Yiddish-language concert to debut at Beth El Congregation

Cantor Thom King
Cantor Thom King (Courtesy of Beth El Congregation of Baltimore)

“Yiddishe Nightingale,” a Yiddish-language concert, is premiering at Beth El Congregation of Baltimore. And Beth El Cantor Thom King will be one of the concert’s three performers.

The debut concert will take place on March 1 at 7 p.m. The show will also have two subsequent performances in Philadelphia, at the Academy of Music and Adath Israel synagogue. The decision for it to debut at Beth El was largely a product of venue availability, King said.

The concert tells the history of Yiddish music, with a particular emphasis on music in Yiddish theater, King said. It contains both audio and visual components.

“It’s an overview, in a way, of Yiddish music and the history of Yiddish music, beginning with the earliest nigunim that were sung by Chasidim, and also moving on into early Yiddish theater and operetta … and it goes all the way up to the Yiddish production of ‘Fiddler on the Roof,’” said King, a resident of Pikesville.

The performance borrows its title from a song by Irving Berlin, written in the early 20th century, King said. While the song itself is primarily not in Yiddish, King said it made for a “lovely title for our production.”

The concert is being produced by the Philadelphia based nonprofit Lyric Fest. In addition to King, the performance will include Cantor Elizabeth Shammash of Philadelphia and Zalmen Mlotek of the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene in New York, whom King said was one of the foremost Yiddish music experts in the world.

According to King, Suzanne DuPlantis, the founder of Lyric Fest, wanted the organization to do something related to Yiddish after she heard someone singing the “Yiddishe Nightingale” song by Irving Berlin. DuPlantis reached out to Shammash about putting together a group for some kind of performance, and Shammash then brought in Mlotek. Around a year ago, Shammash also invited King to participate, as they had worked together in the past. From there the group was able to flesh out the idea to its current form.

The performance’s songs will include “Bei Mir Bist Du Schön,” often sung by The Andrews Sisters; “Rozhinkes mit Mandlen;” “Lebn zol Kolumbus,” which translates to “Long Live Columbus;” and a Yiddish version of Berlin’s “God Bless America,” King said.

The songs will be sung primarily in Yiddish, though some will have a bit of English in them, King said. However, King noted that attendees do not have to know Yiddish to enjoy the show.

“The whole thing will be accompanied by lecture, basically by commentary from Zalmen [Mlotek, who is] an expert on this stuff, and who really makes it come alive,” King said.

Translations of the lyrics will also be displayed by projectors, allowing the audience to more easily follow along, King added.

Yiddish music is “a fascinating, fascinating field,” King said. “It’s very much of a niche field, but it is gaining a little more ground. And then they’re doing it in Europe quite a bit now, too. Yiddish music is gaining in popularity in Europe, in places like Germany, Poland and places where, for a long time, you wouldn’t hear Yiddish at all.”

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