National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene

Travels with Motl 

Motl Didner

While it may seem that things at the Folksbiene have quieted down since the SummerStage in Central Park concert, New York Sings Yiddish!, and our Summer Soiree Gala, Associate Artistic Director Motl Didner can attest otherwise. Motl has been spending his summer crisscrossing time zones, beginning with a trip to Bucharest for the TES Fest, followed by a quick jaunt to Napa Valley, where he reprised his role in Lera Auerbach’s Symphony No. 6, Vessels of Light. Next month, he will be closer to home when he returns—for his 15th year—to “A Trip to Yiddishland” (with The Workers Circle). Even with all of this travel, Motl has been focused on pulling together the fall production of a new musical, Amid Falling Walls: working on casting, workshop rehearsals, design, and more. We sat down with Motl to learn about his summer endeavors for the love of Yiddish music and theater. 

What is the TES Fest in Bucharest, and how has the Folksbiene been involved? 

TES (State Jewish Theater) in Bucharest, Romania, hosts an annual Yiddish theater festival, which the Folksbiene has participated in since 2016. Over the years, participants have included the Yiddishpiel theater from Tel Aviv; the Ester Rachel Kamińska and Ida Kamińska State Jewish Theater from Warsaw; and many independent artists like The Klezmatics, Rafael Goldwaser, Avi Hoffman, Allen Lewis Rickman, and Yelena Shmulenson.

During the festivals, NYTF has participated in collaborative productions with members of the TES repertory company, made up of some 40 performers. Together, we’ve performed the post-Holocaust literary drama The Wedding in Foehrenwald by H. Leivick (author of The Golem); the early Yiddish theater operetta The Sorceress by Avram Goldfaden (which you may recall we brought here in 2019); Tales of My Father’s Religious Court based on the childhood memoirs of Isaac Bashevis Singer; and most recently Live and Laugh, a vaudeville of classic Yiddish humor and theater song.

The professional Yiddish theater was born in Romania in the 1860s and remains a point of national pride. TES is a true repertory company that performs year-round both at its historic theater in Bucharest and on tour in cities throughout Romania. The annual season, including the festival, is fully sponsored by the government.

You’re with TES for such a short period of time at the festival; how do you get to a fully formed performance piece? 

To start with, TES is magnificent. We first connected with them when we presented Kulturefest in honor of our 100th anniversary season (in 2015). TES brought over 30 performers with their production of Wandering Stars by Sholom Aleichem as well as a one-woman show called Tonight: Lola Blau, which starred Romanian legend Maia Morgenstern, who had just taken over as the director of TES. We invited Maia back the following year to reprise her show and join an international company of performers in The Wedding in Fohrenwald.  Following that, Folksbiene received its first invitation to collaborate during TES Fest.

It is always a very intense yet fascinating process. We get only one week to rehearse the show, culminating in a performance. And we have a bit of a language barrier! I don’t speak much Romanian. Some of the actors speak English. Some speak conversational Yiddish or enough German that we can communicate. And for the rest, I rely on the actors to translate for one another. Somehow, it all works out, and we have made great friends. We always top off the week by going out to celebrate after the last performance. Plus, we usually bring back a great story or two, like the time we encountered a bear in the mountains of Transylvania!  

“We presented The Sorceress at TES before its mainstage production at the Folksbiene. Doing this show in Romania was especially meaningful because it is one of those historic shows from the early days of Yiddish theater there.  It was also the first Yiddish language theatrical production in New York, dating back to the 1880s.”

DaniApple,LorinZackular,LexiRabadi ©Victor Nechay, properpix
Dani Apple, Lorin Zackular, Lexi Rabadi ©Victor Nechay, properpix

Soon after your return, you were off to California—what brought you to Napa Valley? 

I was at the Festival Napa Valley, where I reprised my role as a “whisperer” along with my colleague, Stephanie Lynne Mason, in Lera Auerbach’s Symphony No. 6, Vessels of Light. This is a new work of contemporary classical music that Yad Vashem commissioned in honor of Chiune Sugihara, the Japanese diplomat who issued visas allowing around 5,500 Jews to travel from Nazi-occupied Lithuania to Shanghai, where they were safe from the death camps. I was privileged first to perform this piece at Carnegie Hall in April.

Do you have more trips planned for the summer?

A Trip to Yiddishland,” the annual Workers Circle summer retreat in upstate New York, has been the center of my summer for going on 15 years. I teach theater workshops each day, culminating in a student performance on the last night. It is always lovely to get a week by the lake with my family, with good friends who we see there every summer, as well as the new friends that we meet each year.

And then it’s back to work on Amid Falling Walls

I’ve been living and breathing Amid Falling Walls throughout this time and was thrilled to have our first workshop reading on July 13th—between Romania and Napa. The music that you will hear in Amid Falling Walls was written and performed in Holocaust-era ghettos, in concentration and forced labor camps, in theaters and clandestine cabarets, and in partisan encampments. These songs were collected in the years following the War by the poet, partisan, and member of the famed Paper Brigade, Shmerke Kaczerginski. 

We’ll have more to share on the production after Labor Day. In the meantime, we are busy with the book, casting, set design, and the very important multimedia component—we have a team of videographers digging deep in archives for materials for the show.  

And when Amid Falling Walls is ready, you’ll rest?

Absolutely not! Fans of 15 Minute Yiddish (more or less) will remember that the class graduated at the conclusion of Season 4.  But as with real-life Yiddish class alumni, the gang still gets together to read Yiddish stories. When things calm down later in the fall, I will go into production on Season 5. I am hoping that episodes of 15 Minute Yiddish Stories (more or less) will start to be released early in 2024.

Stay tuned!

Stay Tuned for Dates

Stay Tuned for Dates