The Asociación Israelita Argentina Pro Arte Idischer Folks Teater marked its 75th anniversary last month, a reminder that Buenos Aires once was, with Moscow, Warsaw and New York, a pillar of the Yiddish stage.
Most of Buenos Aires’s Yiddish playhouses vanished by 1960, but the show goes on at the IFT, even if the performances today are in Spanish. In fact, the theater’s diamond jubilee season has been its busiest in years. “We’re serving our function,” said Sofia Laski, chair of the board that presides over 2,800 square meters of prime space located in the Jewish barrio known as Once. No fewer than five productions are now in rotation on the smaller of the theater’s two stages, including “Fantasy for Piano” by Aliza Olmert, wife of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, and an adaptation of Argentinean Jewish author Alberto Gerchunoff’s 1910 masterpiece, “The Jewish Gauchos of the Pampas.” A commemorative concert series fills the theater’s 660-seat principal hall.
In the Yiddish theater’s heyday, perhaps a dozen Buenos Aires venues staged plays in Yiddish. “Argentina’s Jewish immigrants could choose from five or six productions that ran Tuesday through Sunday,” actress-turned-historian Rosa Rapoport recalled. “And when the great stars performed — Jacob Ben-Ami, Molly Picon, Joseph Buloff, Maurice Schwartz — they attracted people of all ethnicities.” Visiting troupes introduced all manner of technological innovations — Schwartz’s company brought the first lighting console to Buenos Aires — as well as international hits, such as Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman,” which premiered in Yiddish before being staged in Spanish.
Cast of Characters: A mural in the IFT lobby contains figures from both the Argentinean and Yiddish stage.
Rapoport and Laski, both native Yiddish speakers whose parents were founding members of the IFT, have been busily translating documents connected to the Argentinean Yiddish theater’s past, which they know well. The story, they say, began around 1900, when the first Yiddish touring company visited Buenos Aires, unleashing a flurry of demand. More than a distraction from a bleak existence, the Argentinean Yiddish theater was where immigrants could find their language, their music and one another. Like the tango, it was linked early on to the sex industry — through the Zwi Migdal, a Polish-Jewish cooperative that trafficked in white slaves and also bankrolled lowbrow Yiddish melodramas, musicals and comedies. “Rabbis told people to stay away,” Rapoport said, “and so did the Socialist Party. When legitimate impresarios began staging more serious works, they posted signs prohibiting entry by ‘the impure.’”
In 1932, two years after the police closed the Zwi Migdal, the IFT was launched as a club by threadbare immigrant needleworkers, tradespeople, shopkeepers and cuénteniks — door-to-door peddlers selling on credit and collecting weekly on the account (la cuenta). Driven by passion, political activism and pure chutzpah, theirs was art with a conscience. The debut production had nothing to do with Jewish life, but the community rallied. In 1937 the group hired David Licht, an acclaimed European director who made the IFT a beacon of hope during the war years.
Licht expanded the IFT’s repertoire to include dramatizations from Yiddish literature, as well as world-class plays by authors ranging from Shakespeare to O’Neill. And from his amateur actors, the first in Argentina to study Constantin Stanislavsky’s “method,” he coaxed first-rate performances. Membership soared to 5,000, and most theatergoers managed to put a few pesos toward the construction of a state-of-the art facility. Leading Argentinean painters joined the celebration of its opening in 1952 by creating a mural depicting an eclectic assortment of Argentinean and Jewish cultural icons.
But the IFT’s activists, always considered suspect by the government, were by then also at odds with the Jewish establishment, and member solidarity began to crumble. “The Cold War raged here,” said Leonardo Odierna, the IFT’s current program director. Licht was among those who left when the theater refused to join the major Jewish organizations in condemning antisemitic Stalinist outrages, including the execution of leading figures from the Soviet Yiddish stage. An increasingly authoritarian Argentinean regime closed the brand-new theater in 1953.
When it reopened in 1955, with a triumphant production of Miller’s “The Crucible,” a drama of a different sort was unfolding offstage — over language. The last boatload of Eastern Europeans had disembarked in 1939, and most Argentinean Jews were more comfortable with Spanish than they were with Yiddish. Moreover, teatros independientes (independent theaters), Buenos Aires’s answer to off-Broadway, had begun to attract big audiences. The IFT’s pro-Spanish contingent argued that these spectators might be drawn to the IFT if the language barrier were removed, and it was proved right. The IFT’s first production in Spanish, “The Diary of Anne Frank,” staged in 1957, broke all attendance records and ran for three years. But members left the theater over the language issue, including some determined to troupe on in Yiddish as the Teatro Popular Judio.
Manuel Iedvabni, one of Argentina’s most decorated directors and also Rapaport’s husband, described the decade that followed as a period of glory for the IFT: Spirited new productions gave birth to a fresh generation of IFT supporters. Iedvabni established his reputation with works he staged for the IFT, including a much-lauded adaptation of John Hershey’s “The Wall.” But given the IFT’s tight purse strings, the resident company disbanded in the late 1960s and Iedvabni, along with other IFT-trained artists, went on to launch a professional career and a new theater of his own.
Since then, the IFT has soldiered on, most valiantly as a refuge for blacklisted artists during Argentina’s “Dirty War.” It continues as a venue for thought-provoking works whose diversity can be seen at www.teatroift.org.ar. Neither the Web site nor the theater’s brochure says anything about the IFT’s Jewish roots. But at the theater itself, the links are apparent — beginning with the policeman stationed at the entrance, a fixture at all local Jewish sites since the 1994 bombing of the Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina. A replica of the 1952 mural graces the lobby. (The original was damaged and is in storage.) And carved in granite over the box office is a quote from I.L. Peretz: “The theater is school for adults.”
It is a sentiment that the current management clearly shares. “We don’t care about spectators as consumers,” Odierna said. “We want to appeal to their intelligence.”
Paula Durbin works for the Inter-American Foundation and is a freelance journalist based in Chevy Chase, Md.