Comedian, musician and writer Deb Filler returns to the stage in Toronto with the Canadian premiere of her latest one-woman show, I Did It My Way in Yiddish (in English), at the Factory Theatre from May 23-28.
Filler, New Zealand’s only Jewish comic, calls herself a “Ki-brew.” She says this is a hybrid show made up of stories, jokes, characters and music (she plays the guitar). Directed by John Shooter, the show was originally commissioned and presented by JW3 in London, England. The internationally acclaimed comedic actress has since performed it for audiences in Jerusalem, Sydney and Los Angeles.
“These are classic stories from my repertoire,” explains Filler. “They are true … mostly true, and include the great opportunity I was given in my life to meet Leonard Bernstein and Leonard Cohen. Both of which became ongoing relationships, whether they were physical, or metaphysical, or emotional. I continued the relationship with Leonard Cohen and a relationship with Leonard Bernstein’s children, as I have made a short film called Mr. Bernstein, based on my meeting him.”
“So many people love to hear stories, it doesn’t matter how old we are. What the show is really about is about my love of the Yiddish language and the fact that it is not being passed on. The strain is being an heir to Yiddish and what does that look like, even if I am stumbling finding my way through it. Yiddish is lyrical, beautiful and has so much joy to it.”
Filler was born to a Polish-Jewish Holocaust survivor father and a German-Jewish mother. German, not Yiddish, was the language spoken between her parents in their Auckland home when they didn’t want her to know what they were saying. She says that when her father arrived in New Zealand in the 1950s, only a handful of people spoke Yiddish.
“I sing in Yiddish and I can understand a little bit of it, but I wouldn’t say that I’m fluent under any circumstance. It is a labour of love for me and it came to me when I first came to New York City to study to be an actor. One of the first jobs I got was working at Sammy’s Famous Romanian Steakhouse.”
Her act included telling the audience she was going to sing a little New Zealand lullaby and then broke into a fast, funny song in Yiddish instead. When people said that it was funny and cute, Filler became more interested in pursuing it. It was her father’s language and she wanted to know more about him and the language itself. She takes delight in having performed a Jewish lullaby for her father’s 60th birthday.
Filler’s work has always been about generosity, which she says she gets from her father, who, after being liberated from the Theresienstadt concentration camp, suggested to his Russian emancipators that he would bake bread with a couple of German POWs, in order to feed the starving at the camp. Amazed that he would offer to bake bread with the Germans who did what they did to him, the Russian soldier allowed him to do so. Her father didn’t hold grudges; instead, he did what needed to be done on liberation day.
She says there is a legacy of that Jewish generosity of spirit that can’t be denied. “I try very hard to be as generous as I can as a performer, so I think when people leave my shows they feel good, and that there is some kind of triumph of human spirit,” states Filler. “My audiences report back to me that they felt so good and that they’ve laughed and cried. There is more laughter than tears in this piece, but they will be moved because there are a couple of moving stories.”
Filler has also worked as a guest theatre teacher. She just finished filming CHUMS, a new TV series for FX, and appeared in the documentary, The Last Laugh — also featuring Mel Brooks, Sarah Silverman and Carl Reiner — about humour and the Holocaust. On stage, she was in the acclaimed Yiddish theatre production of Death of a Salesman and in Talking Heads, with Fiona Reid.
She brought her successful off-Broadway solo show Punch Me in the Stomach to Toronto in the ’90s. It was later broadcast on CBC Television. Although it wasn’t initially easy to adjust to Toronto, she eventually became very comfortable in the Jewish community. She now divides her time between Toronto and Auckland.