Montreal's senior monthly since 1986

Feb '10


Dora Wasserman Yiddish Theatre at 50: Le Chayim!

May, 2009

While she lived, Dora Wasserman (1919-2003), founder of the Dora Wasserman Yiddish Theatre, believed in tomorrow. “She always said ‘what was – was’ and that you have to focus on the future,” recalled her daughter Ella Wasserman. Though she resides in Israel,Ella was summoned to Montreal by her sister Bryna, to help celebrate the 50th anniversary of their mother’s labour of love.

“What better way to honour Dora than to assemble the five existing Yiddish theatres of the world,” said Bryna Wasserman, now artistic director of the award-winning theatre.

Dora Wasserman in 1955

In a bouquet of firsts, The Montreal International Yiddish Theatre Festival, beginning June 17, will feature 36 events over nine days, including theatre performances, concerts, exhibits, films, and lectures. “It will be the first ever international Yiddish theatre festival that has an academic side to it, where practitioners and scholars are brought together with everyone being asked to participate in the entire festival,” Bryna said.

Invited Yiddish theatres from Poland, Romania, France, Israel and the US will each present a main stage performance as well as a second, “more cutting-edge,” production. Of special note are an anticipated reunion of Yiddish Theatre “alumni” (anyone who’s ever had anything to do with Dora’s theatre in the past) and an exciting multi-media outdoor event on June 21 in the park behind the Segal Centre, organized by the third generation of performers, the Young Actors for Young Audiences (YAYA), in a special welcome to the community at large.

Lies My Father Told Me 1984 Philip Goldig & Benji Gonshor

A larger cause for celebration, Bryna said, is that the Yiddish language has survived its “tormented” history. “[The festival] is a very strong statement of survival; we’re looking at the past with the intention of creating a future.”

In the early part of the 20th century, Yiddish, the language of European Ashkenazi Jews, was spoken by 18 million people, but it was nearly decimated by the Holocaust. Now there is renewed interest in the language that originated between 900 and 1100 C.E. and whose roots, for many, reach into the very heart of Jewish identity (the word Yiddish means Jewish). Yiddish studies are now taught in major universities, including Columbia, Oxford and McGill.

King & The Cobbler

“Yiddish is a very interesting language,” says Howard Richler, author of several books on language. “Originally it was the women’s and children’s language in the shtetl, while Hebrew was the language of the men studying in the synagogue. Virtually every Yiddish term you could think of is in the Oxford dictionary. Yiddish words are fun, very onomatopoeic [their sound evokes their meaning], and you may not have an exact word in English that would express some concepts.”

Writers like Isaac Bashevis Singer and Sholem Aleichem who write in Yiddish and performers like the young people nurtured by Dora and now Bryna Wasserman continue to make the language – and the culture from which it is inseparable – accessible outside the ivory towers.

Ben Gonshor and Elan Kunin in On Second Avenue

Like Dora, Bryna sees the theatre’s role in keeping the Yiddish heritage alive as central to its existence. “One of our missions is the survival of the language,” she says, “to keep it vibrant and in the forefront.”

Singer, a Nobel-prize winning writer, was not worried about declining Yiddish audiences. “The leaves are falling, but the trunk and roots always stay. It looks bad but our situation looked bad already 3,000 years ago,” he once said in an interview.

Preserving Yiddish is imperative now, but just as the language borrowed freely from other languages – perhaps accounting for its richness of expression – Yiddish theatre has historically adapted and produced great works of literature from various cultures. “It’s important to maintain and tell our stories, culture and song, but also to interpret literature from a Jewish point of view,” Bryna said.

Michel Tremblay’s Les Belles Soeurs was one of the Dora Wasserman Yiddish Theatre’s earliest productions. The playwright called it one of the best interpretations of the play in a foreign language.


Dora is remembered as artistically demanding and infinitely loving, doing whatever was necessary to advance the cause of her great love, theatre. “By the sheer force of her charisma, we were all her children,” one longtime participant, Shirley Gonshor, once said. Dora had no qualms about bribing (and ultimately inspiring) budding young performers with French fries and hot dogs, or adapting and staging, without permission, Isaac Bashevis Singer’s work. After meeting with her, the great writer was charmed, and gave her – the only person in the world so privileged – carte blanche to carry on.

Yiddish Theatre continues to attract non-Yiddish actors and audiences, a testament to Dora’s belief that its universal appeal extends beyond any one element. “Theatre has nothing to do with language. If language is the problem – it’s not a problem. If a play is good, you will feel it.”

The Montreal International Yiddish Theatre Festival runs from June 17 to 25. All Yiddish performances have English and French super-titles. For information, call 514-739-7944 or visit

Howard Richler on keeping languages alive.



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