The majestic Bartos Forum at the New York Public Library was nearly packed on November 6th for The Yiddish Heart, directed by Target Margin Theater’s David Herskovits, the first in a series of evenings aimed at bringing to life the collections of the Library’s Dorot Jewish Division. The crowd was interested and enthusiastic, but unless they read their programs carefully, they were at first a bit confused. This was because before the formal program, there was an informal one and this first program was, essentially, a three ring circus.
In ring one, split on stage left and right: Slide shows! On the left, images of Yiddish theater materials shown before treatment (brittle, acidic, torn, dirty) and after treatment (tears mended, losses filled, documents encapsulated in mylar). These made one long to be a conservationist. After all, isn’t the engine of Jewish culture the wish to save the past? On the right were images of stars of the Yiddish theater from Molly Picon to Bertha Kalich to Jennie Goldstern, programs, playbills, and other theatrical ephemera.
Ring two, center stage: Music! By far the most successful part of the entire evening was the music. In this early part, Lorin Sklamberg sang with the crackerjack band conducted by Frank London. Sklamberg’s heartbreaking tenor and London’s decisive trumpet were highlights, but the evening’s musical work was admirably carried on the young shoulders of Miryem-Khaye Seigel, by day a librarian in the Dorot Division (as, one might add, Sklamberg is an archivist at YIVO.) This evening her appealing soprano was ubiquitous.
Ring three: Traveling shtick! Performers moved about the Bartos Forum repeating sketches or songs with success that depended on the area’s acoustics. Seigel joined Shane Baker in a Yinglish commercial for a radio station; Hy Wolfe told a story I couldn’t hear; Avi Glickstein recited a monologue I couldn’t hear… alas, this was not the right space, nor the right crowd, for unmiked sound, although the intimacy of these performances for micro-audiences was charming.
At last the lights were dimmed, the audience quieted down, and the real show began – more songs, with the delightful additions of Eleanor Reissa and Suzanne Toren; more shtick, distributed at performance stations around the room; and serious theater, with scenes from both King Lear in Yiddish and Jacob Gordin’s version, Der Yudisher Kenig Lir, as well as The Hunchback of Notre Dame and more radio spots. Best of all, there was more music both instrumental and vocal, and certainly I was not alone in wishing for yet more.
The evening was a fascinating experiment in performance from Dorot. If there was too much to see – I haven’t even mentioned the Yiddish theater historians taking questions – there was also not quite enough to hear. Nonetheless, the series promises to be a valuable and enjoyable addition to New York’s Yiddish theater scene.
Liz Denlinger is a curator at work on a novel about a boarding school in 1955.