Folksbiene, MJH Get Hitched
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Folksbiene, MJH Get Hitched

Potential merger of Yiddish theater company and Museum of Jewish Heritage seen as ‘win-win.’

Engaged at 100.

The National Yiddish Theater-Folksbiene marks its 100th birthday tonight with a gala concert at Carnegie Hall featuring Itzhak Perlman and a major announcement: The NYTF and the Museum of Jewish Heritage-A Living Memorial to the Holocaust are joining in a strategic partnership. On Tuesday morning, officials of both organizations signed a memorandum of understanding that will give the groups two years to explore a potential merger. According to the plan, the NYTF will become the resident theater company at the museum, and the two organizations will work together to showcase performances, integrated programming and educational opportunities.

In conversations, leaders of the two cultural organizations offered marriage metaphors, speaking of an engagement followed by courtship or a period of living together to see if they are compatible. Several used the work beshert, Yiddish for fate or destiny, or meant to be.

“This makes huge sense in every way,” says Bruce Ratner, executive chairman of Forest City Ratner Companies, chairman of the MJH and gala chair, who will make the announcement to an expected sellout audience of 2,800 people. “These are two organizations with a similar mission — to encourage and promote our Jewish heritage in every way possible.”

Each group will have a key need met: After years of performing in different locales around the city, the NYTF will get its own home, which includes the 375-seat Edmond J. Safra Hall, and the museum will get thousands of new visitors to its downtown location. From the waterfront building designed by architect Kevin Roche in the shape of a six-pointed star, visitors have a clear view of the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island — sites at the heart of both institutions.

“The museum tells stories through artifacts and photographs; we tell stories through the performing arts,” managing director Bryna Wasserman says. These days, the NYTF presents their shows in Yiddish with English and Russian supertitles, and some performances are in English.

“We’re all about partnering,” David Marwell, museum director and CEO says, noting that they already have initiatives with Jewish Gen (the genealogy website) and the Auschwitz Jewish Center. He explains that they’ll need to do improvements to Safra Hall for theatrical performances and create another space for lectures, and they will have to raise about $1.2 million. But they have temporary solutions in the interim.

“There’s no limit to what we’ll be able to do.” Marwell says.

For Zalmen Mlotek, artistic director of NYTF, having a home of their own has long been a dream. “I see it as a center of performing arts, a place where young children of all ages can come and learn about their heritage, whether through workshops with educators or performances they come to see.”

“Here, as we enter our 100th year, we have this opportunity to have space, to have classes, to bring in young people. It’s really a sign for all the naysayers who are worried about the demise of Yiddish. Here we are about to start on a new page.”

Chris Massimine, executive producer of NYTF, speaks of multi-platforms, with events that look different from anything happening in the city.

Ratner, whose parents spoke Yiddish, previously met with the Folksbiene about helping to find a permanent home, and when he took on the chairmanship of MJH about a year ago, they picked up the conversation.

In June, MJH serves as home base for KulturefestNYC, a weeklong citywide celebration of Jewish culture, presented by NYTF in collaboration with UJA-Federation of New York. In the fall, the NYTF will launch its 101st season at MJH.

“This is win-win,” says Jerome Chanes, a writer, scholar, former executive of the National Foundation for Jewish culture and a culture watcher.

“Here’s a way to develop a program that’s unusually broad and unusually deep, that’s entirely consistent with the agenda and mission of both institutions.”

Stephen J. Whitfield, a historian at Brandeis University who holds the Max Richter chair in American Civilization and is the author of “In Search of American Jewish Culture,” tells The Jewish Week, “The proposed merger demonstrates the truism of cultural historians that their subject is never static, that Jewish culture is something both dynamic and energetic, as circumstances dictate. In the long course of Jewish history, of course, these institutions are of very recent vintage, which only proves how much Jewish culture is a story of innovation as continuity.”

editor@jewishweek.org

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