There is nothing in the arts as evanescent as live theater. After the curtain goes down it vanishes, to borrow a metaphor from Dashiell Hammett, “like a fist when you open your hand.” And all you are left with is memories.
How much more poignant, then, is the plight of those men and women who struggle to keep the Yiddish theater alive, for they are not only bucking the essential nature of their medium, they are also, it would seem, swimming against the strong current of history itself. If she were still alive, you could ask Zypora Spaisman, one of the pillars of the Folksbiene Theater and the founder of the regrettably short-lived Yiddish Public Theater. Or, almost as good, you can see Dan Katzir’s new film about her last struggling company, “Yiddish Theater: A Love Story,” which opens next week at the Pioneer Theater.
Although she was well into her 80s when she died in 2002, and she had logged nearly a half-century on the Yiddish stage, Spaisman was a latecomer to the theater. A Jewish-Polish midwife who had survived the Shoah and had decided to pursue her acting dream, she came to the States in the 1954. By then, the Yiddish-language theater that had ruled the Lower East Side and what is now called the East Village, had dwindled from over a dozen professional companies in the 1910s to just the one struggling straggler, the Folksbiene, which Spaisman had joined in 1956. In the ‘90s an internecine dispute led to Spaisman’s departure from the Folksbiene, ostensibly into retirement. But as the film makes abundantly clear, Zypora Spaisman was not one to go quietly into the night. “Retire is a death sentence,” she tells the filmmaker.
Katzir’s documentary traces the eight days of Chanukah 2000, when her new company was battling both an unfashionable location and the worst blizzard in New York in years, playing before tiny houses despite truly excellent reviews of its production of “Green Fields.” He says at the film’s outset, “As an Israeli I should learn about my culture,” quite a change of tune from the old Zionist loathing of Yiddish. Purely by chance, Katzir had a home video camera with him when he saw the show and became acquainted with Spaisman. So at the drop of a hat, he found himself making a new film without any of the usual technical comforts of home. (Not that you can tell — among other virtues, “Yiddish Theater” is a good-looking film.)
As you can see from her first appearance on screen, Spaisman is the kind of person that entrances everyone around her, a warm but not effusive presence, with a diva’s command of the scene and a wry sense of humor. Katzir intertwines her story with that of the company’s fight for survival and the larger picture of the decay of what had been a powerful Yiddish cultural scene. The film benefits greatly from comments by Dov Katz, a prominent historian of Yiddish, and from the fleeting presence of the great Yiddish crooner Seymour Rexite, who does not suffer fools gladly and makes no secret of it. The members of the Yiddish Public Theater are also a strikingly variegated lot, from Roni Neuman, the Israeli ingénue who learned her lines phonetically, to Felix Fibich, a dancer and actor who is as spry at 85 as most of us were at 25.
“Yiddish Theater: A Love Story” is just funny and spikey enough never to allow the audience to wallow in cheap sentiment (unlike some of the worst but most successful Yiddish plays). Spaisman seems to hold her Israeli interlocutor at just enough distance that the film can never become a soggy valentine to her indomitable spirit. Instead, it is a bittersweet, funny and charming tribute to a theatrical tradition that may be on the ropes but isn’t quite down for a 10-count yet.
“Yiddish Theater: A Love Story,” by Dan Katzir, opens on Nov. 21 at the Pioneer Theater (155 E 3rd St.). For information, call (212) 591-0434 or go to www.twoboots.com/pioneer.