The Multicultural Arts Exchange (MAE), an organization that puts on family-friendly and affordable arts programming in Northeast Philadelphia, has chosen Jewish heritage as its theme for this year.
Previous years’ themes have included opera and multiculturalism.
“It was a natural evolution,” said Project Director Michael Zorich, who is Jewish and originally from Ukraine. He noted that MAE has held the majority of its programs at Congregations of Shaare Shamayim since 2016. “We’ve been contacted by many interesting artists. Our thing is that we strive to present original programming that nobody else is doing, and do it in seasons.”
This season will start on March 17, with a production of two shows that explore Jewish heritage.
The first is The Midwood Miracle, a one-woman musical memoir by singer/actress/writer Deborah Karpel about her personal journey with Judaism. The show, put on in partnership with ARTS-NY, was scheduled to kick off the season on March 3 but was postponed because of weather. The show will now run on March 17 at 1 p.m. at Shaare Shamayim.
Later that same day at 4 p.m. and also at Shaare Shamayim, MAE will present the second event of the season, Barry: Mamaloshen in Dance, a performance by Asya Zlatina and Dancers, which celebrates Yiddish culture.
The two shows share similar themes of discovering roots and connecting to ancestors, Zorich said.
“It has so many universal themes that speak not just to the Jewish people, but to pretty much everybody,” Zorich said. “We had people of different nationalities, different religious backgrounds, being at the shows and enjoying them.”
The Midwood Miracle came out of an experience Karpel had when she started performing as the lead singer in a klezmer band. It wasn’t a role she had sought, but as a singer she was always happy to take on roles when they were offered to her, so she learned Yiddish.
Around the same time, she had to move into her father’s old apartment in the Midwood neighborhood of Brooklyn, where Karpel was surrounded by elements of Yiddish life. Through these series of events, she found herself connecting to her heritage.
The Midwood Miracle premiered in 2017 at the Emerging Artists Theater & New Works Festival. This performance at Shaare Shamayim is the first time Karpel has performed The Midwood Miracle outside of New York, where she lives. The show weaves together original music, Americana, Western swing, operatic arias and Yiddish songs.
“What is the ultimate in the story is that I had a connection to my father’s father,” Karpel said. “I had a connection to my father that I didn’t expect. I had a connection to what feels like home via Yiddish, and that all these pieces came without going after them. They came for me.”
Zlatina, who works as the program coordinator for The Chevra in addition to being a dancer, created Mamaloshen for the Fringe Festival in 2016.
Since then, she and her troupe have toured with the show around Philadelphia, New York and even at an international Yiddish festival in Romania. For Zlatina, it was particularly special to perform at the Millennium Stage at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. She grew up nearby, so her family was able to attend, and people around the world watched through the center’s livestream.
The show is about shtetl life, with different pieces representing different elements of that life, such as the children of the shtetl or its older women. Zlatina performs Mamaloshen, which means “Mother tongue” in Yiddish, with seven to nine dancers.
After her grandparents died, Zlatina created Mamaloshen in dedication to them, as they “went through horrible pogroms, lost many family members, were stripped of their heritage by the Soviet Union and finally wound up in America, where we came as refugees,” Zlatina said.
“My grandfather was finally able to publicly hold a siddur again,” she continued. “That was the most important thing for them — to be able to come back to their heritage. I was always amazed that, through all of the persecution since they were born — to watch your loved ones be killed and having to migrate and having to run away — that they were always so happy and they taught me to be happy.”