Komediant (film & discussion)

The American musical comedy as we know it wouldn’t exist without the precedent of Yiddish theater, whose good-humored, fun-for-fun sake communal spirit goes to the essence of Broadway.

Saratoga Jewish Community Arts and Temple Sinai, with generous grants from the Jewish Federation of Northeastern NY and the Golub Corporation, presents the screening of Komediant, directed by Arnon Goldfinger, on November 18, 7 p.m. at Temple Sinai in Saratoga Springs.

This distinctive captivating documentary tells the life story of the famous and legendary Burstein family.  In the process, the film provides a survey of the life of Yiddish theater during the 1920s and 1930s in places such as Poland, the U.S., and the British Protectorate of Palestine.  The narrator of this 1999 documentary is Lillian Lux, the great actress that pushes the viewer from tears to laughter and from despair to hope. She is really the star of this film which radiates love, nostalgia, and a lot of Yiddishkeit as well.

The Bursteins moved from country to country looking for their Yiddish audience…and then came the Holocaust which destroyed the Yiddish theater. The Bursteins moved to Argentina and then to Israel. They thought Yiddish would be the language of Israel only to find out that it was not to be. In fact, it was anti- Yiddish. Zionism became the Hebrew revolution and new sabra culture.

Ben Gurion wanted a national language. He did not want to force Jews from Muslim or Arab countries to speak Yiddish. For the Holocaust survivors, this was a cultural shock, a trauma. Yet Yiddish did not die in Israel. At home, many spoke Yiddish. However, the government put a special tax on Yiddish theater as it was a foreign import. Israel, in those early years, was hostile to the Yiddish culture. But as the Bursteins learned by the 1960s, this attitude had turned. With the passage of time, a settling-in of national status, and greater numbers of European Jews making Aliyah, Israel expressed solidarity with the Yiddish culture and the “family.”

Over the ensuing decades, there has been a revival of Yiddish life both in the U.S. and in Israel.  Knesset established a Yiddish authority, an official governmental  agency, in order to preserve and promote Yiddish in Israel. Yiddish has always been well and alive inside the Orthodox community. And there is a Yiddish revival within the Jewish academic elite, but it is not easy to preserve the heritage in the open society. The most extraordinary and successful effort, significantly expanded since the production of this film, has been that of Aaron Lansky and the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Massachusetts, carefully described in his book Outwitting History. Lansky talks about his worldwide effort to save Yiddish literature and promote the future for this beautiful language. Recently the National Yiddish Theater Folksbiene in New York produced Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish, following an earlier production in Israel.  Tickets are sold out and the short run has been extended three times to date with the possibility of a Broadway run. Coordinator of JCA, Phyllis Wang says, “Yiddish theater and the beautiful Yiddish literature are not dead.”

Komediant will be shown on Sunday, November 18, 7 p.m. at Temple Sinai in Saratoga Springs. Panel discussion and dessert reception to follow. For reservations or information, please call 518 584 8730 option 2