“To retire is a death sentence,” says Yiddish-theatre diva and octogenarian Zypora Spaisman. Thanks to a chance meeting while on vacation in December 2000, director/co-writer/narrator/cameraman Dan Katzir has fortuitously focussed his compassionate lens on the final, desperate days of Peretz Hirschbein's Green Fields (staged by the Folksbiene Theatre Company) and the quest to find the cash for a move from the small-audience reality of East Broadway (Mazer Theatre) to the allure of rapt crowds audience and fame on the Great White Way.
On the surface—like all good theatre—this film is about keeping a dying culture/language in the hearts and minds of new generations and memories of the old. Similar to the material, it may become self-ghettoizing, appealing only to “those with [Jewish] relations,” offers up-and-coming actress Roni Neuman who plays the love interest in the play-within-the-documentary. Her intended, Joad Kohn, lived up-close-and-personal with “the language of the dead” due to his family upbringing as an Orthodox Jew. But the siren songs of Elvis Presley and John Lennon pulled him away from strict tradition and into the tattoo parlour to emblazon his skin with rebellion.
However, whether by design or happy coincidence, several more universal truths lurk tantalizingly in the upper balcony and lift this production from the specific to the universal. Getting rave reviews from The New York Times and making the “Top 10 Best of Off-Broadway” list in the New York Post doesn’t have any effect on the meager ticket sales for Spaisman’s labour of love. Critics and publishers everywhere often have an over-inflated sense of their importance in making or breaking entertainments. Public opinion is not as malleable as many would like to believe.
Performing in the “the language of the dead”—horrifically, literally and figuratively should not be used as an excuse for small houses (“There’s no audience for the language,” offers producer David Romeo.). If that were true the Metropolitan Opera would have gone under years ago and, with the advent of Surtitles™ (also in evidence during the brief performance clips of Green Fields), the language barrier has largely been overcome.
What Katzir conveys magnificently is Spaisman’s obsession with herself and the stage. Without makeup, spotlights and bums-in-seats—no matter how few—her very existence means nothing. For decades she has fed off the applause of countless thousands by giving every fibre of her being, ostensibly, in the service of preserving culture. Had her first language been Latin, the unstoppable desire for the life-giving rush when the curtain rises would have been just as intense and unquenchable.
She surrounds herself with fellow fanatics (even Neuman admits her addiction) and friends with deep pockets or lines of credit to finance her never-ending dream. But make no mistake, most do so willingly, unconditionally: behold the power of love.
Spaisman longs for one more miracle of Hanukah, little realizing that she is already one herself. But once out of luck (and with deeply personal, silent footage from her final performance as “Mother” on New Year’s Eve—topped only by the brilliantly rendered recitation of her husband’s final moments), her work is done, so she disappears into the night.
Today, the Folksbiene Yiddish Theatre lives on in an appropriately nomadic existence to, amongst other goals, bring a “reinforced sense of identity, renewal and pride to Yiddish culture in a multi-cultural world.” If they ever mount a production which includes a role for a ghost, Spaisman would most certainly answer the call. JWR