It feels like Mike Burstyn has always been around. While the entertainment business, by definition, lends itself to illusion and the cultivation of non-realistic personas, in real life Burstyn is as effervescent and larger than life as the many delightful screen and stage characters he has portrayed over the past six decades.
Los Angeles resident Burstyn is currently in Israel to star in The Adventures of Hershele Ostropoler, alongside veteran Yiddish actor Yaakov Boddo. The comedy is based on the eponymous 18th-century prankster, and forms part of this year’s Yiddishpiel Festival. The work was written by Moshe Gershenson in the early 20th century, and Burstyn is suitably enthused about portraying the lovable and somewhat incorrigible character.
“Hershele is someone who does all this foilishtik [pranks] to help the poor people in their shtetls,” says the 67-year-young actor. “In this version of the story he has to drive a rich miser mad.”
Throughout his career Burstyn has combined acting with comedy, song and dance, to great effect, so it was only natural that the current version of Hershele Ostropoler should provide a vehicle for him to utilize as many of his polished skills as possible.
“The original play was not a musical, but the songs were added by the director of the Folksbiene, the national Yiddish theater in New York,” Burstyn explains. “The songs are all original Yiddish songs from that era. This show is very sweet and very innocent.”
The play will be performed all over the country until the end of the month and is directed by Eleanor Reissa, who was in charge of the Broadway production, also with Burstyn, a couple of years ago. The New York run was a critical and financial success, and eventually paved the way for the Yiddishpiel slot. “It got a very good review and Sassy Keshet, who is the new artistic director of the Yiddishpiel, contacted me after he heard about the success in New York, and that’s how this came about.”
Burstyn got a very early start on his career path, at the tender age of seven. He grew up in an archetypal show biz family.
His parents, Pesach Burstein and Lillian Lux, were acclaimed Yiddish-language actors who toured the United States and the world with various productions, such as Megilla of Itzik Manger and A Khasene in Shtetl (Wedding in a Shtetl).
Burstyn, and twin sister Susan, were soon recruited into the family business and the parents and offspring lineup became known as the Four Burstyns. The twins were given the stage names of Motele and Zisele.
“My parents schlepped us along to South America and put us in the show,” recalls Burstyn. “We were cute little things and my father knew a good thing when he saw it. We were like these wunderkinder, singing and dancing and performing. We were real crowd pullers.”
The family was the subject of the awardwinning 1996 documentary The Komediant.
So, Burstyn was destined to earn his keep as an entertainer.
“Yes, I really had no choice,” he notes, although he briefly contemplated rebelling.
“I thought of being an aeronautical engineer or a lawyer,” he continues. “I am an amateur lawyer. I played one on Broadway.”
While the Burstyns did well in the States and elsewhere, this part of the world proved to be a harder nut to crack, although that was no reflection on the quality of entertainment the family team offered Israeli audiences.
“We came here in 1954 and worked here for about a year and a half, but eventually we had to leave,” Burstyn recalls. “In those days, the establishment was officially against the Yiddish language. There was a special entertainment tax on productions in foreign languages, and Yiddish was considered a foreign language. There was a fear that Yiddish might take over as the national language.”
Burstyn has tangible evidence of the official hard-line take.
“I have a document from the Ministry of the Interior, from 1955, with a request from a local producer to put on a Yiddish musical theater show,” Burstyn continues.
This wasn’t any old show. “It was Kuni Lemel, of all things.”
The 1966 Israeli film version of the play starred Burstyn and established him as a top actor in this country, as well as bringing him the Israeli Oscar.
“The producer asked to put on a show of Kuni Lemel in Yiddish. The answer [from the Ministry of the Interior] says that it is forbidden for a local company to perform in Yiddish, and a copy was sent to the Israeli Police headquarters. In other words, it was a criminal offense to perform in Yiddish in Israel at the time.”
Thankfully, things have moved on and the Yiddishpiel Festival is doing its bit to keep the language alive and kicking here.
Burstyn’s meteoric rise to fame here, in the wake of Kuni Lemel, was also the source of some familial anguish.
“I became really hot in Israel after that,” says the actor. “I was 20 years old and I had broken away from the family team. We weren’t just a family, we were also business partners, but I saw that I’d have no future if I stayed only in Yiddish theater.”
Burstyn has spent quite a lot of his working hours in this country since that initial abortive attempt to make a go of it in Israel. He starred in two Kuni Lemel movies, as well as Oscar-nominated Israeli film Sallah Shabati, and The Dybbuk.
He has acted in numerous Israeli theater productions while maintaining a busy career on Broadway, off-Broadway and on TV, in the States and Europe. He also speaks eight languages and looks much younger than his chronological age.
“I am celebrating my 60th anniversary in show business,” Burstyn observes. “I haven’t stopped since I was 7.”
He doesn’t even look like slowing down.
The current run of The Adventures of Hershele Ostropoler opened last Wednesday at Beit Hahayal in Tel Aviv, to enthusiastic audiences, and there are dates lined up all over the country, including Jerusalem, Rehovot, Eilat and Kiryat Haim, through to October 31.
For more info about The Adventures of Hershele Ostropoler and the Yiddishpiel Festival: (03) 525-4460 exts. 1-2.