Yiddish Theatre Forum [YTF]
Joel Berkowitz, Editor 
Contents of Vol. 03.001 YTF
7 January 2004

1) Letter from the Editor (Joel Berkowitz)
2) Cross-Dressing in the Yiddish Theatre (Warren Hoffman)
3) Dora Wasserman, 1919-2003 (Zachary Baker)

Date: 5 January 2004
From: Joel Berkowitz 
Subject: From the Editor

2003 closed on a sad note for lovers of Yiddish theatre, with the passing of
Dora Wasserman, the Grande Dame of the Yiddish stage in Canada.  Those who
knew her have paid tribute to her boundless energy, talent, warmth, and
passion for her art.  Zachary Baker adds his voice to the tributes below.

The brighter news accompanying the arrival of the new year is a new Editorial
Board for the Yiddish Theatre Forum.  In addition to Leonard Prager, who
continues to serve as Senior Adviser, the board at present consists of the
following scholars:

Miroslawa Bulat (Jagiellonian University, Cracow) Avrom Greenbaum (Hebrew
University) Barbara Henry (University of Washington) David Mazower
(BBC/Independent Scholar, London) Nina Warnke (University of Texas) Seth
Wolitz (University of Texas)

The board members will be taking an active role in the content of the Yiddish
Theatre Forum; their contributions will begin appearing in coming issues.

Date: 30 December 2003
From: Warren Hoffman 
Subject: Cross-Dressing in the Yiddish Theatre

I'm currently writing a chapter on the cross-dressing work of Molly Picon for
my doctoral dissertation.  Looking through Picon's scrapbooks and thinking
about the role of cross-dressing in her life has engendered some larger
questions about the role of cross-dressing in the world of Yiddish theatre.
I'd be very appreciative if anyone out there has ideas, thoughts, etc., on
this topic and the following questions: 1) To what extent was cross-dressing
(either MTF or FTM) widespread in Yiddish theater?  Nahma Sandrow notes in
_Vagabond Stars_ that it did exist, yet doesn't provide a plethora of details.
2) Given the injunction concerning cross-dressing in the Torah, how might
Jewish audiences responded to this act?  (Clearly most Jewish audiences going
to the theater were no longer religious, but at the same time, would they have
thought anything unusual about cross-dressing?)  3) In addition to the Witch
in Goldfaden's operetta The Witch, are there any other roles in Yiddish
theater that are traditionally cross-dressed?  I was wondering if any other
actress cross-dressed as Goldfaden's character Schmendrick before Picon did.
What is interesting about that role is that in the reviews of Picon's
performance, comparing it to previous performances of the play, none of the
critics seem to comment on the fact that Picon was playing what was
traditionally a male role.

Date: 2 January 2004
From: Zachary Baker
Subject: Dora Wasserman, 1919-2003

The December 19th issue of the Forverts includes a couple of notices
announcing the passing of Dora Wasserman, the long-time director of the
Yiddish Drama Group in Montreal, Quebec.  For obituaries in English, see:

Dora Wasserman, The indefatigable founding director of Canada's only Yiddish
theatre, died at 84, by Alan Hustak

Dora Wasserman, Yiddish Theater's Grand Dame, Dies, by Ariel Zilber

I would like to share with Mendelyaner a personal recollection of this great
Yiddish theatrical personality:

Dora Wasserman was a force of nature (if I may be permitted to use a cliche).
Many Yiddish theater lovers outside of Montreal doubtless remember the plays
that her troupe put on during annual visits to the 92nd Street Y during the
1970s and early 1980s.  That is where I first encountered the staged
spectacles that were the troupe's hallmark, which at their best seamlessly
integrated drama with song and dance.

These were (are) amateur performers (most of them with "day jobs"), mind you.
The fact that they formed a company of regulars who returned year-in-year-out
to the stage of the Saidye Bronfman Centre testifies both to the guiding
vision of their director and to her magnetic and irrepressible personality.

