what each word means. We present them recordings for practice. Those at the auditions who show an aptitude for the language we work with them a little bit and see how they take to the coaching. We generally work with quadruple threats – actors who have singing, acting, and dance abilities, and can do all that in Yiddish. Once they are on board, we have coaching with them so they can hit the ground running in rehearsals. It’s an ongoing process. For “Fiddler,” I’m still there, working with them on Yiddish.

How has the organization changed over the years? The population who spoke Yiddish isn’t necessarily here anymore.

MD: Absolutely. More and more audiences are reliant on the supertitles. We are seeing more general population audience members who themselves are not necessarily Jewish or Yiddish speakers. We’ve seen a generational shirt. We aren’t seeing as many Holocaust survivors anymore, but we’re seeing their children and their grandchildren coming to our shows.

You’ve moved the theater around a few times until now, arriving at the Jewish Heritage Museum.

MD: We have been wandering Jews for quite some time. We were in residence at the Performing Arts Center at Baruch College for six years. Before that, we were at the JCC in Manhattan for six years. Before that, we bounced around for a few years. We were residents at Central Synagogue in the 1990s for many years before a big fire that misplaced us. Before that, we were way downtown in a small theater in the building on East Broadway.

 What are the challenges that come with producing this kind of theater?

MD: The biggest hurdle, of course, to overcome is even when you are doing a show like Fiddler, which is iconic and beloved, there are always people who say that Yiddish is not for me. We have supertitles to make it easy to follow belong. We’ve had that to overcome. The quality of production usually speaks for itself. We’ve had eight Drama Desk nominations in the past 15 years, and “Fiddler” won for Best Revival of a Musical, beating out a lot of Broadway shows. So, once people come and see the work, I think that they like it and realize that it’s not so hard to follow at all. But we have to get them in the theater.

Actors Josh Kohane and Mikhl Yashinsky from “The Sorceress.” Photo ©Victor Nechay – Properpix.com.

“The Sorceress,” which just ended, is the first-born child of the Yiddish Theatre Global Restoration Initiative. Can you please talk about that initiative?

MD: Three seasons ago, we had a massive hit with a show called “The Golden Bride,” which was a 1923 operetta. It was brought to us with a bow on top. All the work was done by a guy called Michael Ochs, who was a musical librarian at Harvard. He had rediscovered this score and did all of his research on the orchestral parts and libretto. He did all the work of restoring it in a digital format and got it published. Sections had been hand-copied. He found a printed libretto in the Library of Congress. It takes a lot of work and time to restore something like this. 

We were so inspired. It was in 2016, and audiences were hungry for this type of significant historical work, so we launched our initiative. We decided that the first project we would take on would be “The Sorceress” because it was the first presented piece of Yiddish theater in America ever. European-Jewish migration was just getting underway. We located a printed libretto for this one and found a published score. This was before people had radios, they had record players, so people played off their pianos. We found a vocal book from the turn of the century. It was digitized in a collection of the Library of Congress. The amazing find was at YIVO, the Institute of Jewish Research, we found instrumental parts of production from Odessa in 1908. They were the actual musical parts that the orchestra played. They were all hand copied. The documents were over 100 years old. The edges were crumbling and turning in the dust. There were cigarette holes in some of the pages, which had been in the theater library in Vilnius. That was part of the YIVO collection prior to the Holocaust.

When the Germans occupied Vilnius in 1941, they ordered the scholars to turn over about a third of the documents to determine what the most important documents were. They were shipped to Berlin. The scholars at YIVO smuggled them out of the archives and library in clothes and empty milk cans and hollow sections of walls and floorboards, wherever they could hide them in hopes of being recovered after the war. A lot of the material was recovered after the war and sent to YIVO in 1947.

Talk about your collaboration with Zalmen Mlotek, in particular, with reference to this production.

MD: He’s the Artistic Director. I’m the Associate Artistic Director, so we work very carefully and have for the last sixteen years. When we approached this, we approached like any other production. We trust each other to work within our specialties and strengths. He restores music. In my case, I deal with the staging and visuals of the production. He also provides vocal coaching to the performers, and I deal with the book scenes.

Do your productions go to Israel?

MD: We have not gone to Israel; we would love to go. Zalmen has gone several times. We would like to go. We have invited the Yiddish Guild to come to perform in New York as part of our Folksbienne Centennial Kulturfest in 2015. We have also worked with the Yiddish Theater in Bucharest and Romania and would happily accept an invitation from any company in Israel.

About the Author
Holly Rosen Fink is a writer and marketing consultant living in Larchmont, New York with her husband and two children.
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