“Yiddish Theater: A Love Story” is a slight but moving documentary focusing on the final performances given by Zypora Spaisman, the Polish-born star of New York’s Yiddish theater. Shot during the eight days of Hanukkah in 2000, the film follows Spaisman as she stars in a troubled production of “Green Fields,” a financially troubled Yiddish-language production playing to near-empty audiences in an obscure, badly located Manhattan theater. Needless to say, things go from bad to worse with the show.
Dan Katzir’s film is, in many ways, an elegy to the Yiddish theater. At its peak, there were 12 Yiddish-language theaters in New York. But the film discovers the last survivor of the genre – and the audience that understands the language is so tiny that the production needs supertitles above the stage to explain what is going on. Even the cast needs help – one of the show’s stars, a young Israeli performer, speaks her lines phonetically since she doesn’t understand Yiddish.
The film offers something of a quiet scolding to the American Jewish community for distancing itself from this aspect of its culture and history. The theater’s producer tries in vain to raise funds from local Jewish businessmen to transfer the show to a larger and better-located venue, but he sourly notes the unanimous indifference from his intended money targets. Spaisman also states how she would not perform in English-language productions, which seemed like career suicide given the lack of performing opportunities for a Yiddish-only actress.
Spaisman, who was 84 when the film was shot, comes across as a spry and lively personality who lived and breathed the “show must go on” axiom, despite lousy winter weather and the lack of funding. She died two years after the movie’s principal photography was completed – though, ironically, her Yiddish theater received a new life with a $200,000 grant from the New York state government while she was on her deathbed.