November 21, 2007

Yiddish Theater: A Love Story

The race to save a New York -- and Jewish -- institution raises questions about the cost of cultural evolution

By Vadim Rizov

When it comes to embracing Jewish culture, I'm only slightly more open-minded than, say, Portnoy's Complaint-era Philip Roth. The Jewish parent syndrome is real, especially if one had a secular upbringing where all that remains of "heritage" is neurosis and a slight leaning toward Zionism. When asked to appreciate, say, klezmer or Heeb magazine, all I can hear is a voice asking me why I haven't eaten more and why I don't want to go to law school, or the freshman year roommate who asked me why I wasn't "more Jewish," or the random dude who approached me outside Odessa at 1 a.m. and demanded I take my birthright trip to Israel before it's too late.

All of that to say, when Dan Katzir's documentary Yiddish Theater: A Love Story shows an excerpt from the Folksbiene theater's 2000 production of 1916's The Green Fields -- in which a character announces, "I'm a mother. I want to know everything!” -- someone like me can't help but get nervous. Yes, I'm sure I'm not hungry anymore.

Thank goodness, then, that Katzir's film isn't a paean to Jewish values as the circumscribing be-all, end-all of a life well-lived. If anything, it destabilizes that monolithic ideal at the level of language: In his director's statement, Katzir notes that his father was "part of a youth squad that roamed the streets of Tel Aviv and forced people to stop using Yiddish and to speak in Hebrew instead." (Hebrew is the language of Israel; Yiddish is a slangy argot of medieval German and Hebrew dating to the 10th century.) Despite one scholar's suggestion that Yiddish is already "the language of the dead," Katzir contends that modern Yiddish theater represents a dying strain of Jewish culture.

But if the scholar is right, does the extinction of Yiddish signal the loss of a whole branch of Jewish culture? If Yiddish plays (presented with English and Russian super-titles, which tells you everything you need to know about the target audience) cease to be presented, has something invaluable been lost forever, or has cultural evolution run its natural course?

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Zypora Speisman, the 84-year-old heroine of Yiddish Theater, is at the center of a marginalized world when the documentary opens. It's December 2000 in a fiercely secular New York that the titles remind us is about to embark on both "Hanukkah and Christmas." Speisman's company is on the brink of folding; if emergency funds are not raised in eight days, the last Yiddish theater in New York will close (14 existed before World War II). While the players pray for a revamped Hanukkah miracle, various players argue the ongoing necessity of Yiddish theater.

For Speisman, the repercussions are simple: "No roots anymore," she says. "No life. Now it is dead." In case that sounds too much like your grandmother, there are spikier, more hybridized views here as well. Jack Lobewahl, proprietor of the late Second Avenue Deli, believes "the problem was that we were selling Jewish culture to Jews”; perhaps it was time to bring the goyim into the theater. Seymour Rechzeit, the since-deceased actor and de facto dean of the scene, offers a terse summary in response to Ratzit's questioning about the situation: "Hello and goodbye."

As Yiddish Theater jogs along, it becomes an unintentional time-capsule of a New York that has changed radically in just seven years (never more revealingly than when actor Joad Kohn offers up a brief tour of Hasidic, pre-hipster Williamsburg). For better or worse, Speisman (who died shortly after her theater) believed that people need their culture and their roots whether they know it or not; for everyone else, cultural flux is a frustrating but undeniable force. Better that, perhaps, than actress Julie Alexander's unintentionally condescending take on the benefits of Yiddish theater: "It's refreshing, after living the life of Seinfeld here in New York, where everyone is smart and clever -- and cynical," she burbles, as if Ye Olde Jewish Traditions were useful mainly as cultural comfort food.

Katzir's film is unabashedly nostalgic and sympathetic to the fiery Speisman -- how could you not root for an 84-year-old Holocaust survivor and one-person theater? -- and, as such, comes with a "For Those Already Interested" sign. But it's a testament to the film's even-handedness that it's willing to wonder whether or not anyone besides those whose direct roots are in old, pre-Holocaust Europe will care. The film ends on an up-note, with mayor Michael Bloomberg presenting a check for the permanent subsidization of the Folksbiene theater, which was resurrected after Speisman's death. The question of whether or not the Yiddish language -- and all it stands for -- has ossified into defanged respectability remains unanswered.

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