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Vicki Knight Ron PaleyBy SHARON LOVE and HOLLY HARRIS
The opening concert of the 9th Mameloshen Festival of Yiddish Entertainment and Culture took place on Monday, June 19th, 2017 at the Muriel Richardson Auditorium in the Winnipeg Art Gallery. The festival is held under the auspices of the I.L. Peretz Folk School Endowment Trust and The Rady Jewish Community Centre.


MC Kinzey Posen welcomed the audience with a few Yiddish jokes. He then mentioned Canada’s upcoming birthday celebrations and invited everyone to stand up and join in the singing of our national anthem in Yiddish. A video was played showing 150 people who came together on June 6th in Toronto singing the words (shown at the bottom of the screen) translated by Hindy Nosen Abelson. What Winnipeggers might find interesting is that Cantor Binyomin Brownstone published the first translation in 1957.
Following greetings by Rochelle Zucker from the I.L.P. Trust board, the real fun began! The Gray Academy student choir, directed by David Vamos and accompanied by Tatyana Smolyaninov, opened the evening with an energetic performance. “Bei Mir Bistu Shayn” and the comical “Az Der Rebbe Zingt” were definite crowd pleasers. Their Yiddish diction was great and their enthusiasm was evident!
The featured artist of the evening was Mitch Smolkin from Toronto. He brought to life his heart warming tribute to Theodore Bikel. Smolkin, a seasoned and polished performer, has given concerts in many different countries. He is also a past artistic director of the internationally renowned Ashkenaz Festival. This was Smolkin’s second appearance at Mameloshen. He was accompanied again by Nina Shapilsky, the official pianist for the National Ballet School. This time, tango violinist Rodion Boshoer rounded out this amazing trio.
 The program consisted of a combination of commentary about the life of Bikel and the music which he popularized. He was a folk singer who sang in many languages, an actor, a unionist, a political activist, a musician and a composer. Kudos to Smolkin for putting together this all-encompassing program.
The opening song, “Hulyet Kinderlech” was reflective of Bikel’s formative years spent in Vienna. The audience eagerly sang along to “Shabbes”. Moving on to Palestine before the war, the family could only watch with despair at the atrocities that took place in their homeland. Smolkin’s powerful rendition of “Es Brendt” reminded us of the situation. Moving on to Bikel’s theatrical career, Smolkin spoke of Bikel’s famous role of Captain Von Trapp in the Broadway production of “The Sound of Music”. “Edelweiss” was actually written as an addition especially for Bikel’s voice. “Edelweiss”, sung tenderly by Smolkin, was definitely a highlight of this program.
Bikel was also a fierce champion of human rights. He used song and music as forms of social protest. Smolkin added percussion (a hammer and anvil) to his bold presentation of “Un Du Akerst”(from Bondage to Freedom, the Workers’ Song). This was sung in both Yiddish and English with powerful accompaniment by both Shapilsky and Boshoer. Other Yiddish songs included “A Pintele”, “Kinder Yoren”, and “Di Zun Vet Aruntergeyn”.
Smolkin’s vibrant “If I were a Rich Man” reflected Bikel’s talent as a musical theatre artist. This moving concert came to an end with the light and lively “Kretchma”, a Russian drinking song which was a favourite of Bikel’s many fans. This ensemble definitely ended the program on a high note! How could there not be an encore as demanded by the audience? We were treated to a rousing medley from the Golden Age of Yiddish American Music. “The Surrey with the Fringe on Top”, “There’s No Business Like Show Business” and “New York New York” left us definitely wanting more!

