Soul to soul

This Monday, we celebrate the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who, as we know, through the echo of the thunder and whisper and cry and song of his speeches, used the Hebrew prophets as an integral part of his own vision and hope.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of his death.

We also remember Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who died in December 23, 1972, and whose yarzheit often falls on or close to Martin Luther King Day; this year, it was last week.

The two men had a huge influence on each other in life; Rabbi Heschel joined Dr. King in marches, as the iconic photos show, and called that “praying with my feet.” Dr. King, at Rabbi Heschel’s behest, spoke before the Conservative rabbis’ Rabbinical Assembly convention, enthralling his listeners with his cadences, so unlike their own yet aimed so unfailingly at their hearts.

The relationship between African Americans and American Jews has gone through many changes; at times it has soured, and at other times it is intense and important.

Zalmen Mlotek is the artistic director of the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene at the Museum of Jewish Heritage at Manhattan’s southern tip. For the third year, he is offering a concert, “Soul to Soul,” at the museum, to celebrate the diversity and unity of the two peoples.

As with so many of Zalmen’s projects, this one is both personal and historic; those two strands combine because they are galvanized by his creativity.

This one started because of Paul Robeson, Zalmen said.

The great African-American performer, enthralled by communism, went to Russia; because of his closeness with an impresario there, he learned Yiddish songs. He loved them. His teacher and friend, Shlomo Mikhoels, was the artistic director of the Moscow State Jewish Theater and the chairman of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee during World War II.

Soon, of course, Stalin turned on Jewish intellectuals and murdered them. (Stalin was an equal opportunity killer. He executed many other intellectuals, and just about everyone else he or his minions could get their murderous hands on.) Mikoels was among those dead Jewish intellectual victims.

Decades later and a world away— in fact, just a few years ago, in New York — an African American singer, Elmore James, went to a Jewish bookstore to learn the Yiddish songs Robeson had sung. The owner sent him to Theodore Bikel, and Bikel sent him to Zalmen.

The Yiddishist strain of socialism was not new to Zalmen, who as an Orthodox Jew, a musician, and a Yiddishist belongs to many Jewish worlds. As a child, he’d gone to a Yiddish summer camp, Camp Hemshekh, many of whose campers’ parents were Holocaust survivors, and many of them also were old-time socialists. “We were children of the 60s,” Zalmen said. “We sang anti-war songs and civil rights songs. These songs were in my blood.”

So when he met Elmore James, he realized that he could put two worlds together, because they’d been together many times before. “I conceived the program to be about the commonality between the African-American spiritual and musical traditional with the Yiddish musical tradition,” he said. “They shared a lot — the struggle with freedom, oppression, and persecution.”

He’s taken the performance around the world and around the country — it’s played in Bucharest and in Houston, among other places; on Monday, MLK Day, it will be at the Museum of Jewish Heritage at 2 p.m.

Zalmen has one other ambition for this program. He’d like it to play in Teaneck. It would be such a natural place for it, he says; not only is the town his longtime home, but it also is home to both African Americans and Jews, who share it but don’t share much else there. “It would be a perfect way to bring the communities together,” he said.

It just needs an underwriter. So, readers — anyone up for that sacred task?


About the Author
Joanne is the editor of the Jewish Standard and lives in Manhattan with her husband and two dogs, so she has firsthand knowledge of two thriving and idiosyncratic Jewish communities. (Actually that's three communities, if you also count the dog people.)
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