Hershey Felder and the Lipinsky Family Jewish Arts Festival’s Legacy of New Workby Pat Launer May 30, 2017
After so many of his heralded performances have been staged in San Diego, you probably know a bit about Hershey Felder. You may have seen some of his unique, one-man musical shows: about George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Leonard Bernstein, as well as other (non-Jewish) composers: Chopin, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky (his most recent addition to his “Composer Sonata” which, in its world premiere earlier this year, became the biggest-selling show in the history of the San Diego Repertory Theatre, doubling the sales of the previous top production.
But did you know that Hershey got his start in Yiddish theater?
“Where I grew up, in Montreal,” he explains, “there was a huge Jewish community. Immigrants from all over Europe. There were probably 100,000 Jews there then, though I think there are fewer now.
“Both my parents were Yiddish-speaking,” he continues. “I knew Yiddish from childhood.” (he also reads, writes and speaks Hebrew and French).
In the 1930s, 99 percent of the Jews in Montreal cited Yiddish as their first language. There was a Yiddish language education system, a Yiddish newspaper, and of course, a Yiddish theater.
“I’d done some musical theater stuff as a kid,” Hershey reports. “But my first long-term theatrical relationship was in the Yiddish theater. I first acted onstage there at age 15, then I directed musicals. I continued to work there till I left for New York at 21.”
The shows were “entirely in Yiddish,” he says. And then he boasts of having “hosted Isaac Bashevis Singer in my house. I did a couple of his plays, including ‘Schlemiel the First.’”
At age 22, Hershey directed at a Yiddish theater in New York, and played and directed a musical for them as well.
“I’ve been involved in Yiddish things all my life,” he says. “And now, I get a chance to bring that experience to San Diego.”
For the 24th annual Lipinsky Family San Diego Jewish Arts Festival, Hershey is offering a sneak peek at his latest work-in-progress (that’s how he presented his Berlin piece at the festival three years ago).
For “The Stories of Sholem Aleichem and More,” Hershey has invited some virtuoso musical friends to join him onstage.
From there, the idea evolved to what will now include Yiddish music that Hershey has composed. He will also play the music, along with, among others, Antonio Lysy, a cellist of international renown, now a Professor at UCLA. Lysy’s Argentina-born father, a violinist, was a protégé of Yehudi Menuhin. Hershey describes Antonio as “a very famous cellist. Very handsome. The ladies will love him!”
Some of the pieces they’ll play were written earlier, but a few will be created just for this event. And some will be “old Yiddish theater stuff,” says Hershey coyly. “I’ll be doing Yiddish-related materials that are timely – theatrical, Jewish, immigrant stories – both in Yiddish and in English, and it will relate to my being the child of Holocaust survivors. Consider it an evening with music.”
At the time of this writing, Hershey was busily working on one of Sholem Aleichem’s characters, which will be part of the entertainment, but he was reluctant to go into the details.
Solomon Naumovich, better known as Sholem Aleichem, had many recurring characters in his stories. Tevye the Milkman (made immortal by “Fiddler on the Roof”) was just one of them. Earlier in his career, Hershey played another one, Stempenuyu.
The Lipinsky Arts Festival show is a preview performance of a piece that is very much a work in progress, so Hershey won’t reveal what exactly will be happening on stage later this month. Though he is always reluctant to give out details in advance of new work, he did say this about his focus on Sholem Aleichem:
“I’ll create from the original Yiddish stories, and from several translations. It’s such funny stuff. Everything is infused with humor. But it’s always laughter through tears. Everything Sholem Aleichem wrote is poignant.
“My creations have my own flavor, but very Jewish inspired. I’ve never shied away from that. I’ve always been a proud Jew.”
It will only be a one-time presentation (June 19) on a Monday night, because Hershey will be in the middle of his run of the Beethoven show in Palo Alto, performing eight times a week. When that show ends, he’s off to Chicago to become Tchaikovsky and then Bernstein in New York. So he can only spare a night in San Diego.
“It’s a good benefit to the theater. How do I say No?” he says of the Lipinsky Arts Festival and the San Diego Rep.
It’s not yet clear what the future of this piece will be.
“It’s possible that I may turn any part of it into something else. That’s what happened with the Berlin concert. I didn’t know if I was going to go forward with it. But it was such a success, that I did. Because of that night, Berlin became a massive hit.
