Timely Themes Invoked in Timeless Language at Museum of Jewish Heritage
In 2019, filmmaker and composer Josh Waletzky was invited by the Yiddish Summer Weimar festival to write a new song cycle “based on the flourishing of Yiddish culture that was taking place in Berlin, in particular, between the two World Wars.” But Mr. Waletzky told his patrons, “I’d love to write a new Yiddish song cycle, but I don’t want to write about 1919 or 1939. I want it to be about today.” The result, “Pleytem Tsuzamen” (which translates at “Refugees Together”), will be performed at the Museum of Jewish Heritage on Sunday, March 26, staged by the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene.
“The great crises of rising authoritarianism were burgeoning in 2019,” Mr. Waletzky observes, adding that, “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 haunting lyrics, although rooted in the idiom of Biblical tradition, ring with contemporary resonance:
“This is a time of flood
A time of big fires
And wherever you look
A wild plague.”
Mr. Waletzky reflects his work has taken on a relevance that he could not have predicted even four years ago: “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.”
The work also exhibits an intimately personal side, mingling yearning and remorse as it chronicles the impact of world events on the smallest and most helpless victims, as in these lines sung by a mother to her child:
“You floated in,
A little star,
precious as gold,
a bright streak of heaven-joy.
But there was always a bone
stuck in your laughter,
lurking like the slaughterer’s knife,
the cry for help
that wasn’t rocked to sleep
in the cradle.”
Asked what theme “Pleytem Tsuzamen” is meant to invoke, Mr. Waletzky says, “To have faith in our community and our connectedness as Jews—and as members of wider communities and alliances. 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.”
Although Yiddish theater has undergone a resurgence in recent years, this has rested largely on legacy material, rather than newly created works. “Pleytem Tsuzamen” aims to fill that gap, drawing more from today’s headlines than from history books. Bringing together an elite, international cast of Yiddish vocalists and instrumentalists, the show will be presented with supertitles in English and Ukrainian.
The show is being produced by the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene, the longest consecutively producing theatre in the America and the world’s oldest continuously operating Yiddish theatre company. The troupe, which is based at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, gained renewed notoriety in 2018 when it mounted an acclaimed production of “Fiddler on the Roof” (also in Yiddish), which sold out for six months before moving uptown to an Off-Broadway theater.
“Pleytem Tsuzamen” will be performed for two shows only—at 1pm and 6pm—at the Museum of Jewish Heritage (36 Battery Place) on March 26. Tickets are priced at $36.