The second concert of the Festival took place on Monday, June 26th also at the Art Gallery. Can an evening of Yiddish humour, stories, music, and yes, even tap dancing, be summed up in two words? Michael Smolash is the answer! “A Bis’l Zun” is definitely a concert not to be missed. Smolash is currently the cantor at Temple Israel in West Bloomington, Michigan. Hailing from Montreal, he grew up in a Yiddish speaking family and is a veteran of Yiddish theatre productions. His previous appearances here in Winnipeg have been at Rainbow Stage and with the Winnipeg Jewish Theatre. This song and dance man is a well-travelled musical theatre performer. Shawn Mcdonald accompanied Smolash on the piano and vocals. He is the musical arranger at Temple Israel as well as the artistic director of Arbor Opera Theatre in nearby Ann Arbor.
Smolash’s rich tenor voice soared as he opened the show with “Abi Gezundt”. A few husband and wife jokes preceded the comical “Ich Been A Border Bei Mein Vibe”. McDonald’s operatic harmony added to the arrangement of the melancholy “Farges Mich Nit”. Smolash’s description of the origin of a “nigh” - a melody, was transformed into a tender rendition of the song, “A Nigun” with Mcdonald’s tenor resonating like a faraway echo.
At one point, we were treated to a brief piano solo as Smolash momentarily left the stage and returned wearing his tap dancing shoes. A light and lively rendition of the love song “Ich Zing” included his dance routine. The arrangement of “Nayer Sher” was definitely a show stopper. Starting in Yiddish, Smolash added the English verses to a strong samba rhythm. He then encouraged everyone to dance in their seat and invited some members of the audience to join in on stage. He did not miss a beat with the quick paced “Yidl Mitn Fidl” and “Der Rebbe Elimelech”. Gasps of joy were heard from the crowd as he eased into “When you Wish Upon a Star” - in Yiddish, of course! He definitely surprised us by adding original verses to “Romania”,  highlighting noteworthy Winnipeg symbols, such as Jeannies’s cake, slurpees, the Forks, potholes, mosquitos and even Wynola! He definitely did his homework. A strong singalong with the audience to the old favourite “Rozhinkes Mit Mandlen” was another high point of the evening.
This show featured a variety of Yiddish theatre tunes and classic well-loved songs. The musical arrangements showcased the ease with which Smolash hit the high notes. The evening came to a close with the spirited and ever popular “Halevai” (What If…). We all sang along to the encore number, “Alle Brider”, a song of peace.
The vision of the Mameloshen concert series has always been to enable our local audience to enjoy world class Yiddish musical entertainment. Special thanks are extended to Tamar Barr, the Assistant Executive Director of the Rady Jewish Community Centre, to the I.L. Peretz School Endowment Trust and as always, to Laurie Mainster, the “neshome” of the festival.

