Never has gefilte fish sounded so sexy.
Eleanor Reissa belted out a number from the Yiddish theater, “ Borsht and Gefilte Fish ,” swaying her hips as she sang, as part of this year’s National Yiddish Theatre – Folksbiene’s gala concert at NYU’s Skirball Center, honoring financier, philanthropist and communal leader Morris W. Offit, 76. Tom Brokaw presented his friend with the award.
Actor Joel Grey, 81, received the Folksbiene’s Lifetime Achievement Award and longtime Folksbiene actor and group sales director Itzy Firestone, who has been in 30 productions since 1976, was also honored.
Grey took over the stage, as he sang “Romania, Romania.” Even as he spoke from the podium, he had one leg lifted as though ready to dance a signature piece from his role in “Cabaret.” He told the wildly-applauding audience that “It feels good” to be on stage. While he didn’t learn Yiddish at home, his father, the actor, comedian, and musician Mickey Katz cared a lot about being Jewish. About his own name, he said, “From Yossel, my name became Joel Grey.”
After some jokes about being the goy from South Dakota, Tom Brokaw said that even though he came from a place where there were “not a lot of members of your tribe,” he came to realize early on the great contributions of Jews to American culture.
Morris Offit doesn’t speak much Yiddish either, but peppered his appreciative talk “about this culture you so lovingly perpetuate” with Yiddishisms. He promised that his Yiddish is better than Mayor Bloomberg’s Spanish.
On stage, opera veteran Elmore James, an African-American, sang “Alter Taykh,” or “Ol’ Man River” in Yiddish. If Paul Robeson sang this song about hardships along the Mississippi in Yiddish, this is how it would have sounded.
Yiddish divas Joanne Borts and Rachel Yucht recalled the Barry Sisters in jazzy style, Mike Burstyn served as master of ceremonies, and a young accordionist Annette Ezekiel seemed on fire as she played “Odessa Mame,” accompanied by Frank London’s Klezmer All-Stars and Folksbiene’s Artistic Director Zalmen Mlotek on piano.
For the finale, all the performers, musicians, and a chorus of young kids, including a pair of 4-year old blonde mop-topped twins — Shmuel Peysakh and Tsimbl, the kids of musicians, learning Yiddish — descended on the stage for a riotous rendition of “Ale Brider,” “All Brothers,” written by the labor poet Morris Winchevsky. You could hear Elmore James clearly.
In June 2015, The National Yiddish Theatre – Folksbiene will be celebrating its centennial with the First New York International Festival of Jewish Performing Arts.