“I thank the Rep for giving me a platform,” Hershey says. “Todd [Salovey, Lipinsky Arts Fest artistic director] and Sam [Woodhouse, Rep artistic director] have always been very welcoming. And Sheila and Jeff Lipinsky have been very supportive. This is a winning combination. I can celebrate Judaism, celebrate the Rep, and make an evening for San Diego’s terrific audience.”
As Todd Salovey sees it, “Brilliant is an overused adjective, but Hershey earns it. He’s a master pianist, incredibly funny, does multiple characters, and is an astonishingly eloquent storyteller. It’s a huge honor for the Festival that he’s bringing a second new piece to life just for us. The last one, ‘Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin,’ which had its first performance at the Jewish Arts Festival, has gone on to be one of his all-time most successful pieces. I can’t wait to see what he does acting out Sholem Aleichem’s delicious stories. They’re a treasure trove of delightful characters.”
Hershey’s won’t be the only premiere at the Festival this year.
“Once again,” Salovey, “we’ll premiere an incredible array of theater, music, dance and film. We might be the only Jewish Festival in the country with such a long-standing emphasis on nurturing and presenting new work. And work that starts in the Festival rarely ends in the Festival, since many of our pieces have gone on to be performed in extended runs in San Diego and across the country.”
For this year’s Festival, San Diego Rep playwright-in-residence Herbert Siguenza is creating and starring in a staged reading of a new theater work, “Asimov: The Last Question,” exploring the ideas of the celebrated author, science fiction writer, biochemist and humanist. (June 5 at 7 p.m. in the Lyceum Space.)
Choreographer John Malashock has created five new works, presented under the title “Minor Fall, Major Lift” (words borrowed from Leonard Cohen’s iconic song, “Hallelujah”). The piece, presented in association with Art of Élan, features five new dance works to music by four different composers, including a commissioned score by New York-based contemporary classical composer Judd Greenstein, composer in residence with the NOW Ensemble, which will perform his work. It’s called “The Jewish Pope,” inspired by a folk legend about a medieval Jewish boy, abducted from his family, raised in the church, who ascends to the position of Pope. (June 3 at 8:45 p.m. on the Lyceum Stage.)
“Legendary theater composer Michael Roth,” Salovey explains, “is realizing a 30-year dream with a new music theater piece based on a short prose text by the late, renowned playwright Samuel Beckett, ‘Imagination Dead Imagine,’ which uses beautiful language, moving imagery and mathematical precision to describe a journey of the mind and soul.” (June 7 and 8 at 7:30 p.m. in the Lyceum Space.)
The Festival continues the tradition of honoring six inspirational Jewish women in our community with the 8th annual presentation of “Women of Valor,” written by Rebecca Myers, Sarah Price-Keating, Leah Salovey, Todd Salovey and Ali Viterbi.
“A woman of Valor, who shall find” is a famous quote from the Book of Proverbs. This year’s esteemed honorees are: Joyce Axelrod, City Council member Barbara Bry, Rose Schindler, Pauline Sonboleh and Marcia Tatz-Wollner. The women are celebrated through live music, poetry and vivid imagery. (May 25 at 7:30 p.m. in the Lyceum Space; May 28 at 2 p.m. in the Encinitas Library.)
Another tribute is “For Honor,” written and directed by Lee Sankowich. The staged reading of this world premiere docudrama with music focuses on the heroes of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. In 1943, 300 heroic young men and women fought the German Army, holding them off for 27 days, longer than France or Poland managed to do. This is a tribute to their courage and determination. (July 9 at 7:30 p.m. at the Lawrence Family JCC.)
Finally, Todd and eminent musicologist Yale Strom have written “The Wandering Feast,” a new play based on Yale’s memoir, about his life-changing, year-long journey through Eastern Europe, collecting music and stories from the remnants of the once-thriving Jewish communities in six countries. Yale began in 1981, when he was a 23-year-old aspiring lawyer, and his discoveries changed the course of his life. This world premiere staged reading is told with through narrative, photographs, video, vivid stories and live music, composed and performed by Yale himself. (June 18 at the Encinitas Library; no charge.)
Hershey Felder, Sholem Aleichem, a basketful of world premieres. What’s not to like? The Lipinsky Family San Diego Jewish Arts Festival runs from May 21-July 9: 12 performances at four different venues. A ‘Major Lift’ for the local Jewish community. Tickets are available at 619-544-1000; sdrep.org.
“Hershey Felder and Frieds – The Stories of Sholem Aleichem and More” will be presented one night only, Monday, June 19, on the Lyceum Stage in Horton Plaza. General tickets are $55; $180 VIP tickets include a post-show reception and a singalong with Hershey.