Yiddish Culture Takes Center Stage

An effort to preserve the Yiddish language is getting a boost from the theater world. The artistic director of the National Yiddish Theatre-Folksbiene talks about preserving the language through art.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Now we're going to turn to Faith Matters. That's the part of the program where we talk about matters of faith and spirituality. This was a solemn week for many. Holocaust Remembrance Day was marked this week. That day is set aside to acknowledge the millions, especially Jews, killed during the Nazi campaign of extermination. That campaign was aimed at wiping out the Jewish people, but also their heritage. But others have fought in their own way to be sure they did not succeed.

We're going to meet members of a family who've done as much as anyone to preserve Yiddish language and culture. Zalmen Mlotek is the artistic director of the National Yiddish Theatre-Folksbiene, which will celebrate its centennial next year. His son Avram performs at the theater and is also studying to be a rabbi. And we were able to catch up with them on a trip to Washington where they were part of Holocaust Remembrance Day activities. Welcome to you both. Thank you for coming.

ZALMEN MLOTEK: Thanks so much.

AVRAM MLOTEK: Thanks for having us.

MARTIN: Well, first of all, can you set the table for us? What is Yiddish, and is it different from Hebrew?

Z. MLOTEK: Absolutely. Yiddish was a language - is a language that was spoken in Eastern Europe by millions of Jews. It was originated in Germany, and as Jews traveled throughout Eastern Europe, they brought with them their cultural baggage and their language. And pieces of Polish and Lithuanian and Russian fell into the language, and it developed its own grammar and its own culture. And as Jews emigrated to America, it became the lingua franca of most early American Jews when they came here.

MARTIN: Is Yiddish primarily now transmitted and experienced through theater and through music?

Z. MLOTEK: Through the literature, as well. Much of it is translated. You know, Isaac Bashevis Singer was translated into many, many different languages, Elie Wiesel. But what we're doing at the theater is bringing this material alive through music and through theater, always bilingually so people can understand and see what they're hearing through English and Russian supertitles.

MARTIN: Well, Zalmen Mlotek, you have a heritage. You know, your mother was an...

Z. MLOTEK: Yes.

MARTIN: ...Ethnomusicologist who was famous for preserving, you know, Yiddish song. And your father was a jack-of-all-trades in Yiddish. Is that about right?

Z. MLOTEK: Well, he was a visionary. He came to this country, you know, after his war years and felt that there was a need to bring this culture to new generations. And he acclimated into American society. So he created a festival in Central Park where in 1969, 25,000 people came to hear Yiddish.

MARTIN: Let's talk about - I just want to play a short clip from a recent play that you performed songs of spiritual resistance. I want to play a clip of a song that you perform, Zalmen. Its translated title is "America Has Declared." But how do you say that in Yiddish?

Z. MLOTEK: "Amerike Hot Derklert."

MARTIN: OK. Here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AMERIKE HOT DERKLERT")

Z. MLOTEK: (Singing in Yiddish).

MARTIN: Tell us a little bit about what you're singing about.

Z. MLOTEK: What we're hearing is that this was a street song created by a street singer in the Lodz ghetto in the '40s when word came that there was the talk of a Jewish state, that the partition of Palestine was going to happen. And he got on a milk crate in the middle of the worst - what you can imagine was going on the streets of Poland in those early years in the '40s - and he spoke about this hope that the dream of having a Jewish state, that there might be a time when we might get out of this.

A. MLOTEK: Yankele Hershkowitz.

Z. MLOTEK: Yankele Hershkowitz was his name.

MARTIN: Avram, speaking of which, you kind of inherited this legacy of knowledge about Yiddish. I mean, did you speak Yiddish at home growing up?

A. MLOTEK: It was my first language, my Mame Loshn, as we would say in Yiddish.

MARTIN: Did it set you apart when you were growing up? I mean, were you the only kid on the block who spoke Yiddish at home?

A. MLOTEK: A little bit, but, you know, for me it was always a vibrant thing. We were singing Yiddish songs around our family table or when we'd go to klezmer concerts or Yiddish cultural events. For me, it was a way of connecting with my grandparents and a way of connecting with their friends and communities. And as I got older, I think I developed my own appreciation and relationship with the material itself.

MARTIN: Well, how do you explain to your friends and your peer group - you don't mind my - do you mind my mentioning you're 27?

