Concert Review (11/03/2006)

The singer and actor Hy Wolfe thoroughly charmed an audience at the JCC of Greater Washington last month with a concert performance sponsored by Yiddish of Greater Washington.

Wolfe--whose career has included appearances on such English-language TV shows as "Law and Order" as well as starring roles in Yiddish-language plays such as "Yankl der Shmid" at the Folksbiene Theatre in New York--presented a program of songs and sketches that were engaging for both those fluent in Yiddish and those who are Yiddish-challenged. Spanning a broad range of moods, from the sorrowful to the humorous, Wolfe displayed his impressive acting ability--even playing both parts in a scene from "Yankl der Shmid" in which the bumbling blacksmith attempts to declare his love to the village girl who is the object of his affections. Along with his piano accompanist, Herbert Kaplan, Wolfe did a fine job of conveying pathos and yearning in such songs as "In der fintster," by Zishe Landau, and "Es benkt zikh nokh di kinder-yorn," by Benzion Witler, gracefully translating enough of the lyrics into English so that everyone in the audience could appreciate the sentiments. But he really shone in the more comic numbers, some of which mingled English and Yiddish words to humorous effect. In "I'm a Litvak and She's a Galitz," Wolfe conveyed the frustration of a married couple separated by a common language ("I say muter, zogt zi miter./S'iz mir biter. Ikh zog puter, zogt zi piter.") And in the show-stopping "Umglik Blues," Wolfe called for a blue stage light and asked the audience to imagine themselves in a smoky nightclub. He then launched into a blues-y, Yiddish-inflected plaint by a jealous husband whose wife Tsipke has run off with the owner of a delicatessen, threatening to stab the man "mit a milekhdikn messer!"

For his final number, Wolfe challenged the audience to help him identify a song that his mother used to sing to him, but which he said had been unable to find in any of the many Yiddish songbooks that he has consulted. As the audience soon realized, the words were in Yiddish, but the song was none other than the Frank Sinatra classic, "When You're Young at Heart" ("Ven Dos Hartz is Ying"). Wolfe, a native Yiddish speaker whose parents were Holocaust survivors, then spoke of how much it meant to him to perform in Yiddish for an audience who appreciated the language--words that went straight from his heart to the hearts of audience members.


Washington Jewish Week (09/06/2006)

Aaron Leibel for "The Jewish Week"

Remember when audiences would go wild for Frank Sinatra, storm the stage when Elvis would perform, cry during Beatles' concerts?

That spirit still exists albeit on a much smaller scale at Hy Wolfe's concerts, he says. Wolfe will sing, tell stories and perform monologues in his Yiddish of Greater Washington-sponsored show, Yiddish Songs for the Soul, Sept. 17 at 7:30 p.m. at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington in Rockville.

"People get teary eyed when I sing 'Young at Heart' in Yiddish," says the New York-based singer/actor. "It brings back the incredible memories they had."

As for himself, he says he is able "to express myself in a Yiddish lyric in ways that I can't in English. There is a freedom that comes over me when I sing in Yiddish."

Wolfe, 49, grew up in a family of Holocaust survivors, speaking Yiddish with his parents as a child. His parents were observant Jews before the war, but less so afterward, plagued by the "Where was God at Auschwitz?" question. Nonetheless, he says, they tried to give him and his siblings a traditional upbringing, so his mother kept a kosher home and lit candles on Friday night.

Enchanted with the theater from an early age, after performing in school plays and in his school orchestra, Wolfe studied acting at the City University of New York and received a master's degree in acting and speech from Penn State University in the late 1970s.

After graduation, he returned to New York City to study acting, working in a series of jobs including busboy, waiter, carpenters assistant, painter, bartender and businessman, so he could continue his studies.

His acting credits range from small parts on TV's Law and Order to the Folksbiene Yiddish Theatre.

In 1995, he and fellow Yiddish actress Shifra Lerer teamed up to do a video, No Shmaltz! in which they discuss and prepare low-fat Jewish dishes. The tape is in Yiddish with English subtitles.

Earlier this year, Wolfe made his first CD, Lider far der neshome-Yiddish for the soul.

For the past five years, he has been executive director of the Central Yiddish Culture Organization, one of the oldest publishing houses for Yiddish books, and since 2003, artistic director of the Yiddish National Theatre.

At his JCCGW show, Wolfe promises to do monologues from Yiddish theater, tell a couple of stories from Yiddish folklore and, of course, sing Yiddish songs.

