Monday, December 24, 2007


New York City's Own Borscht Belt
Movies | Review of: Yiddish Theater: A Love Story

November 21, 2007

The survival of professional Yiddish theater in America has often been attributed to one remarkable woman, the late Zypora Spaisman. After surviving the Holocaust, the Polish-born actress joined New York's legendary Folksbiene Theater, now the country's only professional Yiddish stage outfit, in 1956. She devoted her career to it, even selling tickets and sweeping floors when she wasn't onstage. Then, following a dispute over programming in 1998, she left and formed her own troupe.

Spaisman's cultural preservation project, called the Yiddish Public Theater, soon fell on tough times, which is when the Israeli filmmaker Dan Katzir first met her. As her company floundered, the unflinching 84-year-old actress began to worry that her career was doomed, not to mention the future of her once-vibrant mother tongue. Intrigued, Mr. Katzir immediately started filming. Most of "Yiddish Theater: A Love Story," which takes place over the course of a week and opens today, was shot on a camcorder because he was on vacation in New York at the time.

Occassionally, the haste with which Mr. Katzir obtained his footage is all too apparent, but his elegy is tinged with humor, and a countdown narrative adds drama. Despite great reviews, the group's production of "Green Fields," a 1916 play by Peretz Hirschbein, has failed to interest theatergoers or would-be donors enough to keep the company afloat. It's the end of 2000, which raises the question of whether Yiddish will survive into the next century. And talk about dramatic timing: Mr. Katzir explains in voice-over that if funding for the company is not found soon, the production's lights will go dark "on the last candle of Chanukah."

Mr. Katzir, who admits he knew nothing of Yiddish theater before attending this production of "Green Fields," touches on many things in this watchable and somewhat quaint bit of low-budget cinema, but he doesn't delve too deep into any of them. The uncertain fate of Spaisman's little company — which rests primarily on the eleventh-hour fund-raising efforts of the play's producer, David Romeo — doesn't play out as suspensefully as it might have. And while the indomitable, heavily accented Spaisman makes for a colorful character sketch, she is not all that forthcoming to her new friend and his camera. (Recalling her flight from Poland during the Holocaust, she says, "What's his name, the German, wanted to kill me.")

In one scene, Spaisman discusses the death of her husband with emotion, but this disclosure comes a bit out of the blue. Other aspects of the story might have been explored more fruitfully, such as the film's sole voice of youth: a dedicated young Israeli actress named Roni Neuman, who learns her lines phonetically but isn't surprised that a nearly 100-year-old play about Jewish farmers in Ukraine isn't packing the house. And the snippets of expert commentary on the decline of Yiddish — once the official language of Ashkenazi Jews and a much more prominent contributor to the symphony of multilingual New York — in secular Jewish culture leaves the viewer craving more insights.

One author and Yiddish-theater scholar, Nahma Sandrow, explains how Yiddish came to represent "the culture of the victim" after the Holocaust, while Hebrew became "the language of strength and health and self-respect." Mr. Katzir assumes most of his viewers agree, in principle at least, that Yiddish is worth saving. But he might have spent more time showing just why. (Michael Wex's recent description of Yiddish, in his excellent book "Born to Kvetch," as "a language that likes to argue with everybody about everything" would make a fine starting point.) And although "Yiddish Theater: A Love Story" spends considerable time tracking Spaisman's group's struggle to upgrade from their Lower East Side performance space to Broadway, and thereby find a wider audience for "Green Fields," the play itself remains something of a mystery.

Still, Mr. Katzir's 80-minute portrait of an endangered stage culture features its share of moving moments. Those curious about Yiddish theater have particularly good reason to see it, despite the fact that it was filmed seven years ago. In fact, it may never have seen the light of day were it not for what many are calling a Yiddish revival. Ironically, that same renewal of interest threatens to make the film's mournful tone seem outdated. So take the kvetching with a grain of zalts.

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