Yiddish theater doc has bones, if not roots, in Queens

By Nathan Duke

Dan Katzir's documentary “Yiddish Theater: A Love Story” took seven weeks to make and seven years to release. But the director, much like his film's protagonist, has stayed on the radar through perseverance and determination.

The film, which chronicles the story of 84-year-old actress and Holocaust survivor Zypora Spaisman's attempt to keep the oldest-running Yiddish theater in America alive in the winter of 2000, received solid reviews upon its release last fall and will open at Floral Park's North Shore Towers Cinema Friday.

Several of the film's interviews were shot in Queens and a large number of famed Yiddish theater performers, including several featured in the film who have since died, are buried at Flushing's Mount Hebron Cemetery on the Horace Harding Expressway.

“Queens has the bodies of the Yiddish theater,” said Ravit Markus, the film's producer.

Yiddish stage stars Molly Picon and Seymour Hexite were buried at Mount Hebron, while legendary acting coach Stella Adler, who also performed Yiddish theater, is interred at Glendale's Mount Carmel Cemetery.

Katzir, who grew up in Tel Aviv and lives in Los Angeles, said the idea for his documentary came about during a visit to New York in 2000, when he bumped into Spaisman on a subway. The actress, considered by many a grande dame of New York theater, had been struggling to keep the legendary Folksbiene Yiddish Theater alive for 42 years at the time she met the director. She died in 2002 at the age of 86.

Spaisman invited Katzir to a performance at her theater, which has since left its Lower East Side locale and relocated to Amsterdam Avenue on the Upper West Side, and he decided to film her attempts to save the theater. Katzir said the subject was far removed from his experience growing up in Israel.

“I grew up in a family that hated Yiddish speaking,” he said. “Many Jews who had come from Europe loved theater, but they wanted to assimilate, so they turned their back on things that reminded them of their past.”

The city's dozen or so Yiddish theaters closed during the first half of the 20th century following their heyday in the 1930s, but Spaisman fought to preserve the Folksbeine, operating it as a public theater. Katzir said his film's title is a testament to the actress' passion to keep her culture alive.

“It's a love story between Zypora and the theater,” he said. “It's a movie about people who love what they do and [an 84-year-old] woman battling to stay relevant in a society that relishes youth.”

The documentary also shows how Yiddish theater has influenced American theater, from the creation of actors' unions to the style of comedy on display in the productions. Katzir said modern filmmakers Woody Allen and Mel Brooks reflect the humor of the Yiddish theater.

“It's a culture that brings out laughter through tears and tears from laughter,” he said. “You never really know if it's supposed to be funny or sad. Jewish humor often deals with serious topics, such as death, divorce and pain, in funny ways. But it's a warm kind of humor.”

For Katzir, getting the film distributed has been another labor of love that has not been without struggle.

“Nobody wanted to show it,” he said of his documentary. “Jewish film festivals did not want to endorse a film about Jewish theater. Many people told me that Yiddish theater culture should die, which was really sad. But I think the time has come when the younger generation will re-examine the culture and look at it with a clean slate.”

“Yiddish Theater” ended up playing the Palm Beach and Santa Barbara film festivals and received a limited run in New York and Los Angeles. The film has toured around the country and will finally open in Queens this week.

Katzir said he has also been contacted by a Hollywood production company that is interested in turning Spaisman's story into a feature film.

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