Non-Yiddish speakers should come, he says, because they will enjoy the music. He also notes that he "pantomimes and throws in an English word here and there" and a few of the songs will be in "Yinglish," using words from both Yiddish and English.

"I try not to leave people behind," he says.

It is also important for them to hear the language. "It is who we are," Wolfe stresses. "The roots from where we came need to be tended so they can remain strong."

Tickets for the show, $15, $10 for JCC and YGW members, are available by calling 301-348-3872 .

A Review from Washington Jewish Week


The Jewish Week (06/16/2006)

George Robinson for "The Jewish Week"

The tunes are all unfamiliar and he gives them a spirited reading. Classically Speaking Morton Feldman, Max Helfman, and a little Matisyahyu, too. George Robinson - Special To The Jewish Week Hy Wolfe: “Yiddish Songs for the Soul” (Yiddishland & CYCO) The opening song on this set might put listeners off a bit; Wolfe has a rich baritone but there are definite intonation problems on “In Der Fintster” and Herbert Kaplan’s synth-based arrangement is flaccid. But hang on, because after that somewhat rocky start this showcase for Wolfe, the artistic director of the Yiddish National Theater, picks up quite nicely. The tunes are all unfamiliar and he gives them a spirited reading. There are some Mickey Katz-like satires by Eli Basse (“I’m a Litvak and She’s a Galitz,” “Umglik Blues” “Number 4, Humentash Lane”) that are both funny and charming and the entire set has a sweetness that is never cloying.

A Review from The Jewish Week


THEATER REVIEW; A City Scholar? Staying the Night? Oy, Such a Catch!

Published: November 15, 2000, Wednesday

Once upon a time in the Old Country, before the invention of the neurosis, there lived a simple farmer named David Noakh and his outspoken wife, Rokhl, and their nubile children, the strapping Hersh Ber and the pretty and irrepressible Tsine.

So begins ''Green Fields,'' the heartwarming old chestnut that is introducing New York to its newest Yiddish theater troupe. Founded by Zypora Spaisman, a longtime stalwart for the Folksbiene Theater, which continues, the new company is the Yiddish Public Theater. And its revival of Peretz Hirschbein's ''Green Fields'' (''Grine Felder''), a crowd-pleasing classic of Yiddish theater, is both a homage to the past and a heartening augury of the survival of Yiddish theater into a new century.

Presented with attractive supertitles in English and Russian and accompanied by a couple of tuneful songs by Vladimir Heifetz and Sholem Secunda, who is best known for ''Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen,'' this comedy concocts its fun out of a stolen kiss, assorted heartaches, parental visions of a good catch and contrasts of city and country. And each of the eight actors gets at the very least one moment to captivate the audience.

Not only is the cast peopled by veterans of Yiddish theater like the award-winning Ms. Spaisman in the role of Rokhl; it is also enlivened by relative newcomers in the roles of the young people smitten with the love that drives the sweet old-fashioned plot. Among the veterans are Shifra Lerer (Woody Allen's memorable grandma in ''Deconstructing Harry'') as Rokhl's hard-to-please neighbor and sometimes friend Gitl; and Felix Fibich as Gitl's fussy little husband, Alkone.

In the middle stands Norman Kruger as David, and on the young torchbearers side of the lineup can be found Roni Neuman as the mischievous Tsine; Joad Kohn as Levi Yitshok, the scholarly stranger who thinks he is just passing through when he asks to spend a night in David's house; Hy Wolfe as the good-hearted Hersh Ber; and Julie Alexander as Stere, the daughter of Gitl and Alkone, the best friend of Tsine and the young woman whom Hersh Ber, in his simple way, simply loves.

Being snobs, Gitl and Alkone would much rather have the bookish, urban Levi than the rustic Hersh Ber as a son-in-law; being Tsine, Tsine has her heart set on Levi, who might just have his heart set on continuing his travels.

Under the assured direction of Bryna Turetsky and accompanied by incidental music arranged by Herbert Kaplan, the action among characters thoughtfully costumed by Anthony Braithwaite unfolds on an attractive and convincingly rural set designed by Rachel Nemec.

''Green Fields'' is playing at the Mazer Theater at 197 East Broadway on the Lower East Side. And for those who missed a chance to see this lighthearted entertainment in 1919 when it became a big hit with Jacob Ben-Ami and Celia Adler at the Irving Place Theater, opportunity has come knocking again.


