In 1997 while I was working as Music Director for a production at the Folksbiene (then at the Central Synagogue on East 55th street) of Yankl Der Shmid, I was bemoaning the fact that audiences were dwindling. I asked my friend, orginal cast member of The Golden Land, and collaborator on Those Were the Days, Eleanor Reissa, if she might be interested in proposing to the board of the Folksbiene that perhaps it was time for a sea-change in the life of this sole remaining Yiddish theater in America. We proposed a revitalization of the institution that would bring the theater into this century. The board at the time was comprised of members of the Workmen’s Circle (under whose auspices the Folksbiene was founded, as a branch of the WC in 1915) and members of the Forward Association, (publishers of the then daily Yiddish Forward, and English Forward, and owners of radio station WEVD).
The management of the Folksbiene, devoted passionate octogenarians who made their livings as nurses, accountants, haberdashers and tailors, but passionate actors at night—saw our proposal as a hostile takeover when it was our intention to continue the work that they had worked on for several decades. The New YorkTimes even published an article about this. For me it was a sad personal moment—as the then head of the Folskbiene, Tziporah Spaisman, a survivor, had been my camp nurse in Yiddish summer camp Boiberik as a kid, and I loved her as the nurse of the camp.
We began our tenure as co-artistic directors by presenting an original work by Eleanor called Zise Khaloymes, Sweet Dreams, an autobiographical piece that dealt with a daughter and her mother.
In subsequent years, we added more programming. Eventually we went from presenting one show for twenty weeks, which the Folksbiene had been doing for many years, to a year-round production organization, producing concerts, literary readings, children’s shows, and full main-stage productions. We also began to have Galas that would function both as cultural events and fundraisers. We have honored artists like Michael Tilson Thomas—who presented at Avery Fisher Hall a tribute to his grandparents, Yiddish Theater giants Boris and Bessie Thomashevsky. We have presented Neil Sedaka in concert with Yiddish songs, as well as Mandy Patinkin, Itzhak Perlman, Jerry Zaks, Daniel Liebeskind, and Joel Grey.
The Executive Director is Dominick Balletta, formerly of the Film Forum and the Jacob Burns Film Center. Together we are looking towards the future with an emphasis on education and outreach to schools and young people.
A complete listing of events “under my watch” from 1998 to the present is on the NYTF entry in the Mapping the Legacy grid.