Bringing an icon to life

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Diane Cypkin 1WPhotos courtesy of Diane Cypkin
Diane Cypkin 1W

College professor by day and entertainer by night, Diane Cypkin brings nostalgia, harmony and history with her to every performance.

Born in a displaced persons camp in Munich, Germany after the war, Cypkin grew up in a Yiddish-speaking home.

Now inBrightonBeach, Brooklyn, her shtick is making sure the story of well-loved entertainer Molly Picon — said to be the star of Yiddish theater inNew York City— lives on. 

Picon, a New York-born Yiddish icon, is well-known for her theater, radio, television and film performances over the span of seven decades. The film many may remember her most for is “Yidl with His Fiddle,” which debuted in 1936. She also starred in the 1963 film “Come Blow Your Horn” and “Fiddler on the Roof” in 1971 before she suffered from Alzheimer’s disease in her later years and died at age 93.

Still, the ties Cypkin has to Picon are many and strong.

Not only was Cypkin raised by a musically-inclined father and theater-loving mother, she has infinite knowledge of Yiddish theater in New York City after writing a great deal about it and even performing there for many years.

Cypkin also curated an exhibition at the Museum of the City ofNew Yorkentitled “One Hundred Years of Yiddish Theatre inNew York City” before the Lincoln Center Library of the Performing Arts inNew Yorkasked her to do an exhibition on Picon.

Now, through a few hundred artifacts — including pictures, programs, reviews, posters, music and costumes — Cypkin tells Picon’s story in English and sings her songs in Yiddish.

“I love her music, and her lyrics are poetry. When I sing it, I see it,” Cypkin said.

Although the premise of her performances revolves around the life and times of Picon, Cypkin said the concerts end up focusing more on the stories of the audience members.

“It’s Molly’s story, but it’s also our story. At the end, you end up talking about the lower east side, and the audience members all remember going to the Yiddish theater. They all remember their old homes and their parents. Molly is the icon around which our lives have turned. It’s the story about everybody who lived in her time.”

Cypkin, who recently performed forNorthShoreTowersresidents, said she got lost on her way to the venue. With no map and no G.P.S. system, Cypkin said she pulled over and found an AAA service truck on the side of the road.

“I said to him, ‘Listen, I have a show. Please lead me there,” Cypkin said. “It was just a pleasure to be there, and it was truly a wonderful audience.”

Cypkin is a professor of media and communication arts atPaceUniversityand has been teaching there for more than 20 years. In just the last year, she and her pianist Lina Panfilova have done about 30 shows throughout the tri-state area.

“I can honestly say it’s not just a concert I offer. It’s a community event,” she said. “By the time the show is over, we know each other well. I can feel the audience with me, and after the show, people run up to talk to me and share their memories. Every time I do a show, I love it all over again. I don’t get bored. You can, but I don’t.”

And Yiddish or not, Cypkin said everyone can enjoy the performance.

“You don’t have to understand every word of Yiddish. It’s the music, and it’s the way it’s presented. It’s the sound of a language.”