MONTREAL — Hungarian-born Abigail Hirsch grew up in Montreal focused on Israel and Hebrew, rather than the Yiddish-speaking world of her European family. After two years at McGill University, she transferred to the Hebrew University of Jerusalem where she earned a BA.
Many years later, in 2009, she attended the first Montreal International Yiddish Theatre Festival (MIYTF) at the Segal Centre for Performing Arts, which brought together, for the first time, scores of artists from some 10 countries, who are devoted to preserving this culture.
Hirsch, an independent producer of audiovisual programs, was captivated by a world she was barely aware of.
She turned her camera on the joyous celebration, and she did so again at the second one in 2011. In between, she researched the history of the language of her grandparents, who perished in the Holocaust, and the world it defined.
Hirsch has now completed a one-hour documentary titled Yiddish: A Tale of Survival, which she previewed for invited guests at McGill University recently.
The film revolves around the stories of three people, representing three generations living in as many countries, who are devoted to preserving Yiddish theatre.
Hirsch interviewed Shmuel Atzmon, who founded in 1987 and remains, in his 80s, the artistic director of the Yiddishpiel repertory theatre in Israel; Bryna Wasserman, the Segal’s former artistic director and originator of the MIYTF, now executive director of the Folksbiene theatre in New York, and singer Milena Kartowski, born in Paris in 1988, who represents a new generation trying to keep Yiddish alive. Both Atzmon and Kartowski participated in the Montreal festivals.
They are passionate in their view that the survival of Yiddish is a statement of Jewish resilience.
Polish-born Atzmon had been a stage actor in Hebrew in Israel before, in mid-career, turning to his mother tongue as his main artistic expression. The idea of establishing a Yiddish theatre in Israel in the 1980s was considered ludicrous, almost unpatriotic, but he persevered.
According to Atzmon, the continued viability of the language is proof that Hitler did not win. As Hirsch notes, about five million of those who died in the Holocaust were Yiddish speakers.
The Soviet-born Wasserman, daughter of the legendary Dora Wasserman, imbibed with her “mother’s milk” that she would carry on the legacy of Yiddish theatre. She has done so with a tenacity that she admits has excluded much else, including family.
As Wasserman stated at the opening of the first MIYTF, Yiddish has “survived against all odds.” But to her mind, reprising beloved classics is not enough. The Dora Wasserman Yiddish Theatre has translated and performed English and French plays and, most significantly, commissioned new works in Yiddish.
Like her mother, Bryna believes Yiddish theatre must be shared with everyone, as all vital art is.
Yiddish: A Tale of Survival includes a wonderful clip of the emotional evening in 1994, when the elder Wasserman was presented with a Masque Award by the Quebec theatre community for lifetime achievement, at a packed Monument National.
Two years ago, Kartowski, trained in opera and jazz, began singing in the language of her beloved Polish-born grandfather, in a search for her roots.
She was surprised how natural the language and culture felt. In addition to Montreal, she has performed in New York and, to her astonishment, in Israel.
Returning to her heritage is particularly difficult for a young European Jew, she says, because of its association with a tragic past.
Kartowski regards rescuing Yiddish culture as a political act, because it’s an affirmation of survival. “It’s a miracle that I am here,” she says. “We are not dead. We are here.”
Hirsch is looking for a distributor or broadcaster for the film and is applying to enter it in festivals. In the meantime, she’s open to showing it to interested community groups.
“The purpose is to create a dialogue, and for that we need an audience,” she said.