Over the years the Montreal audience registered a similar degree of loyalty to
the Yiddish Drama Troupe and its offerings, many of which were cutting-edge by
Yiddish (and not only Yiddish) theatrical standards:  The latest in set
designs (these were done by paid professionals), translations of such
contemporary Quebecois classics as Les belles-soeurs, by Michel Tremblay, and
probably the only play ever produced in Yiddish to be based on a story by
Isaac Bashevis Singer.

In 1981 I moved to Montreal, where I remained for 6 years.  Quite soon after
my arrival there Dora enticed me to audition for the troupe's Winter 1982
production of Bashevis's "Gimpl Tam."  (The staged version was written, if
memory serves, by Abraham Shulman, a Forverts feuilletonist and long-time
collaborator of the troupe.) She "hired" me to play a bit part as
yeshiva-bokher, with -- thankfully -- not too many lines to memorize.  It was
my first and last experience on the stage since I (mis-)played the role of
Menelaus in an overly ambitious high school production of The Trojan Women
back in the 1960s.

The rehearsals on chilly weeknights, after the work day, were grueling,
especially as opening night approached.  (One evening she actually locked us
in until midnight, the only escape route being the theater's fire exit.)  A
former student of Mikhoels in Moscow, Dora made copious use of "folkstimlekhe"
songs as musical accompaniment to the drama's narrative.  With "Gimpl Tam" I
specifically remember learning the songs "Nayn brider zaynen mir gevezn" and
"Beygelekh."  A small folk dance ensemble also participated in the production.
The payoff came on opening night, when our one and only Nobel laureate sat in
the front row, center.

The stage accent, in accordance with Dora's personal background and Moscow
training, was Litvish, although for "Gimpl Tam" a Polish Yiddish accent was
adopted to the best of the cast's abilities.  E.g., "Yo, yo, nayn, nayn -- gay
fin vanen bist gekimen" (as opposed to "Yo, yo, neyn, neyn -- gey fun vanen
bist gekumen").

The Yiddish Drama Troupe was, unofficially, a club, and initiates were
expected to bring a bottle of whiskey to the dressing room on opening night.
There the cast members exchanged jokes and mildly off-color wordplay (e.g.,
"Bam rebn shteyt...") as the "curtain" time approached.  (The Saidye Bronfman
Centre has a thrust stage, and no curtain.)  After that it was strictly

Quite a number of the regular performers circa 1980 were European born (often
they were teenagers at the time of liberation in 1945) and native Yiddish
speakers.  Others came from Yiddish-speaking families in Montreal or had
received a formal Yiddish education at one of that city's Yiddish schools.
Most of them were either accomplished professionals or in business.  There was
always a sizable complement of children and young adults on stage, some of
whom knew a fair bit of Yiddish and others who recited lines from rote.  One
of the yeshive-bokherim in "Gimpl Tam" -- then a high school student -- is now
an accomplished professional cellist.

After "Gimpl Tam" closed I concluded that life on the Yiddish stage was not
for me.  However, I was more than happy to become one of the regulars filling
the seats at the Yiddish Drama Group's semi-annual productions.  Whenever we
crossed paths Dora would ask, "Nu, ven-zhe kumstu tsurik tsu undz?"

Dora Wasserman's departure is of course very sad for her friends and admirers.
But let it not be said that she did not provide for the future.  Yiddish
theater-lovers in Montreal are still able to attend the Yiddish Drama Group's
productions.  For some years now it has been led by Bryna Wasserman, Dora's
daughter, and so her spirit definitely lives on.

End of Yiddish Theatre Forum 03.001

Yiddish Theatre Forum

Joel Berkowitz, Editor

Leonard Prager, Senior Adviser

   Editorial Board

Miroslawa Bulat		David Mazower
Avrom Greenbaum 		Nina Warnke
Barbara Henry 		Seth Wolitz

Subscribers to Mendele (see below) automatically receive The Mendele
Review and the Yiddish Theatre Forum.

Send "to subscribe" or change-of-status messages to:


        a. For a temporary stop: set mendele mail postpone
        b. To resume delivery: set mendele mail ack
        c. To subscribe: sub mendele first_name last_name
        d. To unsubscribe kholile: unsub mendele

****Getting back issues**** To The Mendele Review archives To The Yiddish Theatre Forum archives