A Mother’s Legacy Endures As Montreal Theater Looks to the Future

By Sheldon Gordon

Published February 20, 2004, issue of February 20, 2004.
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MONTREAL — With the death of Dora Wasserman in December at age 84, the Yiddish Theatre here lost its matriarch, the creative force who founded it half a century ago and sustained it as the only North American Yiddish theater in permanent residence. But it did not lose its raison d’être.

Just ask Bryna Wasserman, the theater’s artistic director and bearer of her mother’s legacy. “Because the final generation of Yiddish-speakers is leaving us, it makes what we do even more important,” she said. “Aside from the preservation of the language, it’s culture, it’s literature. Theater is a living, vibrant example of Yiddish, not something that only grandparents do. It’s also something that young and middle-aged people do. There’s a legacy, but we also look forward to the future.”

So Bryna is busy selecting a cast for “Fiddler on the Roof,” which will have a three-week run in Montreal in June, then go on tour to Leeds, England, in July and Vienna in November. She’s also working with schoolchildren in the theater’s Young Actors for Young Audiences program, inspiring a love of Yiddish theater in the next generation.

The youth program, begun by her late mother, reflects Dora’s early years in Canada. Born in Soviet Ukraine, Dora acted in the Ukraine State Theatre before immigrating to Montreal with her husband and two daughters in 1950. She initially taught drama to children at the Jewish Public Library and the Jewish People’s School. In 1956, she founded the Yiddish Drama Group, an adult ensemble whose members were mostly alumni of the school.

Eleven years later, this troupe morphed into the Yiddish Theatre — later renamed the Dora Wasserman Yiddish Theatre — the resident company of the Saidye Bronfman Centre for the Arts, the hub of Jewish cultural activity in Montreal. Over the next three decades, Dora selected, produced and directed over 70 plays, including Yiddish classics as well as translated plays from the international and Quebec repertoire.

Dora took the troupe on tour, winning international plaudits, but she also built close ties with the French-language theater scene in Montreal. At a time when Quebec’s leading dramaturge, Michel Tremblay, refused to allow his plays to be performed in English translation in the province, he let Dora produce them in Yiddish. Dora fought hard to obtain Isaac Bashevis Singer’s permission to stage his works, making her troupe the only one authorized to do so. Among the many awards she received over the years, she was proudest of a lifetime achievement award given to her in 1998 by the Académie Québécoise du Théâtre. The accolade was presented shortly after a stroke had robbed her of her speech and paralyzed her right side. The incapacitation forced her to forego an active role in the Yiddish Theatre, although she continued to attend rehearsals up until last year.

Dora’s illness also prompted Bryna to return from New York. She assumed the position of artistic director, first for the Yiddish Theatre, and then for the Saidye Bronfman Centre for the Arts as a whole. Bryna had assembled an impressive theatrical resume of her own. With bachelor’s and master’s degrees in directing from the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University, she staged works in English at major New York theaters and in Yiddish at the Folksbiene Playhouse.

In Montreal, she has maintained her mother’s careful blend of traditional Yiddish hits such as “Fiddler” and Yiddish translations of English- and French-language plays. “The balance has worked for us,” said Bryna. “For the more traditional Yiddish productions, if we don’t do them, who will? On the other hand, we have to be au courant. We have to ensure a new generation of performers and a new generation of audiences.”

During a typical three-week run of 21 performances, the 300-seat auditorium is sold out. Bryna estimates that 80% of the audience is Jewish, but only 40% are Yiddish-speakers. For those who aren’t, PowerPoint supertitles are available in English, French and, on specific evenings, Russian.

Like the audience, the actors often have to overcome a language barrier: Although the cast is 95% Jewish, only about half speaks Yiddish. Original Yiddish scripts are translated into English, and then transliterated into Yiddish for actors who are not fluent in the mameloshn. “There are two reasons they join,” said Bryna. “One is a love of theater, no matter the language, the other is a love of Yiddish.”

“It’s professional amateur theater,” said 25-year old performer Stephanie Finkelstein. “The shows are professional-quality, but the cast and stage crew are volunteers.”

Bryna is not the only one who sees the Yiddish Theatre as a family affair; the actors also frequently have personal connections to the theater, with as many as three generations of a single family volunteering. Finkelstein made her stage debut at age 4, playing a shtetl girl in Sholom Aleichem’s “Wandering Stars,” and has performed alongside her parents and older sister ever since. The Yiddish Theatre, Finkelstein said, “is part of who I am; it made me who I am today.”

It is the same sentiment Bryna keeps in mind, holding on to her mother’s legacy as she charts the future course for the theater.

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