National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene

Josh Waletzky Talks pleytem tsuzamen’s Origins & Impact

Waletzky tells us how the new Yiddish theatrical concert pleytem tsuzamen (Refugees Together) creates a musical community out of the greater Jewish diaspora.

Where did the idea for pleytem tsuzamen (Refugees Together) come from?

Waletzky: I was invited by the Yiddish Summer Weimar festival to write a new Yiddish song cycle for the summer of 2019, and the rest of the festival was based on the flourishing of Yiddish culture that was taking place in Berlin, in particular, between the two World Wars. Various works and texts that came out of that period were used as the basis for the original works that were commissioned that summer. When they invited me, I told them, “I’d love to write a new Yiddish song cycle composed of 15 new compositions, but I want it to be about today. I don’t want to write about 1919 or 1939. I want to write about 2019.” To my delight, they said, “Sure, go ahead.” And that was the origin of this work.

Even just since you started developing the piece in 2019, the world has changed in many ways. How has the contemporary moment impacted pleytem tsuzamen

Waletzky: Unfortunately, the great crises of rising authoritarianism were burgeoning in 2019. Things have only continued to worsen since then. I write about that, using metaphors from Jewish texts, thought, and idioms; one of the songs throws back to the plagues of the exodus from ancient Egypt to address the fires and floods and plagues of today. 

The war in Ukraine has created so many refugees. The great disasters, impending disasters, and current disasters in the world, and how autocracy and would-be autocracy have fed those flames, have only gotten worse since 2019. That has only made it feel more important to bring this work to the public, because we’re in constant need right now of the kind of encouragement that songs can help provide—a feeling of being together to confront these problems.

Can you talk about these world-class performers and musicians you have brought together for the production?

Waletzky: Yes. I am lucky and honored to be working with this ensemble, and some of them may be quite familiar to our audience. Daniel Kahn has probably the greatest reputation and familiarity with the public in our group. I know that his version of Hallelujah in Yiddish got a great deal of play, and Daniel’s been productive and creative in the field of new and traditional Yiddish songs. And we have Sasha Lurje, an extraordinary singer, who has often appeared in the United States. Sasha and Daniel have been longtime faculty members of Yiddish New York, so people in New York may be familiar with them.

Sveta Kundish, who has appeared more rarely in the United States, is an exquisite singer originally from Ukraine, lived in Israel, now living in Berlin, Germany. And Polina Shepherd, is an stunning singer, composer, and a choral director originally from Siberia and now living in Brighton England. This is really a dream cast of singers.

And the orchestra is also world-class. I am honored to be working with Merlin Shepherd from Brighton, England, Ilya Shneyveys—originally from Latvia and now in Brooklyn, Jake Shulman-Ment from Brooklyn, Beth Silver from Toronto, and Deborah Strauss—also from New York. I’ve been working with Deborah for decades—her violin collaboration has been a fundamental creative force on the performance and recording of my original Yiddish music in the past 2 decades. 

The ensemble reflects the theme of this group of songs, of this theatrical concert, pleytem tsuzamen (Refugees Together)—because it represents people coming from all over. In particular, over the past 20 years or so, there’s been a great coming-together of Yiddish artists from the former Soviet Union. We have people from Latvia, Ukraine, and Siberia who are coming into the circles of Yiddish culture makers, building a community from all over the Jewish diaspora.

Could you speak a little bit about these incredible performers of disparate backgrounds coming together to create a community out of diaspora?

Waletzky: I think the privilege of working with each other is present for us all. When we first got together in a rehearsal room in Weimar, I think we were all aware of the common enterprise that we’re forging—a sense of community and meeting the world’s challenges in a way that uses our common Yiddish heritage and creativity.

Working together to create pleytem tsuzamen gives us a sense of identity and strengthens our sense of our place in the world as we combat the dangers and threats of today. We feel, I think Deborah put it this way… that “it inspires a feeling of hope.” And I can tell you when we’re in the room together, putting this together, and then when we come on stage with it, that I feel at home with this group of people, rooted together. And it gives us the courage to face a very threatening world—a very threatening world.

If you could send audiences home with a message, what would that be? What do you hope audiences are going to get out of this production?

Waletzky: To have faith in our community and our connectedness as Jews—and as members of wider communities and alliances, and not to despair at all of the threats that we feel in this world today. To build on the power of solidarity and of knowing oneself and one’s place in the world, situated in our history, situated in our proud traditions of fighting for justice and survival. And that’s the message I hope people take from this production, from these songs, and from these marvelous performers. We can be creative. We can stick together. We can stick together in solidarity with those most threatened, and defeat these threats.

pleytem tsuzamen (Refugees Together) will play for two performances at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Safra Hall on March 26th at 1:00 p.m., and 6:00 p.m. Access to the Museum of Jewish Heritage will be free to ticket holders on the day of the performances.

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