Yiddish theater's big encore

Montreal's Dora Wasserman Yiddish Theater celebrates its 50th anniversary.

yiddish theater 88 248 (photo credit: Courtesy)
yiddish theater 88 248
(photo credit: Courtesy)
In his recently translated 1909 novel Wandering Stars, Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem poked fun at the silliness and immaturity of the Yiddish theater. Its lesser productions, he wrote, were "heartrending dramas and potboiler tragedies that had unusual titles like 'Shminder Begetz on the Auto-da-fe' and 'Tear Off Your Blouse for Me,' while its loftier, more 'literary pieces' were called 'Hinke-Pinke,' 'Shloyme Adam's Apple,' 'Leap in Bed' and 'Velvele Eats Compote.'" As rough as the Yiddish theater may have sometimes been, it could also be both powerful and sophisticated. At the turn of the 20th century, Yiddish playwright Jacob Gordin helped bring European realism to North America, and directors and actors such as Alexander Granovsky and Solomon Mikhoels contributed heavily to the development of Soviet drama in the 1920s and '30s. Much has changed since the time of Sholem Aleichem, Gordin or Mikhoels, when secular Yiddish culture was at the height of its strength and creativity. Today, Yiddish is often considered a dead or dying language, and its artistic endeavors a relic. But despite their perpetually imminent demise, Yiddish theater companies still manage to draw audiences, often in the thousands. Montreal's upcoming International Yiddish Theater Festival (June 17-25) a gathering of Yiddish theater groups, along with scholars, musicians and fans, will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the city's Dora Wasserman Yiddish Theater. Theater companies from Canada, Israel, the US, France, Romania and Poland will all be staging productions and will have the rare opportunity to compare notes and share ideas. In addition, screenings of Yiddish films, seminars, workshops, musical performances and an academic symposium will be held. "Against all odds there's been a sustainability. But the first 50 years were the easy ones. Now we look at the challenge of the next 50 years," says Bryna Wasserman, director of Montreal's Segal Centre for Performing Arts, where the Yiddish theater has its home. In a field that has struggled to maintain itself, the Montreal Yiddish theater is one of the few success stories. Dora Wasserman, a native of Ukraine who performed in the acclaimed Moscow Yiddish State Art Theater, immigrated to Montreal in 1950 with her husband Sam and her daughters Ella and Bryna, where she proceeded to teach, direct and produce Yiddish theater until her death in 2003 at 84. Most people in the theater community familiar with her work say that the Montreal Yiddish theater succeeded thanks to her, even at a time when many were forced to close. "She's the one that made the difference. She arrived and decided to give theater classes in the Jewish schools of Montreal in order to keep Yiddish alive. And she was able to get support from the community, not only from the Jewish community but also from the Francophone community, and it became bigger and bigger until it became the Yiddish troupe we have now," says Jean-Marc Larrue, a professor of theater history and theory at the Université de Montréal and the author of a book on Yiddish theater in Montreal. "She had an incredible vision and stamina and the ability to make sure that what she wanted would be carried out without any kind of compromise. Her vision was for Yiddish theater, and people said you can also do Jewish theater in English and in French, but she said no, Yiddish theater, and not just the classic works," adds Wasserman, who moved back to Montreal from New York to help fill her mother's shoes. ALL OVER the world, it's been a big year for Yiddish. In March, tributes were offered in honor of the 150th anniversary of Sholem Aleichem's birth, including a gathering of young Ukrainian Jews who marked the occasion in the writer's hometown of Pereyaslav-Khmelnitsky. And on May 26,the Knesset held its first ever Yiddish language and culture day, which featured a performance by Tel Aviv's Yiddishpiel theater. Still, it's a challenge for any Yiddish arts organization to escape the common aches and pains. Even before the Holocaust, Yiddish audiences were beginning to diminish and many writers, actors and other artists who had previously been limited by linguistic and cultural barriers found increasing success and acceptance on the non-Jewish stage. Yiddish theater stars such as Maurice Schwartz and Jacob Ben-Ami made forays onto Broadway, while other actors made the switch to English-language theater for good. In the British Mandate of Palestine and later the State of Israel, the Zionist leadership placed a premium on Hebrew, and Yiddish - the language of the Diaspora - was repressed. AFTER THE Holocaust and the destruction of European, Yiddish-speaking Jewry, these processes only accelerated. Though today Yiddish continues to be spoken in hassidic communities, the number of nonreligious Jews who can speak the language declines with the passing of older generations. Thus, the primary concern among Yiddish enthusiasts is the continuation of the language and the culture. But though the fortunes of the Yiddish theater are invariably tied to those of the language, the relationship is not as dependent as one might think. The need for