A Yiddish play by Peretz Hirschbein. Directed by Bryna Turetsky; music by Vladimir Heifetz and Sholem Secunda. Sets by Rachel Nemec; costumes by Anthony Braithwaite; lighting by Nicole Pearce; incidental music arranged by Herbert Kaplan; stage manager, Wendy Ouellette. Presented by the Yiddish Public Theater, Zypora Spaisman, artistic director; David A. Romeo, general manager; Jechil M. Dobekirer, president; Sally A. Delson, treasurer. At the Mazer Theater, 197 East Broadway, Lower East Side.

WITH: Norman Kruger (David Noakh), Zypora Spaisman (Rokhl), Hy Wolfe (Hersh Ber), Roni Neuman (Tsine), Felix Fibich (Alkone), Shifra Lerer (Gitl), Julie Alexander (Stere) and Joad Kohn (Levi Yitshok).

A Review from


THEATER REVIEW; Fickle Yankl the Blacksmith Weds, but Is He Made of Iron?

Published: January 1, 1998, Thursday

At the Folksbiene Yiddish Theater, the vehicle creaks, but the ride packs enjoyment.

The company that bills itself as the nation's oldest Yiddish-speaking theater is off and running in its 82d year of continuous performances with ''The Blacksmith's Folly,'' a musical drama based on one of David Pinski's Yiddish classics, ''Yankl der Schmid'' (''Yankl the Smith'').

Playing until Jan. 18 and accompanied by simultaneous English and Russian translations through earphones, this is a work that poses a question -- can the leopard change his spots? -- and then proceeds to take its sweet time delivering a predictable answer.

But there is plenty of fun and pleasure along the way: neatly acted characters who radiate soul, a journey into both old-time theater and Ukraine of 1906, warm humor, concern for decency, sprightly and sentimental music and lyrics and the singing of a baritone named Alexander Gunko.

Mr. Gunko, a graduate of the State Conservatory of Music in Odessa in Ukraine, possesses a beautiful voice and the ability to imbue a song with depths of feeling; although he plays a subsidiary role, a character called The Stranger, this production wisely uses him as much as possible.

All these elements surround and grow out of the story of Yankl (Hy Wolfe), the handsome, stalwart, skirt-chasing, hard-drinking village smith.

The object of desire of all the younger women in town, he falls madly in love with the sweet Tamara (Rachel Botchan), the pretty, orphaned niece of Frume (Zypora Spaisman). When Tamara accepts the proposal he tenders through the local matchmaker, Khaye Peshe (Mina Bern), Yankl says his love has transformed him into a new man. He marries and becomes a seemingly fulfilled and happy husband and father. But then, in a moment of weakness, he is cornered at his blazing forge by the scheming seductress Rivke (Ibi Kaufman), an ill-tempered woman who abuses Rafoyl (I. W. Firestone), her husband.

Will Yankl revert to his old ways? Will Tamara pack up her little boy and leave home? Will the hissable Rivke finally succeed in provoking Rafoyl into giving her a divorce?

''The Blacksmith's Folly'' doesn't even get around to posing these questions until its second act, after it has introduced the villagers and given Ms. Bern and Ms. Spaisman, two stalwarts of Yiddish theater, a chance to work their impishly mischievous wiles on characters and audience alike.

No matter. Under the direction of Daniel Banks, with a book adapted by Michal Greenstein and music assembled by Zalmen Mlotek, ''The Blacksmith's Folly,'' like its protagonist, has the strength to overcome its weakness.


Adapted by Michal Greenstein from the play by David Pinski; directed by Daniel Banks; sets by Anduin Havens; costumes by Gale Cooper-Hecht; music assembled by Zalmen Mlotek; lighting by Jonah Meacham; production stage manager, Kim M. Jones; stage manager, Warren S. Friedman; English translation and transliteration by Pearl Krupit. Presented by the Folksbiene Yiddish Theater, in association with the Workmen's Circle, Harold Platt, president; Corey Breier, vice president. At the Folksbiene Yiddish Theater, 123 East 55th Street, Manhattan.

WITH: Ibi Kaufman (Rivke), Kelli Kolodny (Leah), I. W. Firestone (Rafoyl), Elizabeth Barkan (Dvoyre), Hy Wolfe (Yankl), Alexander Gunko (The Stranger), Mina Bern (Khaye Peshe), Zypora Spaisman (Frume), Rachel Botchan (Tamara), Norman Kruger (Reb Aron), Felix Fibich (Simkhe) and Shakhneh Godl-Zunenshprotz (Town Rabbi).

A Review from


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