Matthew “Motl” Didner had been a performer since he was a kid but did not begin to seriously study Yiddish until he was almost 30.
But through his mamaloshn-speaking maternal grandmother, Didner did experience a glint of his future in Yiddish theater.
Didner recalls his grandmother taking him, as a teenager, to see a bilingual Yiddish-English musical and giving him a record of Theodore Bikel singing Yiddish songs. And when he used to visit his grandparents in New York’s Stuyvesant Town on Sundays, he remembers sitting in the Molly Picon Room at the Second Avenue Deli.
Those experiences apparently stuck: Didner, an honors graduate of the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University, is now the associate artistic director of the National Yiddish Theatre-Folksbiene.
Didner and Di Folksbiene Trupe will perform the musical revue “Mama’s Loshn Kugel” at The Jewish Center in Princeton on Sunday afternoon, Oct. 4. The show, sponsored also by Greenwood House and Jewish Family & Children’s Service of Greater Mercer County, is open to the community and will be followed by dessert.
After college, Didner moved to Richmond, Va., for an internship and ended up starting the Richmond Performing Arts Collective, a company that focused on experimental theater and new plays.
After six years as co-artistic director of the Richmond theater, Didner returned to New York City, where he happened on a sign advertising Yiddish classes offered by the Workmen’s Circle and signed up. He followed this in 2003 with the six-week Uriel Weinreich summer immersion course run by YIVO at Columbia University.
“Within a year of studying I gained conversational proficiency,” he told NJJN.
Since then he has spent years using Yiddish daily at work. “At this point I’m fluent,” he said. In 2003 he took the stage name “Motl,” which is a Yiddish diminutive of his Hebrew name, Mordecai.
In 2003 he volunteered at Folksbiene — which turns 100 this year. “It was a question of marrying my two interests, now that I had studied the Yiddish language, in a way that would take my theatrical work into the Yiddish realm,” he said.
Working on the theater’s yearly gala, he had a chance to hear Zalmen Mlotek, Folksbiene’s artistic director, speak about the need for outreach. Didner told Mlotek he thought he could handle the job, and that fall he was hired.
Didner organized a group of performers in their 20s and 30s who had learned Yiddish as a second language into “Di Folksbiene Trupe,” which tours with musical Yiddish revues, with supertitles in Russian and English.
“We have a big responsibility on our hands to represent the breadth of what Yiddish theater is,” he said. Folksbiene’s offerings include adaptations of classics and new developmental works. “There is an interesting revival of interest in Yiddish language and culture,” said Didner. “We are getting a lot of people like myself who are in their 30s and 40s for whom [Yiddish] is their preferred means of expression.”
“Mama’s Loshn Kugel” was one of the first projects of Didner’s outreach program. The idea, he said, “was to get Yiddish programming out to places where it didn’t exist.” As an example, he said, “We might get a busload to come from Monroe to see a show, but when we go to Monroe, we get 400 people to show up.”
The revue combines Yiddish song and Yiddish comedy sketches, both classic and new. The humor comes from the Yiddish vaudeville repertoire, from scripts of Yiddish films, audio recordings, or old radio broadcasts, as well as sketches written by troupe members. The songs come mostly from the classical Yiddish theater repertoire.
“It’s an old throwaway that Yiddish is a dying language,” Didner said. “We wanted to show that people in their 20s and 30s are actively seeking this out, learning the language, and that there are artists who wanted to perform in Yiddish, not only classic material, but creating new material.”