CAPSULE: Dan Katzir's documentary covers what might well be the last eight days of the Folksbeine Yiddish Theater Company. Struggling to keep Yiddish theater alive in the United States, the company desperately needs financial backing. We see the company onstage and off. Along the way we meet some of the surviving greats of the medium. It will be interesting to see if this film can cross over and interest people not already aficionados of Yiddish theater. Rating: low +2 (-4 to +4) or 7/10
This is a very small documentary about what is today a very small institution, Yiddish theater in New York City. At one time there were no less than twelve Yiddish theaters in the city. Yiddish theater was part of the foundation of Broadway. For that matter many familiar film actors of Hollywood like Walter Matthau, Paul Muni, and Sam Jaffe got their starts in Yiddish theater. There were over two hundred Yiddish theaters or touring Yiddish theater troupes in the United States between 1890 and 1940. But the heart of Yiddish theater was in Eastern Europe and that heart was killed in Europe in the 1930s and 40s. Nearly all the Yiddish-speakers in Eastern Europe were murdered and the language was nearly wiped out. Even after the war other countries suppressed the use of the language. With so few speakers, Yiddish theater almost died and is closer than ever the very edge of death. Of the twelve New York Yiddish theater companies the only one surviving is the Folksbeine. That is the oldest and longest running Yiddish theater company in the United States and that theater company is struggling to stay alive, or it was in the eight days covered by the documentary YIDDISH THEATER: A LOVE STORY.
The film covers the last eight days of the year 2000. The Folksbeine had been getting audiences of about forty people to its performances and that simply is not enough to keep the theater afloat. At the end of the year they had to move out of their already very remote theater on East Broadway near Chinatown. They needed another theater and to rent it they needed money. To get the money they needed investors. But it is not easy to get investors interested in plays performed in a language that it itself dying out and in plays that are lucky to draw audiences measured in dozens. The plays are presented with super-titles in English and Russian, and that attracts some people a little younger than 70. But most people who understand spoken Yiddish are in their eighties and that does not promise a long future for Yiddish Theater. Yiddish, someone says, is the language of the dead. The people who know Yiddish are dying or will be in the next few years. Most non-Jews do not speak it. Young Jews learn Hebrew. Even most of the younger actors on the stage are speaking lines phonetically that they would not have even understood a few months before.
How can I have written two paragraphs on this review without mentioning Zypora Spaisman? Spaisman was the core of the Folksbeine. She was the chief actor, the manager, and who knows what else of the theater company. She was the glue that kept the company together. She is also the center of this documentary. Documentary director, co-writer, and narrator Dan Katzir says he did not expect to make a film when he came to the United States in late 2000 but was caught up in story of the Folksbeine and its efforts to survive. His film covers the last eight days of the year, the last eight days of the Folksbeine's lease, and which also happen to be that year the eight days of the festival of Chanukah. In his very simply styled documentary we listen to him talk to some of the greatest living actors of the Yiddish stage. Sometimes he just puts a camera on them in their daily lives and just translates with subtitles. Among the stars are Shifra Lerer, Felix Fibich, and Seymour Rechzeit, once great names and now hardly remembered to all but a few. We also get to know Roni Neuman, who resembles a young Louise Lasser and who is a young Yiddish actress of the current play. As with most of the young actors, she does not speak Yiddish and learns her lines phonetically. Dan Katzir just shows us the majors of Yiddish theater and sits back and lets them talk and observes them.
We travel around New York City and see the efforts of David Romeo, the company's theater producer, as he desperately looks for backer money. To make the tone more melancholy, after two or three days the city has a record-breaking blizzard with deep snow choking the city and making travel even harder for the octogenarians of the company. We meet people, we see Jewish food, and we hear Jewish music against a background of falling hopes and falling snow. This film is awash in Jewish music, much of it Klezmer.
YIDDISH THEATER: A LOVE STORY is an engrossing documentary, but one wonders if people who do not already have an interest in Yiddish theater will be drawn to it. Yes, the Folksbeine did survive and still plays in New York City. We can only hope that the film draws audiences larger today than those we see drawn by the Folksbeine. Certainly the film will be of some interest to the enthusiasts of Yiddish theater. I rate YIDDISH THEATER: A LOVE STORY a low +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 7/10.
Mark R. Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Copyright 2007 Mark R. Leeper