On August 5, Mandy Patinkin staged a Mamaloshen concert in a special benefit for the National Jewish Outreach Program. I was there - and this is my story. It appears in the Fall 1998 issue of the Lower East Side VOICE - but this is the unedited version.
Mandy Patinkin, star of stage and screen
Mandy Patinkin performing at the Angel Orensanz Center, singing Yiddish favorites
Mandy Patinkin pictured with Saeka Matsuyama, an 18-year-old violin prodigy who fiddles with fervor in "Der Alter Tzigayner"
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By Michael Steinhart
A masterful singer, an antique synagogue and the languages of a nation combined to make an unforgettable evening of entertainment as Mandy Patinkin took the stage in a celebration of Yiddish music to benefit the National Jewish Outreach Program.
Patinkin, best known for his roles on Broadway and television's Chicago Hope, chose Yiddish music as his latest project, culminating in the "Mamaloshen" album and a national tour.
The Angel Orensanz Foundation Center for the Arts, a Lower East Side synagogue built in the 1840s, served as the backdrop for the enthralling performance. Patinkin played the Orensanz Center for several weeks this summer, and NJOP chose to sponsor his August 5 performance as a special fundraising event.
The concert benefited NJOP's Read Hebrew America / Read Hebrew Canada (RHA/RHC) program, a bold initiative designed to teach and inspire thousands of Jews throughout North America to read Hebrew and get involved in Judaic thought.
"We can think of no better way to help raise funds for our first ever RHA/RHC program than to sponsor a concert featuring a performer who embodies so many of our organization's values," said Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald, NJOP's founder and director. "Not only is Mandy Patinkin a talented and exciting performer, but he has always identified strongly with his Jewish heritage, and proudly displayed his commitment to Judaism to the entire world."
The program's goal is to teach 40,000 Jews to read Hebrew, and engage participants in Jewish consciousness, awareness and identity. According to Rabbi Buchwald, the marketing campaign will cost around $800,000, and the RHA/RHC launch is set for November. All of NJOP's programs are offered free to interested communities and groups, and in the past 10 years, its classes and Shabbat Across America events have reached over 300,000 Jews. The organization hopes to engage 500,000 unaffiliated Jews by the year 2000.
The evening began as friends and supporters of NJOP filed into the crumbling, but majestic main sanctuary of the Orensanz Center. Ancient Hebrew memorial plaques, engraved in marble, still line the walls of the vestibule, while tiered balconies overlook the grand space. The eastern wall is adorned with the carved arch of the synagogue's holy ark, and a stained-glass window shines daylight eerily and magically into the room.
Patinkin's vocal range and characterizations left the audience spellbound. Even those who didn't understand the Yiddish words felt the depths of despair in songs like Papirosen, and the unbridled joy of life in Tzen Kopekes and Yome, Yome.
Patinkin has an uncanny knack for finding the exact tonality and personality of the characters in the classic songs. The crooning mother of Rozhinkes Mit Mandlen, the smitten lover of Mayn Mirel, even the patient teacher in Oifen Pripetshok, are all brought to life in his singing and acting.
As he explores the immigrant experience, Patinkin works lively American songs like The Hokey Pokey and Take Me Out to the Ballgame into the repertoire, all sung in Yiddish. The songs are interspersed with a haunting narrative chant, telling, from a first-person viewpoint, of a Jew's memories of his tumultuous past. The song weaves through the Yiddish numbers in English, and is then repeated at the end of the show in Yiddish.
After the performance, Rabbi Buchwald addressed the audience, saying the music extends the Jewish message, breaking all barriers of time and language.
He quoted a Forward interview in which Patinkin said he left Chicago Hope to spend more time with his children. "Go out and learn about your ancestors, your history," he told them. "It will inspire you."
Rabbi Buchwald compared Patinkin's message with that of NJOP. He urged the attendees to teach or sponsor a Hebrew Reading Crash Course, and thanked all the personnel involved in the project.
"We were very inspired by the Mamaloshen album," said Melissa Groll, who is in charge of special projects at NJOP. "A big star wanted to preserve and recapture his Jewish heritage."
She explained that Patinkin's message is one of continuity, a goal NJOP is working extensively to promote. "[Patinkin's] manager was more than happy to work with us," she said. "It was a major success. We're getting phone calls saying how everybody loved it -- some people want to take Yiddish classes now."
Avraham Fried, a renowned Chasidic music star, was also on hand for the concert. He and Patinkin both have all-Yiddish albums to their credit, he said. "I was thrilled to read that Mandy said all his years in show business were leading up to this project," Fried said. "A Broadway star is getting in touch with his roots and keeping Yiddish alive. ...I'm here in support of that."
Fried found the show powerful, intense and passionate. "He gave me goosebumps. I love a performer who can give me goosebumps."
Fried also commented that the choice of locations was no accident. "The holiness of the prayers in this building is still here. Sanctity imbues the place."
The synagogue was built in a time of romantic optimism, said Angel Orensanz, an internationally famous sculptor and owner of the premises. An era when social reform and brotherhood seemed possible, through an appreciation of art and reason.
A dwindling congregation remained active in the building until 1974, when the building finally stood empty, save for vandals, and the city left the property untouched and abandoned. During the real estate boom of the 1980s, Orensanz's brother bought the crumbling synagogue and now it is slowly being refurbished, as funds are generated from performances held in the sanctuary.
"It's terrific, it has almost happened by itself," Orensanz said. "We don't get any grants, and we don't do any advertising. The building itself has an energy."
Orensanz said he will continue repairing the ancient structure, but there is no master plan for completion. The roof, fire escape and alley were recently repaired, and the floors and bathrooms are next. "We'll go slowly, organically. It's a very strong building," he said.
Rabbi Buchwald summed up the evening by reading Patinkin's newspaper quote, "My dream has come true, now that I have passed it on." That is NJOP's goal, he said, and with everyone's help, it can be realized.
Anyone interested in NJOP's free programs or in volunteering, can call 1-800-44-HEBREW.