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Undying Love

There are two great passions at the heart of Dan Katzir’s documentary film, Yiddish Theater: A Love Story. The first is the unstoppable drive of the octogenarian actress Zypora Spaisman to keep her production of a Yiddish play on the boards during the bitter New York winter of 2000, despite snow storms, a remote theater, lack of financial backing, and a dwindling audience. The second is the fascination of a young Israeli filmmaker for this actress who comes to represent a great Jewish culture in danger of disappearing in the modern world. By creating interesting portraits of those involved in the production of a Yiddish play, the film raises profound questions about the nature of Jewish culture on the edge of the 21st century.

Katzir’s film is not an all-encompassing history of the rich theatrical tradition that existed in Jewish communities throughout Europe in the late 19th century and perhaps achieved its greatest heights in New York City in the decades leading up to World War II. (Those interested in such an historical overview should see the 1968 documentary "The Golden Age of Second Avenue" or read Nahma Sandrow’s excellent book, Vagabond Stars.) Katzir also ignores the particulars of Spaisman’s "forced retirement" from the Folksbiene, the Yiddish theater she ran for decades, and her subsequent creation of a new company, the Yiddish Public Theater. (The full story can be found in an article by Sandrow for the New York Times.)  



Yiddish Theater provides some context for the state of Yiddish-language theater when the scholar Dovid Katz very neatly outlines four major reasons for the decline of Yiddish culture: 1) the Nazi genocide destroyed a large segment of the Yiddish-speaking population; 2) the Soviets forbade the speaking of Yiddish and murdered many writers in the 1940s and 1950s; 3) Israel conducted a "vicious campaign" to extinguish Yiddish, replacing this poor bastard language with Hebrew; and 4) Jews in the West assimilated, leaving behind the old language and culture. So what sort of meshugeneh person continues to perform plays in a "dead language"? 

Enter Zypora Spaisman. Katzir, who narrates the film and asks questions of his subjects from behind the camera, seems smitten with the elderly actress, and he films her lovingly as she prepares a meal in her apartment, braves the snow drifts of the Lower East Side, and puts on make-up in her dressing room. A representative scene: the diminutive Spaisman, wrapped up in a fur coat, slowly makes her way down the stairs and onto the subway, while "My Yiddische Mama" plays on soundtrack. The film’s poignancy relies on the fact that this seemingly sweet little old lady is actually a fiercely tenacious woman who survived Hitler and Stalin-but she is fighting a losing battle to keep her art alive. The show closes, and Spaisman must clean out her dressing room and exit the theater. 

This anxiety about the loss of Yiddish culture is balanced by one genuinely humorous segment, an interview with the irascible Seymour Rechtzeit, a Yiddish theater star who, from 1975 until his death in 2002, was President of Hebrew Actors Union-which is now defunct. 

Katzir: Do you feel that your generation has a responsibility to make sure that Yiddish will continue into the new millennium?

Rechtzeit: No.

Katzir: When you see younger people who are interested in Yiddish theater, what would you like to say to all of them?

Rechtzeit: Hello. And goodbye.

Rechtzeit is not sentimental about the curtain coming down, and his ironic humor in the face of the supposed demise of Yiddish theater is, well, very Yiddish.

From a philosophical perspective, all theater, not just Yiddish theater, is always "dying." Theater is an ephemeral art that exists only in the moment when an audience is in the presence of the performers. Scripts and recordings can exist after the fact, but these artifacts are not the performance. The theatrical imperative to be "in the moment" is radically different than a documentary film’s mission to capture and preserve. For theater aficionados, the fleeting nature of performance is precisely what makes it so special. Rather than clinging to the past, theater artists create new plays-and new interpretations of old plays-which is why the theater, despite dire prognostications, continues to thrive.

Yiddish theater survives to the extent it does because it is not stuck in the past. Although the film implicitly presents Spaisman as the last hope for the survival of Yiddish theater, the fact is that the Folksbiene seems to be in excellent health and continues to produce plays, as do Yiddish theaters in Bucharest, Montreal, and Tel Aviv. In mainstream American theaters, the masterpieces of Yiddish theater continue to receive new productions in English: New York’s Public Theater produced The Dybbuk, adapted by Tony Kushner, in 1997, the Manhattan Ensemble Theater staged The Golem in 2002, and a number of regional theaters have produced Donald Margulies’s adaptation of God of Vengeance.

Yiddish Theater: A Love Story gives us a glimpse into the future of the art form when Katzir interviews two younger members of Spaisman’s troupe. Roni Neuman is an Israeli actress who doesn’t speak Yiddish, but displays a strong commitment to Jewish culture and to her aged mentors. Joad Krohn learned Yiddish in his Orthodox Jewish family in Williamsburg, but he left those traditions behind for tattoos, rock and roll, and the theater. Both young performers exist in between cultures: Israeli and American, traditional and modern, religious and secular. Perhaps Yiddish theater has always existed on such borders, which can account for its vibrancy, but also its precariousness. As the troupe plays its final performance, the simultaneously plaintive and optimistic Krohn notes, "Nobody believed that it would make it as long as it has." The same could be said of Zypora Spaisman, who passed away in 2002 at the age of 86, after a lifetime of dedication to the Yiddish theater. And the same could be said of all Yiddish theater, which cannot continue exactly as it was, but continues nevertheless.

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