Pittsburgh concert honors ties between Black and Jewish Americans
Years ago, Broadway star Elmore James was so taken with a recording of iconic Black performer Paul Robeson singing a song in Yiddish that he decided to learn how to sing it himself.
The quest led him — via a brief phone chat with legendary singer and actor Theodore Bikel — to New York’s famed National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene.
James got his Yiddish lesson, and more. He also worked with Folksbiene artistic director Zalman Mlotek to create “Soul to Soul,” Folksbiene’s long-running multimedia show celebrating the historical bond between Black and Jewish Americans.
On Sat., Feb. 17, it comes to the Hill District’s Kaufmann Center courtesy of Congregation Beth Shalom — the first Pittsburgh visit in Folksbiene’s 109-year history.
“Soul to Soul” features James (whose Broadway credits include “Beauty and the Beast” and “Big River”) and fellow Black singer Tony Perry and two Jewish performers, Lisa Fishman and Zalmen Mlotek, singing songs ranging from traditional Yiddish tunes to gospel numbers, civil rights anthems, and even “Summertime,” in Yiddish. They perform with a six-piece band, and video and still images help tell the story.
“Through song it depicts the parallel plights of Blacks and Jews in the second half of the 20th century, and what we were fighting for and our parallel struggles,” said James.
Another song in “Soul to Soul” that’s sung in Yiddish is “What a Wonderful World,” made famous by Louis Armstrong. James recalls the story of how Armstrong, born in New Orleans in 1901, was nurtured as a small child by a Jewish family in his neighborhood.
Some might trace the connection between Blacks and Jews to slavery, when the Biblical plight of Israelites in bondage was sometimes summoned to condemn chattel slavery in the Americas. James said “Soul to Soul” focuses on more recent injustices.
“Jews had pogroms happen to them, so did Black people in America,” he said. “There were 100 massacres that happened after the Civil War, where they destroyed Black towns and Black people, and killed them, and they just had to flee for their lives, just like in Europe with Jews.”
Given that Jews had already become part of mainstream American society when Blacks were still fighting for basic civil rights, some critics have questioned how far to take such parallels.
Still, many Jews worked in the civil-rights struggle of the 1950s and ’60s, and James is among those who feel the “the political, and moral and spiritual bond that was shared between Blacks and Jews” is real. And today, white Christian nationalists have often targeted both Jews and people of color.
The auditorium of the Kaufmann Center is an apt venue for “Soul to Soul.” The building on Centre Avenue originally housed the Irene Kaufmann Settlement House, funded by the Kaufmann department store family to help the Jewish immigrants moving to the Hill in great numbers from Europe in the early 20th century.
The center’s educational, arts and sports programming also served the Black community in the Hill, whose numbers began growing rapidly around the time of World War I. Later, the center belonged for decades to the Hill House Association, a community development group that provided essential services to the neighborhood, from health care to meeting space. The Kaufmann Center is now owned by ACH Clear Pathways, an arts-education group run by lifelong Hill resident Tyian Battle.
“Soul to Soul” runs 80 minutes. “It’s very rousing, everybody loves it, it’s full of joy and spirit,” said James. “The struggle continues. And I think we’re stronger together than we are separate.”
Tickets start at $25 and include "pay it forward" options to benefit other ticket-buyers. More information is here.