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90-Year-Old Company Keeps Yiddish Theater Alive


Today, when many of the world's folk languages are threatened with extinction, Yiddish -- the mother tongue for most East European Jews before the Holocaust -- has managed to endure. That's partly due to groups like the Folksbiene Theater in New York, which has been producing Yiddish plays since 1915.

At its founding, the city boasted 14 fulltime -- and big time -- Yiddish theaters. The heyday is over, but today's Folksbiene continues to celebrate Yiddish culture for new generations of New Yorkers.

One example of this revival is the theater's recent production of On Second Avenue. The show is a bilingual salute to the vibrant world of Yiddish theater -- which flourished between about 1885 and 1925, when millions of East European Jews emigrated to America.

Folksbiene executive director Zalman Mlotek, who wrote On Second Avenue, says that themes in Yiddish plays helped the newcomers stay in touch with the world they had left behind. "When they came to the theater, they would see images of themselves," he said. "They had melodramas, they had scenes of the shtetls [small Jewish villages in Eastern Europe.] They would see scenes of the synagogue. It was vital for them to maintain this connection."

Robert Paul Abelson agrees. The 75-year-old co-star of On Second Avenue who grew up in a Yiddish-speaking home says the roots of Yiddish theatrical music may lie in the synagogue, but its soul was in the Jewish family. "If you listened to the way they sang, they were unabashedly sentimental," he observes. "They were not afraid of pouring their guts out. Whatever they were feeling, they gave it to you!"

Many hit songs from the Yiddish theater continue to have appeal today, according to Mike Burstyn, the main star of On Second Avenue. Mr. Burstyn was born into the Yiddish theater, where he debuted in 1948, at the age of three. He has since starred on Broadway and abroad, but he's thrilled to be back on the Yiddish stage.

"It's coming home," he says. "My mother and father were great stars, mainstays of the Yiddish theater. And all these people we sing about in On Second Avenue, I remember them as if they were aunts and uncles. Mollie Picon, Menashe Skolnik, Moishe Oysher, the big cantor and actor Lebedev...these were great, great talents."

Mr. Burstyn says no one ever expected the Yiddish theater to disappear. "They thought this would go on forever," he mused, "It was bigger than Broadway!"

In fact, few of the Yiddish stars aspired to leave Second Avenue for the more glamorous mainstream stages uptown, on Broadway. "What? Are you crazy?," Mr. Burstyn says. "In the 1920s, my father was making more money on Second Avenue than any actor would dream of on Broadway. Unfortunately, the older generations started dying out, and the first and second generation Americans wanted to become Americanized…and they totally left the culture and the language. So what we're doing now is trying to keep it alive and not lose that link."

Folksbiene director Zalman Mlotek concedes that Jews constitute a small percentage of the world's population, and that the number of Yiddish speakers is even smaller. Still, he believes the Folksbiene Theater has a message for every minority group. "Holding on to your own culture is connecting with what is most dear to you," he says. "And if you believe in it, and if you believe in the richness of it, then you can convey it and you can create in it. And that goes for any culture."
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