Yiddish Theater: A Love Story (2006)
Fight to Keep a Language on the Stage
By JEANNETTE CATSOULIS
Published: November 21, 2007
When the Israeli filmmaker Dan Katzir met Zypora Spaisman, the Polish-born “Yiddish diva” and onetime mainstay of the Folksbiene Yiddish Theater (today called the National Yiddish Theater-Folksbiene), the result was a project he had never planned to make.
Filmed in real time during the freezing winter of 2000, “Yiddish Theater: A Love Story” tracks eight days in the failing life of the Yiddish Public Theater, founded by Ms. Spaisman (who died in 2002) after her separation from the Folksbiene in 1998. But as we watch the dwindling audiences and desperate fund-raising attempts, the survival of the theater becomes the gateway to a passionate argument for the survival of an entire culture.
Peopled by famous names from the Yiddish stage — Felix Fibich, Seymour Rexite — the film is by turns cranky, funny, wistful and resolute. Jack Lebewohl, the owner of the original Second Avenue Deli, proudly shows off the Yiddish Walk of Fame, while the salty Mr. Rexite (who also died in 2002) rushes us through the invaluable archive of the Hebrew Actors Union. Hoping for more discourse, his director encouragingly mentions the 1,000-year history of the Yiddish language. “I know that; I wasn’t there at the time,” is Mr. Rexite’s priceless response.
That language, and its abandonment, is the melancholy heart of “Yiddish Theater,” lending the film direction and depth of purpose. When asked why so many Jews voluntarily relinquished it, the author Nahma Sandrow is clear: “It was the language of the dead.” Ms. Spaisman would have furiously disagreed.
A Love Story
Opens today in Manhattan.
Directed by Dan Katzir; written (in English and Yiddish, with English subtitles) by Mr. Katzir and Ravit Markus; director of photography, Mr. Katzir; edited by Neta Dvorkis and Adam Shell; produced by Ms. Markus and Yael Katzir; released by New Love Films. At the Two Boots Pioneer Theater, 155 East Third Street, at Avenue A, East Village. Running time: 1 hour 20 minutes. This film is not rated.