Lillian Lux Burstein, 86, Yiddish Theater Giant

By Ariella Cohen

Published June 17, 2005, issue of June 17, 2005.
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Lillian Lux Burstein, an internationally acclaimed doyenne of the Yiddish theater, died in New York last week of natural causes. She was 86.

Burstein is best known for the musical acts she produced and staged as the matriarch of The Four Bursteins, a troupe composed of herself, her husband — famed actor Pesach’ke (Paul) Burstein — and their twin children, Michael and Susan. Touring internationally, The Four Bursteins made a name bringing what Lux termed “classical Jewish opera” to Yiddish-speaking enclaves of South Africa, South America, Europe, Australia, Israel and the United States.

Burstein began her career at the age of 7, when she took to the stage at Maurice Schwartz’s Yiddish Art Theatre, located in New York City. She performed until she was well into her 80s and even ventured into film, sharing the screen with Antonio Banderas in the 2001 film “The Body.”

Burstein was born in 1918 in Brooklyn to a costume jeweler father who had his own stage aspirations. With his encouragement she began assisting on Yiddish radio as a child; at 14 she was hired as a chorus girl at the Second Avenue Theatre, the biggest and brightest of the 14 theaters that made up the Lower East Side’s Yiddish Broadway. As a teenager she began performing in the Catskills, where she was partnered with a young Danny Kaye. The two remained friends throughout their long careers.

In 1938, she met Pesach’ke — 22 years her senior — when she auditioned to perform with his theater company in a tour through South America. He hired her, and during a tour stopover in Montevideo, Uruguay, the two were married. Soon after, they left for an engagement in Lodz, where they were almost caught in Hitler’s snare. The couple barely escaped Eastern Europe in 1939, leaving on the last ship out of Poland.

As a couple, they achieved rare success, performing together in New York and abroad for five decades. In 1945, Burstein gave birth to Michael and Susan, with barely a pause in her busy performance schedule. Although her husband had feared that the pregnancy would thwart their successful, professional partnership, Burstein managed to play the bride in his opera, “The Village Wedding,” until her ninth month, an ostrich feather concealing her condition. They soon brought their children into the act: Susan, known as “Zisele” on the Second Avenue theater circuit, was touted as “the world’s youngest ventriloquist,” and Michael (“Motele”) eventually took what he learned as a child in the The Four Bursteins and became an acclaimed Broadway actor, known today as Mike Burstyn.

“My mother and father were my idols,” said Burstyn, an actor who has appeared on Broadway in several roles, including the title role in the 1981 Tony Award-winning musical “Barnum.” “Everything I know I learned from watching them. And from my mother specifically, I inherited her incredible memory for lines and talent as a writer.”

In 2002, Burstein narrated a documentary film about her family’s career in the Yiddish theater community, called “The Komediant.” She also co-authored, with her husband, “What a Life! The Autobiography of Pesach’ke Burstein, Yiddish Matinee Idol.”

She is survived by two children, four grandchildren, three great-grandchildren and her sister, Beatrice Friedman.

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