Watching a concert of Yiddish music in Central Park last week was a bit like playing an old-fashioned game of Telephone. My Yiddish-speaking husband would translate a refrain, whisper it to me, and then I’d lean over to try to explain the meaning to the opera singer from Ukraine who happened to be sitting next to me, along with another Ukrainian who understood some of the lyrics, as he spoke German. He’d then pass the sentence along to an American friend.
But mostly we clapped, sang along and enjoyed the gorgeous voices and showmanship of Cantors Avraham Fried, Netanel Hershtik, Yanky Lemmer, Joseph Malovaney, Lipa Shmeltzer and the neo-chasidic band Zusha. Each cantor sang solo, but the best parts were when they came on stage together, when the elegant Cantor Malovaney, the elder statesman of the group, introduced the singer known as Lipa to conclude his song about “Three Cantors” with some cantorial hiphop. Lipa later belted out “Manhattan, Manhattan, Manhattan” to the tune of the Yiddish stage classic, “Rumania, Rumania, Rumania,” and the very mixed audience cheered.
“Yiddish Soul: A Concert of Cantorial and Chassidic Music” attracted 4,000 people to Central Park’s Summer Stage last Tuesday for what was probably the largest Yiddish gathering ever in the park. This was one of the highlight events of KulturfestNYC, which ended its inaugural weeklong run on Sunday night. Presented by the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene (to mark its centennial) and Museum of Jewish Heritage in collaboration with UJA-Federation of New York, events took place in venues all over the city.
It was New York City’s pop-up World’s Fair of Jewish culture, with musicians and theater troupes from all over the world, an international film festival featuring talkbacks with directors and stars, a symposium for scholars of Yiddish, as well as dance, street performances and walking tours of the Lower East Side in English and Russian. There were more than 120 events, almost 200 performers and some 50,000 viewers.
NYTF officials say it’s too soon to determine whether this “incredible inaugural event” will be repeated annually. Chris Massimine, executive producer, comments in an email, “This wasn’t about holding onto the past. It was about reveling in the past and throttling toward the future and appreciating how much richer the world is to have diversity, and how our heritage plays vital for who we were, are and will be