On first listen, one might not hear many similarities between traditional Yiddish music and blues music.
However, a performance coming to the Gordon Center for Performing Arts on Sunday at 3 p.m. looks to bridge the gap between these two genres and cultures.
“Soul to Soul” will combine blues, jazz and klezmer with Yiddish to celebrate the life and work of Martin Luther King Jr.
Zalmen Mlotek, artistic director of the National Yiddish Theatre-Folksbeine in New York City, said that the idea for the show was born when opera and Broadway performer Elmore James came to him interested in the Yiddish repertoire of African-American singer Paul Robeson.
“When I heard him, I was so moved by his voice and interest that the idea of exploring the African-American musical tradition and Jewish musical tradition started to foment in my mind,” Mlotek said.“Especially because of the themes of oppression, resistance and struggle that both cultures share. I think that’s what moved him about the Yiddish material.”
“Soul to Soul” consists of four performers, two African- Americans and two Jews, “each with their own story,” according to Mlotek. The show has been performed not only in America, where it is perhaps most potent, but also internationally.
“We recently did it in Bucharest, Romania, and they flipped over it,” Mlotek recalled. “We were concerned the themes wouldn’t resonate as much because it’s American. They connected from a content point of view in terms of resistance and oppressed people. That was quite an experience for us.”
Don’t worry if your Yiddish is a little rusty. Mlotek promises that subtitles will keep the audience in the loop. A lot of the show is in English for better understanding.
“This is a piece that very much celebrates the essence of Martin Luther King’s teachings and writings,” Mlotek said. “Today’s generation of teachers and students are really not aware of how deeply the Jewish community and with what numbers they stood together for the African-American community in the ’60s when civil rights was such an important issue. In every major American city where there’s a substantial population of African-Americans, I think [there’s] an opportunity to present a program where we celebrate that commonality. We found that with music, there’s no better way than to express the connection.”
Gordon Center artistic director Alyson Bonavoglia, said “Soul to Soul” really “fit the bill” of what they look for at the performing arts center for an MLK celebration.
“We always try to bring to the Gordon what you’re not going to see elsewhere,” Bonavoglia said. “This fits squarely within our mission … of presenting art that has a Jewish focus. We’re really proud of that. It may sound funny, but Yiddish is trending. We feel like we’re maybe on the edge of a wave here.”
“Soul to Soul” tickets are $26 in advance, $31 at the door. For more information, call 410-356-SHOW.
Other MLK celebrations:
Baltimore Hebrew Congregation holds a special Shabbat service on Jan. 13 from 10 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. featuring guest speaker Gary Bonner, director of the Family Stability and Economic Success Programs at the Center for Urban Families. He will discuss “Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?”
The Harford County Alliance of Abrahamic Faiths hosts Journey to Peace on Jan. 14 at Temple Adas Shalom (8 N. Earlton Road Ext, Havre de Grace), events promoting the work of King. From 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., there will be a blood drive with lunch being served at 1:30 p.m. At 3 p.m., controversial film clips from the civil rights era will be shown, followed by a discussion. The day culminates at 4:30 p.m. with a multifaith ceremony honoring King.
Jewish Volunteer Connection has a full schedule planned for MLK weekend with its signature event of assembling hygiene kits for refugees. From 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. on Sunday, young adults will meet at Creative Alliance, 3134 Eastern Ave. to assemble the kits while everyone else will meet at the Park Heights JCC (5700 Park Heights Ave.) from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Monday to do the same. For a full listing of JVC’s events, visit jvcbaltimore.org/volunteer-offerings/annual-events/mlk-day-of-service.