Lives in the Yiddish Theatre
Volume 8



Matthew (Motl) Didner


Matthew “Motl” Didner was born in 1973 in New Brunswick, New Jersey, the son of a public school teacher and a human factors engineer. He attended public school and went to Hebrew school at Anshe Emet in South River, New Jersey and B’nai Or in Morristown, New Jersey. He graduated with honors from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts where he studied acting and directing at the Playwrights Horizons Theater School studio. He has worked at The National Yiddish Theatre -- Folksbiene -- since 2003 and currently serves as Associate Artistic Director.

Although Motl received a Jewish education through the age of seventeen, Yiddish was not a part of the curriculum and was not spoken at home. A few early experiences with Yiddish culture did ignite his imagination; his maternal grandmother took him to see the off-Broadway production of “The Golden Land” in 1986, gave him a copy of “Theodore Bikel Sings Jewish Folks Songs” when he was a teenager and shared many lunches in the Molly Picon room of the 2nd Avenue Deli. While studying theatre in college, he began to acquaint himself with Yiddish plays in English translation.

After a six year sojourn in Richmond, Virginia where he served as co-artistic director of The Richmond Performing Arts Collective, Motl returned to New York City. Just a few months after returning, he serendipitously saw a flier advertising a “Free One-Hour Instant Yiddish Class” offered by The Workmen’s Circle. He went on to study in the YIVO Uriel Weinreich summer course in 2003 at Columbia University. That summer he began volunteering at The National Yiddish Theatre – Folksbiene. The first of these events was the annual gala at the 92nd Street Y. At the gala, he heard Zalmen Mlotek deliver a speech in which he expressed the need for a comprehensive outreach program. At the reception, following the event, Motl approached Mr. Mlotek and informed him that he would deliver this program.

When a staff position became available at the Folksbiene that fall, Motl was brought on board and immediately began raising funds and making contacts. The first opportunity for a show came in the form of an all-male Purim Shpiel called “Di Gantse Megile”, performed one time only for an orthodox synagogue in Staten Island. The show was, by all accounts, a mess. But the audience enjoyed it and the Folksbiene was invited back the next year. This began a long journey, in which the Purim Shpiel would play a central role.

The following summer Motl began to organize a group of performers in their twenties and thirties who learned Yiddish as a second language. The group was called "Di Folksbiene Trupe". The troupe toured the Northeast with a Yiddish language musical revue called “Mama’s Loshn Kugel”. The troupe's performances were very well received, and there was demand for a second show. In 2006, The troupe added a second musical revue called “Makht a Tsimes”, which included original material by Miryem-Khaye Seigel, Leizer Burko and Motl Didner. In 2012, The troupe added a Khanike-themed show titled “Heyse Latkes” to its repertoire. The troupe plans a 2014 launch of a new musical based on the Sholem Aleykhem “Kasrilevke” stories. 

Early directing and acting projects at the Folksbiene included staged readings of “Motke Ganev”, 2004; “Der Tsurikgekumener”, 2004; “Bronx Express”, 2005 and “Bar Kokhba”, 2005.

In 2006 Motl began to produce a series of readings and concerts at The City University of New York with the sponsorship of CUNY Chancellor Matthew Goldstein. These events toured campuses throughout the city, including Hunter College, Baruch College, Queens College, Brooklyn College and Lehman College. In the inaugural season of the Folksbiene@CUNY series, Motl Didner co-created an original Purim Shpiel with Miryem-Khaye Seigel, titled “Purim in Khelm”. Over the years, the series would include readings of “Gimpl Tam”, “The Adventures of Hershele Ostropolyer” and “The Megile of Itzik Manger”, all of which would go on to be produced on the Folksbiene mainstage. Other highlights include “The Yiddish Radio Hour” and “Love, Labor, Loss”, as well as the concert series “New Voices of the Yiddish Stage”, “Soul to Soul” and “Notes From the Underground” and staged readings of literary classics such as “Dos Groyse Gevins” by Sholem Aleykhem; “Mayn Tatns Beys-Din Shtib” based on the writings of I. B. Singer; “Der Dybbuk” by Sh. An-Sky; and “Der Mama’s Shabosim” based on the writings of Khayim Grade.

Motl’s first mainstage directing credit was “Di Ksube” in the 2007-2008 season. This Israeli comedy with music was written by Ephraim Kishon and translated into Yiddish by Israel Beker. The production was vey well received. The New York Times called it “keen of eye and light of heart”, with a “warm, wise core”.

During the 2008-2009 season, Motl was the assistant director to Moshe Yassur and appeared on stage as Der Shotn in “Gimpl Tam”. Later that year, Motl directed “Di Pushcart Pedlers” a Yiddish translation of Murray Schisgal’s one-act play as part of a triptych titled “Shpiel! Shpiel! Shpiel!”.

In 2010, Motl directed “Fyvush Finkel Live!” which was nominated for a Drama Desk Award in the category of “Outstanding Musical Revue”. That year he also partnered with composer Dmitri Zisl Slepovitch and choreographer Rebecca Warner to create “Di Tsvey Brider” a dance-theater performance based on the poetry of I, L. Peretz.

In 2013, Motl directed a landmark production of “The Megile of Itzik Manger” with choreography by Merete Meunter and production design by Jenny Romaine, which was highly praised both in the press and by Megile composer Dov Seltzer.

Motl Didner leads a workshop titled, “From the Page to the Stage” during “A Rayze Keyn Yiddishland” at Circle Lodge for one week each summer. He serves on the board of directors of the Yiddish Actors and Friends Artists Club and has served on the National Executive Board of the Workmen’s Circle / Arbeter Ring.

Motl lives in Brooklyn with his wife Danielle “Elize-Rokhl” Dorter and their two daughters Natalie “Nekhomele” and Maya “Mine-Shulamis”.

Sh. E. from Motl Didner.






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