James, Magda Fishman, Tony Perry, Lisa Fishman
By R. Pikser
Mlotek, Musical Director of the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene put
together some stirring music and some outstanding performers on the occasion of
Martin Luther King Jr.ís birthday this year.
set the mood of the performance, connecting the African American and Jewish
worlds, he invited Rabbi Marc Schneier and entrepreneur Russell Simmons,
creators of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding to open the program.† Rabbi
Schneier was especially eloquent on the participation of Jews in the civil
rights movement.† His remarks included a discussion of the ninth plague that
smote the people of Egypt when the Jews were attempting to leave that land, the
plague of darkness.† But, he told us, the darkness was not blindness of the
eyes; rather, it was darkness of the heart:† It caused people not to care about
one another.† Rabbi Schneier called upon those in the audience, on us all, to
realize that we are all the same.† In essence he called on us to fight such
internal darkness as the Egyptians experienced.† His speech set a beautiful
tone on which to begin this concert about connecting across cultures.
song, ranging across R&B, spirituals, Yiddish songs, Cab Calloway and Louis
Armstrong, to Beethoven, was introduced by a few lines of speech concerning
racism or attempts to cross the boundaries of racism.† These introductions were
sometimes personal reminiscences from the performers about their experiences
with racism, or how they came to work with the Folksbiene group; sometimes they
were a commentary about the projections that filled the screen behind the
performers.† One such comment, accompanying a picture of the liberation of
Buchenwald, laconically stated that one of the liberators shown in the picture,
a Negro, was serving in a segregated unit of the United States Army.† The
audience was left to make its connections.
instrumental and vocal performances were excellent, with notable solos by
clarinetist Dmitri Zisl Stepovich.†
the four singers, Cantor Magda Fishman, when she allowed the music to carry her
away, took us with her.† Tenor Tony Perry charmed us with both his voice and
his presence, and Lisa Fishman performed skillfully.
baritone Elmore James was transcendent, both as singer and actor.† With his
Yiddish songs and his physicalizations he took us back to the small Eastern
European Jewish villages called shtetls.† With his spirituals he took us from
the pre-Civil War South along the Underground Railroad to freedom in the
North.† His interpretation of a song about a pogrom, a destruction of a shtetl,
which might have been a complaint, became a call to action, at once totally
controlled and totally inspiring.
behind the performers were of Marc Chagall pictures, news photos of freedom marches,
of concentration camps, and more.† Additionally, there were super titles in
English, Russian, and, at one point, a transliteration into English of a
Yiddish song so that the audience could join in the singing.
audience left smiling, energized and perhaps thinking about reaching across the
divides that we think separate us to find how we are each like the other.†
Photos by Victor
Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene
of Jewish Museum