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Amid Falling Walls (Tsvishn Falndike Vent)

Yiddish songs paint a moving portrait of the lives of Jews in World War II Europe.

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The company of the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene’s production of “Amid Falling Walls (Tsvishn Falndike Vent)” at the Museum of Jewish Heritage (Photo credit: Jeremy Daniel)

Joel Benjamin

Joel Benjamin, Critic

Avram Mlotek (curator and writer) and his father Zalmen Mlotek (curator and musical arranger) have taken a collection of Yiddish songs written by the doomed denizens of the many Jewish ghettos, work camps and concentration camps and molded them into Amid Falling Walls (Tsvishn Falndike Vent).

These two creators owe a debt to Shmerke Kaczerginski, a partisan and poet from Vilnius who gathered hundreds of songs and poems written by Jewish victims of World War II.

Upon every wall, column and curtain of the Edmond J. Safra Hall at the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene images of Jewish life before and during the War were projected, providing ample visual evidence of the rich variety of the Jewish communities in Europe, from poverty-stricken shtetl life to cosmopolitan urbanity. (Aside from being desperately moving, these films made it clear that the many costumes designed by Izzy Fields were accurate in every detail.)

Daniella Rabbani and Jacob Ben-Shmuel in a scene from the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene’s production of “Amid Falling Walls (Tsvishn Falndike Vent)” at the Museum of Jewish Heritage (Photo credit: Jeremy Daniel)

The panoply of songs range from the entertaining to the dismal, beginning with a bawdy vaudeville style number, “Years of grain and Woeful Days” (Korene yorn un vey tsu di teg), from a revue staged in 1942 in the Vilna Ghetto.  Attended by Nazis and Jews alike, this bawdy show, incongruously performed amidst suffering is an example of the determination to survive.

Still in a faux-light mood is “Brontshele,” from the Lodz Ghetto in which a young man woos and is wooed by scarce food resources.

We get a lovely opportunity to see Yiddish theater stars Molly Picon and Abraham Ellstein in a snippet from a pre-War film from the time when Yiddish theater and film were booming.

Steven Skybell in a scene from the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene’s production of “Amid Falling Walls (Tsvishn Falndike Vent)” at the Museum of Jewish Heritage (Photo credit: Jeremy Daniel)

Most of the songs, for sure, are far from happy but are filled with hope. Short-lived joy that Americans were quickly advancing on the camps is expressed in “America Has Declared” (Amerika hot Erklert).

The twenty-six songs, although most woeful, paint a portrait of a defiant people fighting against terrible odds leading to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943—“Moments of Trust” (Minutn fun Bitokhn)—and the “Second Hatikvah,” “Never Say” (Zog Nit Keynmol), an anthem of defiance.

The final song, “Bar Mitzve,” expresses a tender bit of optimism as a young boy survives to be Bar Mitzvahed in a post-war Displaced Persons Camp.

Yael Eden Chanukov and Mikhl Yashinsky in a scene from the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene’s production of “Amid Falling Walls (Tsvishn Falndike Vent)” at the Museum of Jewish Heritage (Photo credit: Jeremy Daniel)

The connective tissue is provided by Avram Mlotek’s book that gives both context and emotional heft to each of these carefully organized and revived songs, letting them speak for themselves.

Each and every member of the cast is an extraordinary singer/actor with complete mastery of Yiddish.  (I purposely attended with a Yiddish speaker.)

Led by Steve Skybell (the Folksbiene Fiddler on the Roof) they showed great flexibility having to go from joy to desperation with subtlety and depth.  They are: Jacob Ben-Shmuel, Yael Eden Chanukov, Abby Goldfarb, Eli Mayer, Daniella Rabbani, Mikhl Yashinsky and Rachel Zatcoff.

Rachel Zatcoff and Eli Mayer in a scene from the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene’s production of “Amid Falling Walls (Tsvishn Falndike Vent)” at the Museum of Jewish Heritage (Photo credit: Jeremy Daniel)

Jessica Alexandra Cancino’s flexible scenic design meshes perfectly with Brad Peterson’s informative and moving projections and Yael Lubetzky’s lighting designs to convincingly immerse the audience in those turbulent times.

Tamar Rogoff integrates her simple, but telling, choreography into every nook and cranny of the stories.

Director Matthew “Motl” Didner manages to make what might have been just a well-staged concert of moving songs into a dramatic whole with a deep feeling for the ebb and flow of emotions from happiness to hopelessness.

The company of the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene’s production of “Amid Falling Walls (Tsvishn Falndike Vent)” at the Museum of Jewish Heritage (Photo credit: Jeremy Daniel)

Amid Falling Walls—an apt title, unfortunately, still consequential in 2023—does come during a spike in anti-Semitism.  Though an entertainment, the show provides ample historical evidence of blind prejudice.  If only the message could register.

Amid Falling Walls (Tsvishn Falndike Vent) (through December 10, 2023)

National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene at the Museum of Jewish Heritage

Edmond J. Safra Hall, 36 Battery Place, in Manhattan

For tickets, call 212-213-2120 or visit http://www.nytf.org

Running time: one hour and 20 minutes without an intermission

Share your thoughts in the comment section below.

Joel Benjamin
About Joel Benjamin (539 Articles)
JOEL BENJAMIN was a child performer on Broadway and danced with leading modern dance and ballet companies. Joel has been attending theater, ballet and opera performances ever since childhood, becoming quite opinionated over the years. He was the founder and artistic director of the American Chamber Ballet and subsequently was massage therapist to the stars before becoming a reviewer and memoirist. He is a member of the Outer Critics Circle.

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