translation, through super-titles or in some cases, simultaneous translation headsets, is an accepted fact of theater-going, and not just for Yiddish. According to Larrue, approximately three quarters of the productions in Montreal's annual Festival Transamériques are in neither English nor French, and manage to draw large audiences anyway. "There are more and more international festivals of theater, so as in the opera, we are used to attending plays in languages that we do not know. Of course when you understand the language it's better, but it's not an obstacle," he says. "I think that it can be done in the same way that people go to see French films and Italian films and German films. World theater has a place and it has an audience and I think that Yiddish theater has that same appeal," adds David Mandelbaum, artistic director of New York's New Jewish Rep. A greater difficulty is finding actors who can speak the language. While there are many fine Yiddish-speakers still performing, an increasing number of actors have to learn the Yiddish needed to speak their lines. With the practice becoming more and more of a necessity, what effect does it have on the quality of a production? For Rafael Goldwaser, the director of Der LufTeater in Strasbourg, France, the most important thing is a Yiddish feeling - the signature inflections and nuances that have given the language its cultural cache. An actor who understands this, he says, can put Yiddish even into a non-Yiddish performance, while one who does not isn't quite Yiddish even when speaking in perfectly grammatical sentences. "It's not the information. That you can put in a translation. But what you feel inside and all of the baggage, that you cannot put in a translation, that has to be alive. The way of talking in Yiddish is a way of talking that was nourished through generations, by people who had a certain way of thinking," he says. Others, however, are more inclined to leniency when it comes to phonetically learning the language. "Think about it as if you'd made a movie about the Mafia with Al Pacino, you wouldn't use all Italian-speaking actors. But that is what art is about," says Mendy Cahan, the founder of the Israeli cultural organization Yung Yiddish. There's no doubt that such measures have helped Yiddish theater stay afloat even without the benefit of a large Yiddish-speaking public. But beyond mere survival, actors, directors and producers still struggle with many of the same issues that were of passionate concern to Yiddish playwrights and theatergoers at the turn of the 20th century. When Avrom Goldfadn put on the first documented Yiddish theater production at Shimen Mark's Green Tree Cafe in Iasi, Romania, in 1876, it was little more than a poetry reading coupled with a song and dance routine. But in the decades that followed, the Jewish obsession with theater spread at a crackling pace, leading to more elaborate, if not always more sophisticated, productions. Though conceived of by its early proponents as a national theater akin to its more established European counterparts, the Diaspora nature of the Yiddish language and the statelessness of the Jewish people forced the Yiddish theater to be constantly on the move. During its golden age at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries, legendary actors such as Jacob Adler, Sigmund Mogulesko and Bertha Kalish traveled regularly between Europe and the United States, and many acting troupes made it as far as South America, South Africa and Australia. Goldwaser, who was born and raised in Buenos Aires, Argentina, recalls his father playing works by German dramatist Bertolt Brecht in Yiddish, and many other international influences have found their way onto the Yiddish stage. One effect of that internationalization is the eclecticism of Yiddish theater, and it's impossible to describe it as the product of a single school or style. Yet certain currents have remained constant. Almost since its inception, Yiddish theater has been torn by the struggle between shund - the lowbrow, crowd-pleasing comedies and melodramas - and the desire of intellectuals for more artistically sophisticated productions. Dramatists such as Jacob Gordin pushed for a naturalistic style and fidelity to the texts, and writers such as Peretz Hirschbein and Sholem Asch created a serious literary repertoire. Their works explored controversial political and moral issues; Gordin's plays addressed feminism and women's rights, while Asch's God of Vengeance achieved both success and notoriety for its depiction of prostitution and lesbianism. In Europe, outfits such as the Vilna Troupe embraced the ensemble techniques of Russian director Constantin Stanislavsky and the Moscow Yiddish State Art Theater became renowned for its cutting edge, expressionist productions. Still, there was substantial opposition from audiences looking for comforting and familiar musical dramas, as well as from producers who had to worry about the bottom line. While literary plays were invariably risky, people still came in droves to the theaters of New York's Lower East Side to delight in a simple melodrama, refashioned for the thousandth time. In Wandering Stars, Sholem Aleichem enacts this conflict when his hero, the sensational actor Leo Rafalesco, sees the Austrian-Jewish star Adolf von Sonnenthal in the German drama Uriel Acosta, and thenceforth refuses