A. MLOTEK: Sure.

MARTIN: Yeah. And, you know, hip-hop is the, you know - let's just say hip-hop and country are the most popular musical forms in the...

A. MLOTEK: Sure.

MARTIN: ...Country. And I saw you also have another brother who's also into jazz, as I understand it...

A. MLOTEK: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...Which is another fine American form. How do you explain to your peers why you're so interested in it, or do you feel that you need to?

A. MLOTEK: Music or feelings from the heart tend to permeate the heart. I feel that way about jazz. I feel that way about hip-hop and also Yiddish music. There are actually amazing artists who blend hip-hop beats with Yiddish tunes with Hasidic music, artists like Socalled. I also write some of my own music in Yiddish, Hebrew and English with hip-hop beats with my brother, who is a percussionist on the drums. But it's music that comes - that just comes from the soul.

MARTIN: Zalmen, how do you talk about how - why it's important to preserve this language? I mean, Avram grow up speaking Yiddish. You - did you grow up speaking Yiddish?

Z. MLOTEK: I did. I did.

MARTIN: Yeah, but I'm guessing that the number of people who grow up speaking Yiddish...

Z. MLOTEK: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...Is dwindling.

Z. MLOTEK: Yeah. Absolutely. I maintain that it's a window into a whole people and a whole culture that we would never know about. We can read about it in the archives. We can read about in books and in literature, but until you hear the music and until you see the scenes depicted on the stage, you don't get that kind of visceral connection.

At the turn of the century when people - when the Jews came to this country to escape the pogroms in the early 1900s, they flocked to the Yiddish theater. Why? Because they saw on the stage scenes of their life, all kinds of scenes - soap operas, horrible scenes, but scenes of hope, scenes of celebration. And it was always through music. So what I say to new - to young people today is, what we're offering you is a window into a whole culture that is part of your background. And if it's not part of your background, it's a part of the American fabric.

MARTIN: Your theater, the National Yiddish Theatre, is the oldest Yiddish theater in the country.

Z. MLOTEK: It is.

MARTIN: Is it the only one still functioning?

Z. MLOTEK: There are a few other theaters functioning, but we're the longest-running and continuously running for 100 years.

MARTIN: Do you think you'll have another 100 years? I know you're planning for the...

Z. MLOTEK: We...

MARTIN: ...Centennial next year...

Z. MLOTEK: Yeah.

MARTIN: ..Which is going to be a big event.

Z. MLOTEK: Exactly, with countries participating from all over the world bringing their versions of what Jewish culture is. Yeah, we don't see Yiddish as a language that will be a lingua franca again amongst many people. But what we hope is that there will always been an interest into seeing and hearing what this culture is and how it reflected and how it enhanced Jewish life.

MARTIN: This country has kind of an ambivalent feeling about the past, I mean - and what came before. You know, it seems like on the one hand, we revere it. On the other hand we're constantly suspicious of it. We're suspicious of people who hold too closely to the past. And yet, we do make space for that to happen. I noted that lawmakers in Alaska, for example, just voted to make 20 native Alaskan languages official languages of the state. But Yiddish is a language - I think I saw this in a documentary - that has no army, right...

Z. MLOTEK: Right.

MARTIN: ...Behind it. It has no army. It has no nation-state kind of behind it. How do you preserve this, absent that?

Z. MLOTEK: Through its words, through the music, through the poetry, through the literature, through the recipes, through the folksongs, through the folklore, through the stories of plain people of - who just wanted to survive under unspeakable pressures and difficulties.

MARTIN: Well, how would I would say thank you for coming in Yiddish?

Z. MLOTEK: A sheynem dank.

MARTIN: A sheynem dank.

Z. MLOTEK: Perfect.

MARTIN: Thank you both for coming. Zalmen Mlotek is the artistic director of the National Yiddish Theatre-Folksbiene, which will celebrate its centennial next year. His son Avram was also kind enough to join us. He performs at the theater. He's also studying to be a rabbi. Good luck to you...

A. MLOTEK: Thank you.

MARTIN: ...In your studies. And we caught up with them on a trip to Washington, D.C. where they were part of Holocaust Remembrance Day activities. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

Z. MLOTEK: Thanks so much, Michel.

A. MLOTEK: Thanks for having us.

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