Thursday, March 06, 2008

12 weeks in Los Angeles and still running.

This week Yiddish Theater: A Love Story got a long article in the Pacific Palisades Palisadian Post:

Cinematic Love for "Yiddish Theater"

March 05, 2008

Michael Aushenker , Staff Writer

'I never saw a play in Yiddish and, to be honest, I never thought I would,' says Dan Katzir, expressing a sentiment not uncommon among many young Jewish people. Yet unlike the situation of most Jews, that changed for the Israeli-American filmmaker after he met Zypora Spaisman, a vivacious octogenarian. His resulting film, 'Yiddish Theater: A Love Story,' is an English language documentary about one little old lady's fight to keep her Yiddish theater open against all odds and, by extension, keep a moribund culture alive. 'Yiddish Theater' plays this weekend in Santa Monica.

'I was vacationing in New York and I met Zypora by chance,' Katzir tells the Palisadian Post. 'She was the grand dame of Yiddish theater. She did everything to keep her show going''from acting to sweeping the floors.'

The 80-minute 'Yiddish Theater' follows Spaisman through a hectic week during which she must raise enough funds to keep her production of Peretz Hirschbein's classic Yiddish-language play 'Green Fields' going, or see the theater that she started, the Yiddish Public Theater, come to a close'in tandem with her acting career.

Filmed during Chanukah 2000, which that year culminated on New Year's Day, the Jewish Festival of Lights adds meaning and structure to Katzir's real-life drama. Ostensibly, the filmmaker uses the eight days of Chanukah as a device to provide suspense''each lit candle calibrating a day''as viewers sit at seat's edge to see if Spaisman's cast will prevail. They encounter extreme highs (The New York Times gives the production a glowing review) and lows (a severe snowfall slams New York). Obstacles materialize in between, from potential investors flaking, to the attendance-draining Christmas holidays. The movie culminates on New Year's Eve 2001, nine months before the events of September 11, adding an unintended layer of poignancy to the viewing; 'Yiddish Theater' gives a glimpse of a more innocent, bygone Manhattan in more ways than one.

'Everything what I do is Yiddish,' Spaisman says in the film. 'I live Yiddish, I eat Yiddish, I breathe Yiddish.'

In the 10th century, Yiddish became the official language of Central and Eastern European Jews (Ashkenazi Jews). A hybrid of medieval German and Hebrew, the Yiddish language, written in a Hebraic alphabet, also borrowed some English. Today, even non-Jews pepper their vocabulary with this expressive dialect; words such as schmooze, kibbitz, schlep, putz, and chutzpah have entered our lexicon, thanks largely to our country's long tradition of Jewish entertainers.

Yiddish culture also consists of a theatrical tradition that bridged the shtetls (Jewish villages) to early 1880s American life at a time when pogroms in Russia and Eastern Europe caused Jews to immigrate to the United States. By 1924, two million Jews had arrived, bringing with them a rich culture. When the Folksbiene Theatre was founded in 1915 on New York's Lower East Side, 14 other Yiddish theater companies existed. But as the U.S.-born children assimilated into the mainstream, this theater audience dwindled with Yiddish culture among the new generation.

'There's one thing that can be said about the Yiddish theater that can't be said about any other foreign-language immigrant theater,' says Palisades resident Marvin Zuckerman, a Yiddish culture authority. 'It's the longest-lasting.'

'The Yiddish theater is generally thought to be started in Romania by Avrom Goldfadn,' explains Zuckerman, dean emeritus of Los Angeles Valley College. 'Goldfadn [1840- 1948] is considered the guy who tied it all together. He wrote Yiddish operettas. The Broadway of Yiddish theater was Second Avenue''Yiddish art theater, vaudeville, musicals.'

Yiddish theater enjoyed a respectable reputation in its 1900-1950 heyday. Lincoln Steffens called it the best theater in New York. The genre, which peaked in the 1940s, coincided with Yiddish cinema (i.e., 'Yidel Mitn Fiedl' with Molly Picon) produced in New York and pre-war Poland. Hirschbein wrote 'Green Fields' in 1908 in Odessa, and a 1937 film version was shot in upstate New York.

'He happens to be buried in Los Angeles behind Paramount [at Hollywood Forever cemetery],' says Zuckerman of Hirschbein, who died in 1948. 'He was a world traveler, he wrote for travel books, and he wound up in L.A.'

'A lot of famous American actors came out of the Yiddish theater,' continues Zuckerman, husband of Kathy Kohner Zuckerman, the real-life 'Gidget' recently profiled in the Post. 'Edward G. Robinson, Paul Muni, our very own Palisadian, Walter Matthau.' Joel Grey's father was renowned comedian Mickey Katz, who incorporated Yiddish into his act. The grandfather of conductor Michael Tilsen Thomas was the great Yiddish actor Boris Thomashefsky. One of Thomashefsky's rivals was Jacob P. Adler, whose wife, Sara, was a prominent Yiddish theater actress. If his surname sounds familiar, it could be because his daughter was Stella Adler, whose acting disciples included Marlon Brando.

The unspoken irony for the filmmakers is that Spaisman's mission is a metaphor for their movie''itself a valentine to the culture and something of an underdog. 'Yiddish Theater' has squeaked by from screening to screening since its 2006 premiere in San Francisco.

'It's sad,' Katzir notes, 'that after 1,100 years, just as Hitler lost in his attempt to destroy this Yiddish culture, it's fading away in the secular world. I'm Israeli. For Israelis, Yiddish is even more foreign than it is for Americans.'

In Israel, Yiddish culture has not been preserved among the overwhelmingly secular youth. As if to make that point, the lead in Spaisman's play, a young Israeli, ironically shows off armfuls of tattoos (a corporeal desecration forbidden in the Jewish religion) after acting in Hassidic garb.

But Eric Gordon, director of the local Yiddish culture society, The Workman's Circle/Arbeter Ring of Southern California, quibbles with Katzir's premise that Yiddish culture and theater is dying.

'The movie has a kind of quality of lamentation about it that I take issue with,' Gordon says, pointing out that the Folksbiene remains vital. mount major annual productions and stages plays in both English and Russian translations.

Gordon's own Workman's Circle chapter celebrates its centennial this year, while California's oldest Workman's branch, in San Francisco, turns 101.

What's sure about 'Yiddish Theater' is the passion for Yiddish culture exuded by both Spaisman and the filmmakers. Another Palisadian, Los Angeles Times movie critic Kenneth Turan, called the film 'charming and disarming.'

'Nothing can take away from the flavor of being caught up in the battles and dreams of a formidable group of people,' Turan continues in a November 2007 review. 'For a brief moment in time, we share their struggles, and that feels like a privilege.'

There's something wonderful about seeing these dedicated actors, young and old, partaking in their uphill production. 'Yiddish Theater' is as much survival story as it is love story, and tenacious firebrand Spaisman's spirit is entertaining, contagious and ultimately inspiring.

'We live in a Seinfeld society where everything is fast, edgy, funny, but also smells a little cynical and jaded,' Katzir says. 'Yiddish has a lot of heart and emotions.'

'Yiddish Theater: A Love Story' screens Saturdays and Sundays at 11 a.m. at Laemmle's Monica, 1332 Second St. Katzir and Markus will speak following each screening. For tickets, call (310) 394-9741 or visit The movie's Web site:

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