Kulturfest Dazzled All Week

06/22/2015 11:38 am ET | Updated Jun 22, 2016

By now everyone knows that the birth of the State of Israel in 1948 was a godsend for the Jewish people but a portentous event for the diaspora's cultural heritage. (Of course, it was also earthshattering from the perspective of Palestinian Arabs.) The center of the Jewish universe migrated from Europe and America and coalesced in Israel with a new language and a positively Middle Eastern manner of cultural expression. Harsh Hebrew replaced sweet Yiddish; liturgical words were reshaped for common speech, and the witty idioms and ballsy humor of the mamaloshen started to lose its hold among the once fluent with each passing day.

And there was more.

The quaintly impoverished shtetls with their upside down cows and trembling Jews, painted in wild greens and blood reds by Marc Chagall, gave way to Jerusalem landscapes with sandy hills baked in blinding light. Israeli and Yemenite folk-dances stepped all over the separated circles of the Hasidim with their elaborate hand gestures and stuttering feet.

The rich world of Yiddish theater and art, which dominated Jewish culture on the streets of Warsaw, Poland and the Lower East Side of New York, was going the way of Latin and Aramaic. Scores of theaters slowly closed, and with them all those melodic scores that were morphing into Tin Pan Alley and Brill Building musical standards.

But the language and music of Yiddish, which many feared would fade into obsolescence, didn't disappear. Indeed, for the past week in New York City, if one didn't know better, one would have believed that the ghosts of Yiddish past had come alive and reclaimed its old haunts and recruited an entirely new cadre of Yiddish lovers and aficionados.

This weekend marked the end of Kulturfest, which was produced by National Yiddish Theater-Folksbiene, and its dynamic executive director, Bryna Wasserman, It was a weeklong extravaganza of Yiddish cultural offerings in theater, film and dance. And in keeping with the spirit of the heyday of Yiddish theater, the stars of the week featured Yiddish theater companies from around the world, such as the State Jewish Theater of Romania; Yiddishshpiel, the Yiddish Theater of Israel; Zaftik, a Yiddish troupe from Australia; and the Kaminska Jewish Theater of Warsaw.

Thirty countries in all were represented in these Kulturfest festivities, which included also a day-long symposium organized by NYU's Skirball Department of Hebrew and Judaic Studies at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, which is where the Folskbiene, the only surviving American Yiddish theater company, is now based

Kulturfest featured productions of some of the masters of Yiddish literature, such as Sholem Asch's The Dybbuk (co-directed by Wasserman), Sholom Aleichem's Wandering Stars, and an adaptation of Isaac Bashevis Singer's short story, Gimpel the Fool. But there was no shortage of more modernist works, especially in dance and film.

The always enchanting klezmer violin of New York treasure, Alicia Svigals, was very much in evidence with her original score for the silent film, The Yellow Ticket, and a live performance at Joe's Pub. Ron Rifkin, Joel Grey and Debra Monk offered a selection of Yiddish songs under the musical direction of Yiddish impresario, Zalmen Mlotek. The 14th Street Y's LABA: A Laboratory for Jewish Culture, was responsible for a new play by the performance artist Yehuda Hyman.

Kulturfest concluded with a musical biography film of Sholom Aleichem, narrated by Emmy-winning actor Alan Alda and performed by the multi-talented legend Theodore Bikel, who, by the way, has portrayed Tevye the Milkman from Fiddler on the Roof more times than any musical performer on the planet.

So after that curtain call, what's next for Yiddish art and culture? It was a glorious and ambitious week, indeed. Folksbiene very much plans a reprise. The inaugural Kulturfest was intended to be a tease, with audiences clamoring for more. Now that they had been given such a sumptuous taste, how can they get Yiddish out of their heads?

But the language itself is still mainly spoken only in Hasidic communities, and who knows how many of them actually attended this primarily secular spectacle. There will, regrettably, never be enough to keep the faith and give Kulturfest its critical mass. It will always depend on a magical mix of nostalgia, curiosity and, of course, mazel.