LOS ANGELES JOURNAL
Yiddish Theater: A Love Story
by Ed Rampell
Dan Katzir’s Yiddish Theater: A Love Story is a lovingly told tale of what may be the last of a vanishing breed: New York City’s last theatrical showcase for plays exploring Jewish heritage, history and identity performed in Yiddish, the lyrical language of Central and Eastern European Jews dating back to the 10th century. This expressive tongue is best known for its many colorful words that have entered the lexicon of the dominant majority culture, thanks in no small part to the efforts of Jewish comics from the Borscht Belt to the Great White Way to Tinseltown.
For instance, in 1930’s Animal Crackers, Groucho Marx’s theme song contains this memorable lyric: “Hooray for Captain Spaulding, The African explorer! Did someone call me schnorrer?” (According to an online Yiddish Dictionary, a schnorrer is a “beggar; sponger, moocher, parasite.”)
Like Hawaiian words, which live on largely in song lyrics and street names, what has been largely lost, however, is the overall language itself; its daily usage in conversation, newspapers, etc., and its meaning. Yiddish was once not only the main form for discourse of Jews in Europe’s shtetls, but of the masses of Jewish immigrants huddled in Manhattan’s fabled Lower East Side and other ghettos in the so-called New World. But as Katzir’s documentary reveals, use of this once-vibrant post-Palestine patois of the Diaspora has been greatly diminished, due to influences including, first and foremost, the Holocaust, as well as Stalinist purges, Americanization and, surprisingly, an Israeli predilection for Hebrew at the expense of Yiddish. Oy vey!
The once thriving Yiddish theatre (along with the popular Yiddish cinema) has been reduced in size and following in New York, where many Jews live. Against all odds, as Katzir documents, the Folksbiene survived – the last of the 14 Yiddish theater companies that had existed on the Lower East Side when the Folksbiene was established way back in 1915, when the renowned writer Sholem Aleichem was still alive. Like the Fiddler on the Roof based on Aleichem’s witty stories, who continued to play on as he teetered precariously from on high, Folksbiene continued as a lifeline for Yiddish culture and language through the decades.
Yiddish Theater: A Love Story follows the trials and tribulations of the Polish-born Zypora Spaisman, an 80-something Holocaust survivor, ex-midwife, actress and diva, as she struggles in the face of adversity, indifference and ageism to preserve the Folksbiene. An archetypal Jewish mother, Spaisman’s indomitable spirit breathed life into this playhouse and troupe for 40-plus years. Spaisman is a force of nature as she tries to lead her troupe – and people – to the Promised Land of an enduring patrimony, as the final curtain threatens to fall on the long neglected and suffering Folksbiene.
In addition to assimilation, the theatre’s actual Off-Broadway location, far from the theater district and in a not so inviting Lower Manhattan neighborhood, works to keep the crowds away. Being performed in a dialect that is no longer widely used or understood also keep “tushies” and “tokheses” out of the seats of the musty theater (supertitles, like the kind deployed at operas, help, however). But as the final performance of Green Fields (a play about rural Ukrainian Jews) nears, out of left field rave reviews for in New York’s daily newspapers, and the possibility of opening on Broadway, offer a glimmer of light. Not unlike those hoary Hanukkah candles flickering in the darkness, when the ancient Maccabees were besieged, there is a ray of hope. Will there be a miracle? This little theater’s struggle for survival mirrors that of the embattled Jews themselves.
Roni Neuman, a young, fetching, vivacious Israeli actress who – like so many Jews before her traveled to America – finds her calling, as she joins and pumps new blood into the ensemble. Although the ingenue has returned to Israel, Spaisman sort of passes the mantle down to Neuman, as a new generation rises as keepers of the cultural flame.
Yiddish Theater: A Love Story includes interviews with luminaries of the Yiddish stage, such as Shifra Lerer, Felix Fibich and Seymour Rechzeit. It’s fun to see the actors schmactors -- whether they have gone Hollywood or walk the Yiddish boards -- are all hams (even if that’s not kosher). There is footage of the famed 2nd Ave. Deli, the deserted office of the Hebrew Actors Union and the Yiddish Walk of Fame, a counterpart to the Hollywood Blvd. famous Walk of Fame. Nevertheless, the film is very tightly focused on Zypora and her acolytes, and I wished there could have been more contextual background on the Yiddish theater in general.
This documentary opens at a propitious time, as Israelis, Arabs and Palestinians – who paid a heavy price for a Holocaust perpetrated by non-Palestinians -- hold a peace conference. Also, with the Armenian Genocide Resolution, the issue of cultural genocide has been much in the news lately. Wait, let me see if I got this straight: President Bush and his warmongers and minions lobbied against Congressman Adam Schiff’s humanitarian measure recognizing the 1915 genocide of the Armenian people by Turkey because if it were passed, it would adversely affect Washington’s perpetuation of mass murder and mayhem in Iraq. Plus, it could trigger Turkey’s collective punishment of the Kurds. Got it?
In this strange world we live in, allow your humble scribe to make a modest proposal: Survivors of mass exterminations and cultural extinction aimed at peoples should form a “Genocide Guild.” It would include Jews, Armenians, Roma (formerly known as “Gypsies”), America’s indigenous people – including so-called “Indians,” Hawaiians, Guam’s Chamorros, Chicanos, Eskimos, Aleuts -- Polynesians (90% were wiped out after Captain Cook’s arrival), Rwandans, Palestinians, et al. Their mission would be solidarity and support for the human rights of all peoples faced with mass murder – as in Darfur – and with cultural genocide, as in the case of Yiddish culture. Now that, like this documentary, would truly be a mitzvah (good deed) in a Promised Land of milk, honey and cultural preservation for all peoples, big and small.