A Newish Jewish Broader Inclusive Outreach to Yiddish Souls at Central Park’s Summerstage
By Myra Chanin
I arrived at Yiddish Soul expecting the same old, same old. Boy, was I in for a surprise! Instead of toadying to the grey-haired folks of my generation who may remember their Jewish upbringing with more nostalgia than they displayed when they were living through it, this concert was designed to attract everyone and anyone – from the religiously affiliated to the ethnically non-religious, and particularly young families with children and synagogue affiliations who feel their Jewishness-Yiddishkeit strongly enough to dance in the aisles. Yiddish Soul, the free outdoor concert presented by the 101-year-old National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene as the opening event of its Second Annual KulturfestNYC, was a non-monolithic gathering, an international leap of faith, hosted by WFMU’s Nachum Segal who welcomed one and all and reminded the hungry that Mendy’s Kosher Deli Booth to the right of the stage could provide tasty snacks to satisfy taste buds of all persuasions.
The musical program was diverse and very NOW! It drew from a number of sources: Cantorial and Chassidic superstars, chart busting Hebrew rocksters, a folk-spiritual pop star, a student cappella vocal group, plus a boundary-busting all-star orchestra conducted by Avremi Gourarie with mainstream musicians including Yaron Gershowsky – the renowned keyboardist, arranger & composer recently featured at BB King’s; Frank London — Klezmatics co-founder and high priest of Avant-Klez jazz who’s played with a gamut of performers from Mel Torme to Iggy Pop; Benny Koonyevsky – Latin/Brazilian percussion wizard; Nadav Remez – Brooklyn Jazz Underground recording star; Michael Hall – celebrated bass guitarist; Klezmer Revolutionary Michael Winograd and local trombone legend Daniel Blacksberg plus the savior of Yiddish Musical Theater, Zalman Mlotek.
Yiddish Soul opened with five enthralling New York cantors with magnificent voices singing breathtaking melodies. Yanky Lemmer, a dapper gent in a white dinner jacket, crowns the bima at the Lincoln Square Synagogue. Netanel Hershtik knocks it out of the park in the Hamptons. Joseph Malovany is the pillar of fire at the Fifth Avenue Synagogue. Also Hebrew recording star Benny Friedman, whose fourth CD, “Kol Hanesama Sheli” has set new sales records and Chassidic pop-star Lipa Schmeltzer from the Airmont Shul in upstate New York, a worldwide headliner, aka the Jewish Elvis, is a poster boychick of contemporary Jewish music who’s received 31 million likes on Facebook.
Schmeltzer is what my aunt Fanny called a mahzik, an imp. He arrives on stage in a handsome black and gold kapota, dances while he sings and energizes the audience into dancing with him. Lipa led the crowd in a sing-along Yiddish transliteration of one of the greatest hits ever written by an American-Jewish composer. Not Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America!” We’re talking about the guy that sells out Madison Square Garden ever month. You haven’t lived till you’ve heard “Piano Mench,” sung in Yiddish. Incidentally, Lipa has something in common with Billy Joel. Lipa also has sold out MSG.
Benny Friedman also sang with the Maccabeats, the soul stirring a cappella ensemble who got their start at Yeshiva University and using nothing more than human voices, a clean-cut presentation and a little Jewish humor, connects with fans of all backgrounds and ages.
Another impressive very now group was the equally young, Billboard chart-topping Hassidic hipsters, Zusha – guitarist Zachariah Goldschmiedt, percussionist Elisha Mlotek and lead singer and Rasputin lookalike Shlomo Gaisin. Their debut album Kavana just reached #2 on the Billboard World Album charts with a bullet! To once again quote my sainted Aunt Fanny, “If you live long enough, you live to see everything.”
For me, the highlight of the program was the unexpected appearance of baritone Cameron Johnson, the gorgeous hunk who played the basherter – ordained – bridegroom of The Golden Bride which is coming back with him again playing the basherter from July 4th until August 28th at The Museum of Jewish Heritage 38 Battery Place, NY 10280. Would you believe that a Yiddish show would get two Drama Desk nominations? Believe it and see, because it deserved them. Cameron certainly did.
Everyone at Summerstage not only sang as if they loved the music, they performed as though they loved the audience as much, and the audience loved them back even more, if that’s possible.
A few other recommendations for KulturfestNYC programs:
Monday June 20th @9:30 pm @Joe’s Pub – A Vilde Mikhaya – A Record Release Party starring Eleanor Reissa, Frank London and the Klezmer Brass Allstars.
Sunday July 3rd @11 am @ The City Winery – A Klezmer Brunch with Paul Shapiro with music that occupies a middle ground between big band swing, Yiddish pop and early R&B
What I’m most excited about other than the return of The Golden Bride is the return of Jinta La Mvta – Japan’s premier (and probably only) Klezmer band that returns to repeat its sensation performance from last year’s festival at the Museum of Jewish Heritage. They are marvelous and adorable!
Check www.kulturfestnyc.org for a full schedule, movies, music and what have you. Many are free. There’s something for everyone here. Go and enjoy.
Photos by Victor Nechay