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Jewish Journal

Remembering the Comedians

by Peter Ephross

February 6, 2003 | 7:00 pm

Walking into Lillian Lux's Lower East Side home in New York is like entering a museum of Yiddish theater. The apartment holds a photo of Lux and her husband -- the late Yiddish actor Pesach'ke Burstein -- from an appearance in Argentina in the late 1930s. There also is a picture of Lux, Burstein and their actor-son, Mike, who now lives in Los Angeles, at a benefit for wounded Israeli soldiers.

Awards are strewn all over.

"Everything is a something," Lux said. Something similar could be said about Lux's family: Everyone is a someone, as far as Yiddish theater goes.

The patriarch of the family, Pesach'ke -- he was both born and died during Passover -- was a Polish-born actor who became a matinee idol during the Golden Era of Yiddish theater.

Along with Lux, whom Pesach'ke married after moving to America, he traveled the world -- Europe, Argentina, Israel -- as one of the ambassadors of Yiddish theater.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the two often performed together with their two children, Mike and Susan -- or Motele and Zisele, as they were billed.

The story of the family, and of the history of 20th century Yiddish theater, is told in a new documentary, "The Komediant," that is being released in theaters in the United States.

For Israeli director Arnon Goldfinger and screenwriter Oshra Schwartz, the film served as a sort of therapy. In 1995, both were recently separated from their spouses and needed a new project. Schwartz showed Goldfinger an article about the son, who uses the name Mike Burstyn.

Goldfinger was skeptical, but agreed to meet Burstyn. The director was won over, but it took Burstyn some time to be convinced that the two Israelis were sincere in making a serious movie about his family and the Yiddish theater.

In Israel, Yiddish, which lost out to Hebrew as the country's primary language, was denigrated as the language of Diaspora Jewry, the language of the vanquished past. Goldfinger admits that he shared this attitude until he made the film.

"It took time until we succeeded in gaining his trust," Goldfinger said of Burstyn. "We made it clear to him that we were not investing so much time in order to ridicule Yiddish."

But "The Komediant" -- the name comes from one of Pesach'ke's best-known plays -- goes to great lengths to show the often-tough reality of life in the Yiddish theater. The backbiting among the actors as they competed to join the Yiddish actors association is made clear.

"I went in with only one no. And I know who gave me the no," Lux said.

The fear of plays being stolen was so great that performers were sometimes only given their own lines, not the lines of their fellow actors.

"Back then, you never knew what your partner was going to say," Burstyn said.

Burstyn, in fact, eventually became an international actor, known in Israel for his role in "The Two Kuni Lemls" and in America for his role in "Barnum."

Burstyn's sister, Susan, despite her early success as a ventriloquist, said she resents having had an unusual childhood. She left the stage at an early age, married and retired from performing.

Director Goldfinger was nervous that the sister would not agree to appear in the film. But she did, and offers a more critical view of the family's life on the road.

Similar to old-time actors on the Yiddish stage, the family members did not know what the others were going to say.

"We ended up with a mosaic of stories -- a number of perspectives on the same events that at times unite and at times contradict one another," he said. "I think the film is loaded with layers."

"The Komediant" will be screening Friday, Feb. 21 at 1 p.m. at Tarbut V'Torah, 5200 Bonita Canyon Drive, Irvine. For more information, call (714) 755-0340, ext. 134, or visit www.pjff.org .

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