Dora Wasserman, Yiddish Theater’s Grand Dame, Dies

By Ariel Zilber

Published December 26, 2003, issue of December 26, 2003.
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More than 600 friends, family and public figures gathered in Montreal to bid farewell to Dora Wasserman, the grand dame of Yiddish theater who fled war-ravaged Eastern Europe to form the only resident Yiddish theater in North America. Wasserman died December 15 of natural causes in Montreal. She was 84.

“For Dora, no hour was too late, no task was too difficult, no challenge was too daunting and no sacrifice was too great,” Pinchas Blatt, a veteran member of the Dora Wasserman Yiddish Theatre, said in his eulogy. “For Dora, the creation of the play, the process of bringing it to the stage was almost God-like, a bringing forth. It was like giving birth and there could be no impediment, no interference, and any obstacle made the challenge even greater.”

Having studied drama at the Moscow State Yiddish Theater under legendary Russian-Jewish thespian Solomon Mikhoels, the Ukrainian-born Wasserman fled her homeland at the outbreak of World War II for Kazakhstan. Performing in the Kazakh language proved no match for Wasserman as she earned a spot in the country’s State Theatre.

With her husband and two daughters, Wasserman immigrated to Canada in 1950. For six years, she taught drama to Jewish schoolchildren before forming the Yiddish Drama Group, an adult ensemble that was the precursor to the Yiddish Theatre — later renamed the Dora Wasserman Yiddish Theatre. The resident theatre for the Saidye Bronfman Center for the Arts in Montreal, it remains the only troupe permitted to stage the writings of Isaac Bashevis Singer — a hard-won victory for Wasserman, who battled to acquire the rights to his plays.

“Isaac Bashevis Singer was indignant and angry,” Blatt recalled. “So what? What of it when Dora has an audience to please, thirsty to see Singer on stage? Well, Dora with her charm, charisma, intelligence and wonderful sense of timing completely disarmed the great and angry world-renowned giant of Yiddish literature, who, after meeting Dora, surrendered himself and his literary works to Dora’s direction.”

Wasserman produced or directed more than 70 plays for the Yiddish Theatre since its founding in 1967, staging plays that encompassed traditional Yiddish classics to more modern presentations with a political, anti-Soviet message. In honor of her achievements, she received the Order of Canada, the nation’s highest honor bestowed to civilians, in 1993 and, this past October, the Order of Quebec.

Wasserman is survived by her children, Bryna Wasserman of Montreal and Ella Geffen of Israel; eight grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren. Bryna Wasserman will assume control of the theater in accordance with the wishes of her mother.

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