Most of us first heard of Daniel Kahn right after the great poet and singer Leonard Cohen died in November 2016.
We saw a YouTube video of Kahn, sitting quietly, almost unmoving, wearing a white T-shirt, a vest, a cap, and a watch — for some reason, maybe because the whole thing is so unembellished, the watch is noticeable — singing Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” in Yiddish.
Even to those of us who don’t understand Yiddish, even to some of us (and this group absolutely does not include me) who found the song so oversung as to have become hackneyed, the Yiddish version, in its simplicity and beauty, in its unsparing unblinking beauty, is magnetically compelling.
Last summer, Mr. Kahn — an American who now lives in Berlin — came back to New York to perform in the Folksbiene’s “Amerike — The Golden Land.” He sang “Romania,” another song that many people declare to be pure schmaltz (those people absolutely do not include me) in a way that turned chicken fat into purest gold. It was impossible not to watch him, and it was impossible not to love it.
This summer, Mr. Kahn will be back in New York, where he will be Perchik in the Folksbiene’s upcoming Yiddish version of “Fiddler on the Roof,” but before that he will receive the Mlotek Prize for Yiddish Continuity at this year’s SummerStage Yiddish Under the Stars.
It’s an extraordinary experience, Yiddish Under the Stars. You sit outside in Central Park watching the light fade and the stars present themselves; if you’re lucky the summer air is soft (we won’t think about what happens if you’re not lucky) and the sounds are so very inescapably and exuberantly and passionately Jewish.
This summer’s performance, set for Wednesday, June 13, at 7, is the fourth year in this incarnation, the Folksbiene’s artistic director, Zalmen Mlotek of Teaneck, said. But it’s the 50th anniversary of the very first such outdoors performance. “The original impetus came from my father,” Zalmen said; his father, Joseph, and his mother, Chana, were towering figures in the worlds of Yiddish language and music. “This year happens to be my father’s centenary,” Zalmen added.
Fifty years later, in 1968, the performance — at the band shell in Central Park —drew 25,000 people. That’s a huge crowd, then and now. Many of them were Holocaust survivors; “then they were people maybe at most in their 60s, not octogenarians and nonagenarians, as they are today,” Zalmen said. “Also there were younger people. I was there, and so were my mother, my aunt, and my grandparents, sitting in the fourth row.”
And so were such luminaries as John V. Lindsay, then New York City’s dashing, glamorous mayor. So, as both performers and audience members, were the stars of the Yiddish stage. They had expected a crowd, but not as big as what they had. “How could they have expected that?” Zalmen asked.
The concerts were annual for many years. Eventually they moved to Damrosch Park at Lincoln Center, a smaller space but still quintessentially New York. “Many years ago” — it was in the early 1990s — “we did one there and got the idea to invite Itzhak Perlman,” Zalmen said. “We didn’t publicize it, so no one officially knew, but somehow word got out. The place was packed, with 6,000 people. It was a major event.
“So Perlman sits down and starts to play Yiddish music, and he loved it so much that he was motivated to do ‘In the Fiddler’s House’ — the recording and the film. It all came from that moment.”
Since then, there have been many versions of the festival; it moved to SummerStage four years ago. “I decided that I wanted to try to attract the more religious Yiddish-speaking crowd, the crowd that won’t go to the theater because of kol isha” — the prohibition against men listening to a woman’s voice raised in song — “but they might come to a concert if there were only men performing. So for two years, we had only men, and because I got major stars from the chasidic world, it was packed with that crowd.
“But after the second year I started to get grumblings from the broader Yiddish community, asking me how about getting some women, so last year we had a woman sing, and this year I decided to mix it up completely.
“In addition to the fantastic Frank London” — that’s the klezmer trumpet player who is a major force behind the revival of klezmer in the last few decades, and who is marvelous in just about every way — “and Dan Kahn and Andy Statman, we will have people like Basya Schechter of Pharaoh’s Daughter, who is at Romemu” — the New Age synagogue on the Upper West Side — “and Eleanor Reissa and Magda Fishman. These are all powerhouses, these women. They are amazing performers.
“And then we decided to be really different, and to get Jackie Hoffman, who is playing Yenta, to emcee.”
Is it different to play a concert outside? I know that it feels different, like sitting in velvet, if you can imagine velvet streaked with airplanes. It is different, Zalmen confirmed. “It influences our choices,” he said. “We know that people listen differently outside, because there is so much more to take in then there is when you’re in a concert hall. You have to grab people with something more dramatic. With something very dramatic.” You don’t have to be louder or faster, necessarily, he said, but you do have to be broader, in ways that might be grotesque in a small space. And also, he added, the audience can participate more. People can dance or sing along; there is more space and somehow more freedom as well.
Last year’s concert was exhilarating. All those elements that Zalmen mentioned — the space, the light turning to twilight turning to darkness, the sense of being all together, freed by community — they all work.
The performance is free; the line starts at 72nd Street and Fifth Avenue, and the doors open at 6 for the 7 o’clock performance.