Vicki Knight and Ron Paley close out this year’s Mameloshen festival
By Holly Harris
All the way from the sun-baked desert of Palm Springs, a sweet songbird flew home last Wednesday night, much to the delight of 170 of her most avid fans.  
Beloved singer Vicki Knight, a.k.a. “The Songbird of the Desert”, closed out the 9th annual Mameloshen: Festival of Yiddish Entertainment and Culture with an evening of (mostly) Yiddish songs, accompanied by Winnipeg jazz pianist extraordinaire Ron Paley. The one-night-only show capped this year’s  three-concert series held at the Winnipeg Art Gallery, co-presented by the Rady Jewish Community Centre (JCC) and I.L. Peretz Folk School Endowment Trust. Knight first appeared at Mameloshen in “A Bisele Haimshe Yiddish: A Little Homespun” in May 2012, joined once again by Paley, her frequent collaborator whenever she comes to town.
The haimish evening, hosted by another terrific musician, local bassist Kinsey Posen, also paid tribute to former Peretz School teacher Betty Warshawsky – who notably celebrated her 100th birthday last January and sat among friends and family members that night - and highly-respected community leader and driving force for the Festival, Laurie Mainster. His daughter Gail travelled from Vancouver to accept his honorary award on his behalf, describing her 91-year father as a “big picture thinker.” “If you want to learn something from Laurie Mainster, consider something he taught me,” she told us during her emotional acceptance speech, “There’s great sweetness and satisfaction and profound meaning in giving back. You always get more than you give, and everybody benefits. Find something you care about and volunteer, and put your heart and soul into it.”
With her career now spanning decades, Knight, a former Peretz School teacher, has appeared in CBC television productions, at Rainbow Stage, as well as countless shows at the legendary Hollow Mug Theatre Restaurant. After moving to Southern California during the early 1980s, she became renowned for her one-woman cabaret shows, with her latest gig headlining at Oscar’s Café & Bar every weekend, joined by members of the former Dean Martin and Lawrence Welk television shows. The ageless singer has also evidently been drinking deeply from the proverbial fountain of youth, showing no signs of the ravages of time, including her powerhouse vocals that seemed to only grow stronger by the minute.
But Knight is also a consummate entertainer and gifted raconteur, whose warmly gracious presence immediately established an easy rapport with the audience. “I cherish this evening. I cherish our time together,” she said simply after first coming onstage.  
She kibitzed with the crowd, she kvelled about her North End roots; she set up her 14 musical numbers with humourous anecdotes and consistently wove spells of story-telling. And when she told us how truly moved she was to be singing for the hometown crowd, including several of her own family members who had likewise flocked to the city for her show, we believed her. “This is really my home. My family, my friends, all that is dear to me is here,” she stated, before quipping, “How will I ever sleep tonight?”  
After opening with the gentle Yiddish lullaby “Zing Faygele Zing” – aptly, “sing, little bird” - she then picked up the pace with “Abee Gezunt,” the first piece of many that saw the responsive crowd clapping (and singing) along. She shared personal stories of traveling to Israel with the Shaarey Zedek Synagogue Choir during the 1970s, where she performed “Finjan,” as well as learning “Shebess Yom Tef ” from Winnipeg’s near mythical Cantor Benjamin Brownstone (“Chazan Bronshtein”), as a 16-year old teenager.
As expected, Knight also provided plenty of schmaltz. Her searing performance of “Chazan Yaakov Lemmer – Momele” where she sang: “Silver hair, heart of gold, Day by day I hate to see you growing old” tugged at the heartstrings.  
Then it became Paley’s turn to shine. His luminous piano arrangement of “Erev Shel Shoshanim” and “Yerushalayim Shel Zahav” brought out shifting colours with gorgeous jazz-flavoured harmonies in these two works so deeply rooted in the Jewish soul.
We also witnessed pure gold  after Knight announced she had a “surprise” in store. Seeing Paley perform “Mazel Tov,” “Shalom Aleichem,” and “Siman Tov Umazal Tov” on solo accordion – the first instrument that he learned while growing up on Burrows Avenue – took this local musical icon right back to his own familial roots, while proving he could easily have another stellar career as an accordionist. The spitfire duo then whisked us back to the shtetl with the 1928 classic “Mein Shtetl Belz,” popular in prewar Poland, as well as a feisty “Midnight in Moscow” and “Kretchma.”
This led to “Papirosen,” with Knight wringing out every ounce of emotion as she told its scorching tale of the orphan boy who begs villagers: “Buy my cigarettes.”  “Hostu, Gistu, Bistu” and “Miserlu” rounded out the evening’s set, albeit one of its rare English selections, “I Believe” sounded strangely tepid next to the gutsier Yiddish songs. As expected, the crowd gave the duo a standing ovation, that led to their lively encore “Tzena, Tzena.”
The evening also included the Mameloshen debut of the Gray Academy Neshama Choir, led by pianist/conductor/teacher Avi Posen. Its three representatives that night: Maxine Jacobsohn, Haviva Polevoi and Ariel Shatsky treated the audience to five Yiddish chestnuts, including “Tumbalalaika” and “Donna Donna.”
Although it took a full 20 minutes for the music to (finally) get going, this show had so many wonderful moments. However, perhaps its most potent image came courtesy of the three young singers enthusiastically belting Yiddish songs by memory to their much older listeners - which is precisely the point of Mameloshen – or for that matter, any other Yiddish festival including Toronto’s biennial Ashkenaz.
By keeping the Yiddish flame burning bright, not merely as sentimental schlepping through the annals of time (as pleasant as that may be), but more importantly, by passing its legacy from one generation to the next, Mameloshen helps keep this ages-old language and all its delicious traditions alive and well. And oy, who knows? One of these young singers might just become the next Vicki Knight.

Holly Harris has served as the Winnipeg Free Press’ classical music/opera/dance critic since 2004. Her father Neil Harris directed Vicki Knight in countless Hollow Mug Dinner Theatre Restaurant shows long, long ago.

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