to act in anything else. "That was it. From now on Rafalesco would play no other role except Uriel Acosta. That was final. No more operettas. No more melodramas. No more Purim plays. No more! No more!" Eventually a compromise is reached, wherein the company puts on a few of their regular numbers at each engagement, before launching into Uriel Acosta. Like many real-life Yiddish actors, however, Rafalesco took his art seriously, and surprised audiences with an unfamiliar style. "HE WAS direct, plain and ordinary - without songs, without dances, nothing beyond words, yet so calm, so quietly graceful - not at all like other actors. His every step, every movement, every word was naturally simple. He spoke not like an actor but like you and me," Sholem Aleichem writes. Today, the age-old struggle between high, low and in-between goes on. For every audience member that wants to see Fiddler on the Roof one more time, there is another longing for something a bit more fresh. In many respects, this is not a problem unique to Yiddish. For Wasserman, the need to balance the competing demands of artists, audiences, producers and financial backers is a continuous tightrope walk, regardless of the language being spoken. "It's a question that artistic directors everywhere ask themselves. We need to plan for the audience in general, and of course we also need to ensure that we're moving forward artistically. You have the audience, you have the artistic community, you have a board of directors and government agencies. How do you balance all of those constituents?" she asks. But in another sense the problem is particularly potent for the Yiddish theater, because of its unique quest for relevance in a primarily non-Yiddish speaking world. As a product of the Jewish enlightenment, or Haskala, Yiddish theater was often a means to educate the public and to bring it closer to the dominant intellectual and cultural forces of the day. In America, it helped new immigrants deal with the challenges of a foreign society, even as it comforted them with Old-World nostalgia and cathartic recreations of their own lives. Today, however, Yiddish theater often fills the opposite role - educating non-Yiddish speakers, both Jews and non-Jews, about Yiddish art and culture. But to sustain itself into the future, it must attract new audiences, who are more likely to come for high caliber theater - in Yiddish or any other language - than they are for Yiddish in and of itself. "There's nothing wrong with nostalgia, in my book. There's nothing wrong with the elderly audience that still appreciates it. And I don't think that you can build a viable company by excluding different parts of your demographic. But in addition to the nostalgia we have to offer something else as well," says Mandelbaum. The New Yiddish Rep's mission statement, which reads like an artistic manifesto from the pages of the Yiddish press a century ago, drives home the point. "It is still possible to reinvigorate Yiddish theater, provided we do it now. But it must be exciting theater. The days when Yiddish theater could depend on audiences coming for the language itself are over. Nowadays the theater that we present must be the selling point, not the language that we present it in. We must present theater that happens to be in Yiddish, not Yiddish that happens to be onstage." ACHIEVING THIS goal is far from simple. Few new scripts are still being written in Yiddish, and much of the new repertoire that exists is derived from older works. And whereas the Yiddish press was once filled with vehement discussion and criticism of each new production, today the serious criticism that accompanies any vital artistic undertaking seems inappropriate in the face of legitimately noble efforts to keep Yiddish culture alive. But some trends may be reversing themselves. Though Yiddish theater will never be the cultural touchstone it once was, younger people continue to attend, and perform, in Yiddish productions. Even members of hassidic communities, who often shun the theater, might show up for the right play. "It's with prudence, but it's with more openness than we expect them to have. Actually if you keep the Yiddish heimish then it's a very nice meeting place," says Cahan. Most of all, the work itself is still interesting. "It's a unique experience in the sense that it's expressive, it's heartfelt. There's a reaching out, a deep understanding of the commitment the performers have onstage to their audience," says Wasserman. "I'm not naïve to say that the new generation that is studying will make up our audience. I think we will continue our theater for the next 50 years because there's something compelling about it, because it's a thousand year tradition. The theater gives us a spiritualism that goes beyond sectarianism and is all encompassing." "It is not theater in Yiddish. Not theater in another language," adds Larrue. "It is another theater." The sailing isn't going to be smooth, and it's probably too early to say what will be. But with Yiddish's ability to seemingly will its own continued existence, reports of its death would still be just a touch exaggerated. The Montreal International Yiddish Theater Festival will take place from June 17-25 at the Segal Centre for Performing Arts, 5170 Chemin de la Côte-Ste-Catherine. For more information visit www.segalcentre.org or call +001-514-790-1245.