Not Dead Yet
Yiddish theater, long eulogized, is celebrated at a Montreal festival
During the past half-century, heart-rending eulogies have been intoned over the death of the Yiddish theater. The demise of countless Yiddish theatrical companies—from the attrition that completely erased New York’s once vibrant Yiddish theater epicenter on Second Avenue to the violent destruction of Yiddish culture in the Soviet Union—has rendered the story of Yiddish theater an essentially tragic one. Solomon (Shloyme) Mikhoels, the artistic director of the Moscow State Jewish Theater and chairman of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee during the Second World War, was murdered at Stalin’s command in 1948, a tragedy that marked the beginning of the brutal liquidation of the Soviet Yiddish intellectual elite and which has hovered like a dark cloud over the Yiddish theatre world ever since. This elegiac mood has, understandably enough, characterized just about every treatment of the once-great Yiddish theater.
Except this week in Montreal, a city whose summers are generally filled with festivals, from the 12-day Festival International de Jazz to the Juste Pour Rire (Just for Laughs) Comedy Festival. In this cultural capital of French Canada, Yiddish theater, rather than being mourned, was celebrated in grand style, at the nine-day Montreal International Yiddish Theatre Festival, an event with no precedent in Jewish history—not even in the interwar heyday of Yiddish theater.
At the festival’s opening evening gala, which had the elegant ambience of a Viennese grand ball, Montreal’s francophone mayor, Gérald Tremblay, addressed a standing-room only crowd in his city’s Segal Theater for the Performing Arts (which is the only permanent stage for a Yiddish theatrical company in North America). Tremblay expressed his amazement at the tenacity with which the city’s Dora Wasserman Yiddish Theater, currently celebrating its golden anniversary, has not only survived, but grown to include youth ensembles and a newly-announced academy for training Yiddish actors. Tremblay likened the cultural depth that allowed Yiddish to survive in Montreal to the similarly remarkable survival of French as the official language of Quebec, in the voracious sea of Anglophone North America. The survival of Yiddish theater in Montreal is largely thanks to the insurmountable spirit of its late founder, Dora Wasserman (herself a student of Mikhoels) and her daughter, Bryna, its current artistic director.
This same note of affinity between Jews and French Quebeckers (or Quebecois) was sounded by French Canadian theater historian Jean-Marc Larrue, one of a dozen scholars of Yiddish culture—including myself and several other Tablet Magazine contributing editors—who presented papers at the Festival’s day-long symposium, an event supported by McGill University, one of the festival’s many co-sponsors.
But the centerpiece of the festival was a schedule packed with almost non-stop Yiddish acting, singing and dancing on a single stage, thanks to the convergence in Montreal of just about every surviving Yiddish theatre troupe in the world—the Kaminska Polish National Theatre from Warsaw; Israel’s Yiddishshpiel from Tel Aviv; Le Theatre en L’Air from Paris; the State Jewish Theatre of Bucharest from Romania; Melbourne Yiddish Theater, from Australia; and the New Yiddish Rep Theater from New York, among them—to perform more than 20 classics of the Yiddish stage over the course of a single week. In tandem with this frenetic activity there was a Yiddish film festival featuring 12 different screenings, daily Yiddish music performances, a grand Sunday outdoor Yiddish Woodstock style “Zumerfest,” and more than 20 workshops and classes on every aspect of the Yiddish theatrical arts.
At the opening gala, after the lavish cocktails, and following the local Dora Wasserman Yiddish Theatre performance of a few choice musical scenes from their brilliant Yiddish adaptation of Pirates of Penzance, all the visiting Yiddish actors—from nine different countries—were called onto the center’s massive stage. And, joyfully, there was not nearly enough space for half of them. As they joked, jockeyed for room and did all the shtick one expects of actors fighting for space, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house (mine included).
Yiddish culture—the meteoric rise and brutal destruction of which encompass less than a century—was felt, at least during this extraordinary and glorious festival, not simply to be off life support, but to be alive and generating an exuberant celebration. These were not the nine days of mourning that mark the summer of the Jewish calendar, but rather nine exuberantly happy Yiddish days of summer. And this unexpected festival can only be classified as existing somewhere between the counterintuitive and the miraculous.
Allan Nadler is professor of religious studies and director of the Jewish studies program at Drew University.