Reviews of Recent Independent, Foreign, & Documentary Films in Theaters and DVD/Home Video

Zypora Spaisman with her Obie Award
Photo: Ben Spaisman

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Directed by Dan Katzir.
Produced by Ravit Markus & Yael Katzir.
Written by Katzir & Markus.
Photographed by Katzir.
Edited by Neta Dvorkis & Adam Shell.
Released by: New Love Films.
Language: In English and Yiddish with English subtitles.
USA. 80 min. Not Rated.

Dan Katzir, inspired by a serendipitous meeting with New York City’s grande dame of Yiddish theater, has lovingly created a poignant tribute to the unsinkable Zypora Spaisman. While on vacation with his camcorder, he began his video diary in December 2000 when the octogenarian Zypora trudged through snow, the subway, and financial straits only to perform to sparse audiences. Katzir structures the documentary around the eight days of Hanukkah, creating suspense of whether a comparable miracle will keep her own Yiddish Public Theater alive.

The off-stage drama of theater manager David Romeo and other supporters searching for a better located theater, more funding, and a larger audience, even after a good review in The New York Times, alternates with interviews, primarily with Zypora, memorabilia, and scenes from the onstage Yiddish melodrama. Surprisingly skimpy on biographical details, the Polish-born Zypora’s reticence or modesty about her travails, from the Holocaust to immigrating to America, could have been supplemented by narration. Instead, useful perspectives are too briefly supplied by Nahma Sandrow, the author of Vagabond Stars: A World History of Yiddish Theater, and Yiddish music theater maven Zalmen Mlotek. Professor Dovid Katz succinctly summarizes the decline in Yiddish around the world as the result of Hitler, Stalin, Zionism, and assimilation. (Only in the press notes does the director relate his own family’s personal experiences in Israel, where the Yiddish language was stifled and Hebrew promoted.)

Katzir follows the indomitable Zypora as she insistently sticks with her vision and final production, Peretz Hirshbein’s 1916 play Green Fields, which celebrates an idyllic, pious Lithuanian shtetl. He obliquely implies that her insistence on focusing only on the most traditional Yiddish theater classics led to her retirement from her longtime base at the Folksbiene Yiddish Theatre, the surviving American outpost of this heritage. In contrast, the klezmer revival was spurred by opening traditional Jewish music to new interpretations.

Acting alongside Zypora, and also profiled, are Shifra Lerer, now in her 90’s, a longtime Yiddish theater diva (she also appeared in Woody Allen’s Deconstructing Harry); Roni Neuman, an ingénue Israeli actress, who had to learn her lines phonetically; and Joad Kohn, straight out of Adam Vardy’s Mendy – a tattooed, apostate son of Orthodox Brooklyn, uncomfortable even walking with the director around his old neighborhood of Williamsburg. (Neither Kohn nor Katzir explains that this population of Yiddish-speakers spurns secular theater.)

Like a tourist, Katzir is overly enamored of conventional shots of wintry Manhattan at holiday time. More illuminating are brief excursions of what, just a couple of years later, is now gone – the sidewalk Yiddish Theater Hall of Fame, outside the old 2nd Avenue Deli, and the crumbling archives of the Hebrew Actors Union, guarded by the late Seymour Rechzeit, whose death in 2002 left unresolved how to preserve this unique collection. But unlike other nostalgic documentaries, such as the Herschel Bernardi-narrated Golden Age Of Second Avenue, this is a love story that still manages to look to the future, one made possible by one woman’s stubborn refusal to go gentle into that good night on any continent. Nora Lee Mandel
November 21, 2007



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