Mandy Patinkin is bringing his critically acclaimed ode to Yiddish music, Mamaloshen, to Toronto for two shows in June.
The shows, presented by the Harold Green Jewish Theatre Company, are the revised dates for the shows that were postponed last September due to labour strife.
Mamaloshen (Mother Tongue) is Patinkin’s tribute to the rich and diverse Jewish musical traditions from Belz to Broadway and Yiddish theatre to Tin Pan Alley. In 1997, he recorded the Mamaloshen CD and then took it to the live stage in 1998, first Off-Broadway and then to Broadway later that year.
“The way it started was Joe Papp, producer of A Chorus Line and many other things, who is a father figure to me and a dear, dear friend, asked if I would participate in a benefit for YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York,” says Patinkin, an actor and singer who has won Tony and Emmy awards and whose credits are vast, including Evita on Broadway, the television series Chicago Hope and the movie The Princess Bride.
Trouble was Patinkin didn’t know any Yiddish songs, and Papp told him it was time he learned one. “So, Joe sent me over a song called Yosel, Yosel, ironically in English, this song means Joseph, Joseph. It was a wonderful, classic Yiddish song that I later recorded on one of my CDs.”
With the help of friends, children of Holocaust survivors, Patinkin learned the Yiddish repertoire, including songs from eastern Europe, from the Holocaust era, Tin Pan Alley and the Yiddish theatre, but he felt something was missing.
“Yiddish songs, as I learned through this material, was a history of these gypsy people – stories about births, deaths, weddings, celebrations, difficulties, traumas and great joy,” he says. “I realized the piece that was missing was the American Jewish composers who had assimilated, like Irving Berlin, Yip Harburg, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Stephen Sondheim and Leonard Bernstein, but had that Yiddish feeling, that storytelling nature.”
Patinkin took the songs God Bless America and White Christmas, by Berlin; Sondheim’s Maria and Paul Simon’s American Tune, and translated them into Yiddish
“I always found when in performing, if I explain a song ahead of time, it ruins it… it’s not for me. So, how do I make people understand a language that very few people speak anymore? I wanted it to be universal. At the end of the day, it is a story about an immigrant, who happens to be an American Jewish immigrant. People from many other cultures would see the show and come back and talk to me about how much it spoke to them. I was deeply moved by that,” he says.
“Whatever your background, even if you have never heard the language in your life… take a walk in that world. Let the words wash over you… you don’t need to understand it, it will affect you, I guarantee you”
Surprisingly, save for hearing one tune from his father, Patinkin didn’t grow up listening to Yiddish music. It held no memories for him. So when he opened himself up to this art form, he heard echoes in way he doesn’t understand, nor does he feel a need to understand.
“I am celebrating the cultural heritage. Yiddish is a folk language made up of ancient German, Russian, Polish, Hebrew and God knows what else – all a patchwork quilt because these people were on the move,” he says. “This show is very dear to me. I am grateful that I get to do it several times a year. When I’m not performing it, I sing it to the trees!”
Patinkin was recently in Israel filming the second season of the Showtime hit Homeland. A supporter of the Israeli left Patinkin advocates an end to the settlement building in Israel and was one of the artists who signed a petition in 2009 calling for a boycott of a Jewish theatre in the West Bank.
Patinkin performs at the Bluma Appel Theatre, St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts, on June 16 at 8 p.m. and June 17 at 2 p.m. For tickets, call 416-366-7723 or online at www.stlc.com. For more information, visit www.hgjewishtheatre.com.