Beth Shalom Congregation celebrates Black History Month with ‘Soul to Soul’
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Black History MonthFinding commonality through music

Beth Shalom Congregation celebrates Black History Month with ‘Soul to Soul’

“When things are sad, we sing. When things are joyous, we sing. The commonality is what we’re trying to stress here,” she said.

Soul to Soul combines music from both Black and Jewish sources in one show. (Photo provided by National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene)
Soul to Soul combines music from both Black and Jewish sources in one show. (Photo provided by National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene)

Zalmen Mlotek was inspired to create “Soul to Soul” — a multimedia concert melding Jewish and Black musical traditions — after meeting Elmore James, a Black actor turned dancer turned singer, who spent time in Alvin Ailey’s second dance company and on Broadway.

James decided to dance after an injury left him with a limp, something a doctor told him would remain for the rest of his life.

“I thought, ‘No, I’m not going to limp; I’m going to fly,’” he said.

While dancing on Broadway, James thought it would be prudent to take voice lessons. A voice teacher suggested he was an opera singer.

“I couldn’t believe it,” James said, “but he kept giving me arias.”

It was then that James discovered Paul Robeson, a pioneering bass-baritone concert artist, stage and film actor, professional football player and activist. He also recorded a few Yiddish songs, which James was interested in replicating but had no knowledge of where to turn for help.
“One day, I was walking down the street and passed a Judaica store and went in and asked if they could help me learn the song. The guy said, ‘No but I’ll give you my friend’s number,’” James recalled.

The friend referred James to the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene, where Mlotek is the artistic director.

Mlotek has a deep connection to Yiddish culture. His father, a Polish immigrant who escaped the Holocaust by moving to Shanghai, was a Yiddish writer and the education director of the Worker’s Circle, a fraternal Jewish organization that encourages cultural engagement through, in part, Yiddish language learning. He met Mlotek’s mother, a Yiddish musicologist, in New York. The budding pianist, musical arranger, accompanist and composer spent summers at Yiddish camps.

Mlotek combined his love of music and Yiddish when he became involved in NYTF. The company may be best known for its Yiddish production of “Fiddler on the Roof” directed by Joel Grey.

Socially conscious and involved in the civil rights movement, Mlotek said James’ singing inspired him.

“I imagined a program where we would hear songs from the African-American tradition and songs from the Yiddish tradition, and songs that were inspired by both or either. So, I compiled a cast. Elmore was one of them and we put together a group of wonderful performers,” he said.

Billed as “an emotionally captivating theatrical concert featuring a mix of spiritual, jazz, klezmer and folk,” “Soul to Soul” has been produced for more than a decade, often on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and has been performed in New York, Los Angeles, Boca Raton, Denver, Baltimore and Chattanooga.

This year, Pittsburgh will host NYTF’s annual production of “Soul to Soul” in honor of Black History Month. The program is sponsored by Congregation Beth Shalom and its Derekh program.

Judith Hoening Adelson, who directs cultural and Israeli programming for Beth Shalom, said the performance mills the musical traditions of both communities and celebrates the cultures and commonalities of both people. And it is sung by performers with careers spanning from Broadway to the pulpit.

In recognition of both communities, the event will take place on Saturday, Feb. 17, in the Elsie Hillman Auditorium at the Kaufmann Center in the Hill District.

“We wanted to do it in a space that would be meaningful for both peoples,” Adelson said.

The performance, she said, has a lot of local support, including from the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh’s Community Relations Council, the Rauh Jewish History Program & Archives at the Heinz History Center, Classrooms Without Borders, the Jewish studies departments of both Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh, Repair the Word, Rodef Shalom Congregation and Temple Sinai.

Adelson, though, won’t be happy to just sell out the venue. She’s anxious for a diverse crowd to fill the auditorium and see the performance. After all, she noted, music has played an important role for both the Black and Jewish communities.

“When things are sad, we sing. When things are joyous, we sing. The commonality is what we’re trying to stress here,” she said.

The history of both peoples, Adelson said, makes the two communities allies; and while they each face different challenges, each deserves to feel safe and free.

“Think about it: Black people being gunned down in a Buffalo shopping mall and Jews are being gunned down in a synagogue. At the root of it is hatred, and we need to be reiterating our commonality and shared humanity,” she said. “Culture does that. Music does that. The performing arts does that.”

Beth Shalom, Adelson said, wanted to do something to celebrate both cultures.

Mlotek agreed, saying that the Jewish community has been at the forefront of the struggle for Black civil rights because, when the movement began in the 1950s, Jews were still dealing with the consequences of the Holocaust. As a result, he said, the Jewish people know what it’s like to be singled out because of who they are.

“It’s important, especially today,” he said, “to be sensitive to each other’s historical issues.”

And, like Adelson, Mlotek doesn’t view ticket sales as the only measure of success of “Soul to Soul” each year.

“We hope this turns into an ensemble and people who have known these songs their whole lives will take the opportunity to sing with us. That’s really the goal,” he said, “besides, you know, being sold out. People singing is our success.”

Tickets for “Soul to Soul” can be purchased at bethshalompgh.org/soul. PJC

David Rullo can be reached at drullo@pittsburghjewishchornicle.org.

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