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Faith Kaplan


By Faith Kaplan, June 1, 2010

(Translated into English from the original Yiddish)

The third annual Mameloshen Festival of Yiddish Entertainment and Culture, put on by the I.L. Peretz Folk School Endowment Trust and the Rady JCC ended with a bang.   Torontonian Mitch Smolkin and his brilliant pianist Nina Shapilsky presented Yiddish Broadway: The Golden Age of Yiddish American Music. Both are accomplished performers, whose partnership resulted in a smooth, but never scripted-feeling, presentation of classic Broadway show tunes  in Yiddish to an appreciative sold out audience.

A recording artist who released an album titled A Song is Born, Smolkin is past Artistic Director of the Ashkenaz Festival and currently an artistic associate at the Harbourfront Centre. This enables him to pay the bills while completing graduate work in Psychology.  Shapilsky  is one of Russia’s most esteemed pianists, and received the Order of Russia as a distinguished artist. She has lived in Toronto for the past 20 years, where she composes music and is a pianist with the National Ballet of Canada.

Smolkin was an adorable performer, with a pleasing voice, effective stage presence and a surprising Canadian Yiddish accent. He clearly loves Yiddish, and shared with us the story of how singing in Yiddish connected him with his beloved Zaida.  Smolkin was very comfortable on stage, easily chatted with audience members and his accompanist, and quickly established a warm and haimesheh tone for the evening. He also seemed like a genuinely nice fellow, who made a point of going to visit the Simkin Centre on his own to perform for the residents. The evening’s playlist began with “There’s No Business Like Show business” in Yiddish, and didn’t stop for 90 minutes.  The audience was treated to “Glory Glory Hallelujah” , “Love and Marriage” ,” Oh What a Beautiful Morning”, “Carriage with a Fringe on Top” , “Adon Olam”, and a Maxwell House coffee ad – in Yiddish. The crowd was singing, clapping along and laughed at corny jokes. Every person in the room was clearly engaged in the performers’ ability to weave musical magic. 

Smolkin’s introductions and his explanations of the history of the American Yiddish song book enhanced the evening’s program. Tidbits such as the fact that Hebrew Actors Union in New York was the first to organize, a decade before ACTRA was born, underscored the enormous contributions made by Jewish singers, song writers, and musicians to the American music collection. One outstanding talent was child star Seymour Rechtzeit, nicknamed “Wonder Boy”, a Polish immigrant living with his father in New York. His mother and siblings were living in Poland, victims of the fact that immigration to the US was pretty much closed. Notified by a friend of the Rechtzeits’ plight, Congressman Isaac Siegel asked young Seymour to state his case before the Congressional Immigration Committee in Washington. Singing popular hits, Seymour dazzled legislators with his powerful voice and charming personality. The legislators prevailed upon the Secretary of State to approve the emigration of Seymour's family to the United States, and invited Seymour to perform at the White House for President Calvin Coolidge, which he did, in Yiddish. Rechtzeit eventually became one of the most prolific and beloved Jewish radio performers in the US, singing American show tunes translated into Yiddish by his wife Yiddish actress Miriam Kressyn.

Nina Shapilsky’s talent was obvious from the opening chords. Her playing was expressive, and seemingly effortless. While there was little banter between them, the audience sensed Smolkin and Shapilsky’s mutual respect and admiration for each other. Shapilsky received a standing ovation for her jazzy medley of Broadway melodies, and appeared to enjoy them as much as the audience.

My once robust Yiddish was acquired at Talmud Torah through the yeoman efforts of the legendary Noah Witman z”l, whose accent was anything but Canadian, and at Hebrew University by an Austrailian child of Polish Holocaust survivors whose Yiddish was Polish accented. I did not expect to hear a bona fide Canadian accent, but it reflected the power of Yiddish, belying the threat of its demise. I asked my father what the 1940s were like, in the heyday of Yiddish radio shows, movie theatres, and performers passing through town. “I don’t know; I didn’t go. My parents and their friends did”, he replied. My dad speaks Yiddish, because it was the language spoken at home and because he was a Peretzschuler , but he didn’t attend Yiddish theatre because he was Canadian born (and a kid at the time). I realized that Yiddish was the framework of the European Jewish immigrant experience, and its reduced significance is due to our transition from immigrants to the mainstream.

Kudos to Laurie Mainster and Tamar Barr and their committee for a job well done! Yiddish is not going to disappear anytime soon, if the efforts of Yiddish lovers young and old are any indication. If you missed the show, you can hear samples of the original and remixed versions of many of the evening’s songs on the internet: just google Seymour Rechtzeit, Mitch Smolkin or Nina Shapilsky.

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