Israeli filmmaker Dan Katzir was vacationing in New York when he met 85-year-old Zypora Spaisman, grande dame of the Yiddish Theater. In short order, she had press-ganged him into making a documentary about her current production protesting that he had no equipment except the home video camera he brought to shoot his trip was futile and roped him into her struggling theater troupe's fight for survival.
Born in Poland, Spaisman lost most of her family to the Holocaust and immigrated to the United States in 1954. She joined the Folksbiene Yiddish Theatre, the oldest such group in the United States and remnant of the once-thriving theatrical community that served Eastern European Jewish immigrants hungry for a taste of home. Spaisman spent 42 years with the Folksbiene and was already in her eighties and recently widowed when she founded the Yiddish Public Theater. Katzir arrived in New York in 2000, at the beginning of Hanukkah, when Spaisman's troupe was performing Peretz Hirschbein's 1916 Grine Felder at the Lower East Side's Mazer Theatre. The young leads are played by Roni Neuman, a fresh-faced Israeli actress who doesn't speak Yiddish and learned her lines phonetically, and Joad Kohn, who was raised in Orthodox Williamsburg; the rest of the cast teems with Yiddish-theater veterans. Despite excellent reviews, including a glowing write-up in the New York Times and a spot on the New York Post's list of top-10 Off Broadway shows of the year, audiences are small and money is tight. There's a chance that they might be able to move the production to a more accessible venue the Lamb Theatre of the Manhattan Church of the Nazarene, near Times Square but fund-raising efforts fall far short of what's needed.
Katzir's documentary is as much a labor of love as Spaisman's theater, and it's often rough around the edges. But his interviews with aging caretakers of the Yiddish Theater are vivid windows into a bygone world, and Spaisman herself, a feisty firebrand whose accent is so strong Katzir supplied subtitles, is a formidable personality. You don't have to be Jewish to be awed by her total commitment to preserving the Yiddish language and culture of her youth. leave a comment --Maitland McDonagh