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Jewish Journal

Films: The little Yiddish theater that could

by Tom Tugend

April 19, 2007 | 8:00 pm

Hollywood veteran Arthur Hiller, center, is flanked by producer Ravit Markus and director Dan Katzir at the premiere of their film

Hollywood veteran Arthur Hiller, center, is flanked by producer Ravit Markus and director Dan Katzir at the premiere of their film

Friends and relatives of Dan Katzir were astonished when the Israeli filmmaker came up with a heart-grabbing documentary on New York's fading Yiddish theater.

For one, Katzir hardly knew a word of Yiddish.

For another, among Katzir's extended family, which included Israel's former president Ephraim Katzir and former prime minister Moshe Sharett, were those who had denigrated Yiddish as a Galut throwback, not fit for a Hebrew- speaking nation.

That all changed for Katzir a few years ago, when he met Zypora Spaisman, then producing and starring in "Grine Felder" (Green Fields) at New York's famed Folksbiene Yiddish Theater.
The octogenarian actress persuaded a reluctant Katzir to see the play. At the end of the performance, the former Israeli paratroop officer found himself moved to tears.

For the following week, Katzir and producer Ravit Markus tracked, in real time, the desperate struggle of the troupe to keep the show going and save the longest-running Yiddish theater in America.

As in an old melodrama, the landlord has announced that he will foreclose the place in eight days if the back rent isn't paid.

Spaisman, a Holocaust survivor from Poland, is indomitable.

"Hitler couldn't kill me, Stalin couldn't kill me," she boasts, and to an admirer says, "I am younger in my 80s than you are in your 50s."

For a brief moment of hope, it looks like the production may be able to move from the Lower East Side to Broadway, but the deal falls through.

Fate intervenes and envelops the city in a fierce blizzard, and the small audience dwindles further.

There's another moment of elation after The New York Times runs a feature article on "Grine Felder" and ranks it as one of the top off-Broadway shows.

Despite this, appeals to six New York millionaires to come up with $75,000 to save the Folksbiene fall on dead ears.

On New Year's Eve, the curtain falls for the last time.

Shortly after Katzir completed his film, "Yiddish Theater: A Love Story," Spaisman died.

Ironically, a few months later, New York Gov. George Pataki announced that the state would allot $200,000 to revive the Folksbiene in the fabled old Yiddish theater district on Second Avenue.

For Katzir, making the film was a learning experience in more ways than one. "Zypora Spaisman taught me about life," he reminisced last week. "When you have a passion for something, you feel connected."

Katzir, at 37, has made 10 documentaries, which have won a total of 22 international awards. "Yiddish Theater" has played to critical acclaim at 20 film festivals.

It has been warmly received in the Midwest and the Bible Belt, but to Katzir's frustration, the film has never been shown in New York itself.

He and Markus are now working on their first feature film, a coming-of-age story based on Katzir's exploration of America during a coast-to-coast trip.

"Yiddish Theater: A Love Story" will screen at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, April 25 at American Jewish University (formerly the University of Judaism), as part of the Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival. Co-sponsors are the Israel Consulate and the Center for Jewish Culture and Creativity. For ticket information, phone (323) 938-2531 or (818) 464-3300.

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