Yiddish theater doc makes an unsentimental Love Story

What’s most striking about “Yiddish Theater: A Love Story” is its refusal to wallow in bathos.

Israeli director Dan Katzir’s valuable documentary, which screens Oct. 26 at the Silicon Valley Jewish Film Festival, is about a crucial week in the life of the last Yiddish stage company in New York.

As the film opens, the Folksbiene Yiddish Theatre, the last survivor of the dozens of such enterprises that prospered in New York City before World War II, is performing Peretz Hirshbein’s 1916 shtetl romance “Green Fields” to sparse audiences.

To be sure, the Yiddish songs that Katzir sprinkles on the soundtrack are the essence of melancholia. But while indefatigable octogenarian actress Zypora Spaisman — the Folksbiene’s life force — and her fellow actors express a little frustration and a lot of disappointment, they give no voice to self-pity.

Although Katzir is essentially recording the end of an era — one that some viewers will be amazed to learn was still extant when the film was shot in December 2000 — his tone is less funereal and more brisk and irreverent.

Irreverent, but not disrespectful. In a sense, Katzir’s spirited approach is the perfect match for Spaisman and her cohorts, since it aptly mirrors their unwavering drive to live, create and share with an audience.

Spaisman and producer David Romeo are determined to boost the house and keep the play running, but the odds are long. For one thing, the troupe is performing at a venue on the Lower East Side, which of course used to be the hub of immigrant Jewish life. Now, for Manhattan’s Jews who live on the Upper West Side and in other neighborhoods, it’s a major shlep.

“Green Fields” struggles to gain a sliver of attention during the frenzied holiday season. Katzir’s film shows the ubiquitous Christmas trees and lights, hinting at the David-and-Goliath battle that Folksbiene is fighting against the dominant American culture. This isn’t entirely convincing, however, since Manhattan isn’t exactly a place where a Jewish entity — even a Yiddish troupe — can plausibly be depicted as a minority venture.

Katzir uses the Chanukah menorah, and the metaphor of the dwindling oil that miraculously lasted eight days, to build tension as the endearing Romeo pursues last-minute investors to extend the “Green Fields” run.

Meanwhile, the filmmaker takes us into Spaisman’s daily life and shows us what the theater means to her. For one thing, it represents the predominant home of her professional career. Equally important, it’s a bridge to her roots in the Old Country and a defiant homage to her 150 family members who perished in the Holocaust.

But even more, the Folksbiene is what gives shape and meaning to the widowed Spaisman’s days.

Because it stays focused on the present-day personalities rather than the luminaries of the past, “Yiddish Theater: A Love Story” is a vital portrait of Jewish lives, rather than an elegy for an abstract concept, like the demise of Yiddish theater.

One suspects that was part of the attraction for Katzir, who narrates the film and can be heard asking questions off-camera. He’s a typically brusque and unsentimental Israeli, which doesn’t mean that he is without empathy. He’s simply more attuned to the future than the past.

Katzir might not be the obvious candidate to make a documentary called “Yiddish Theater: A Love Story,” but he proves to be the right one.

“Yiddish Theater: A Love Story” screens 1 p.m. Oct. 26 at Camera 12 Cinemas, 201 S. Second St., San Jose. Tickets are $9-$10.50 and are available at (408) 833-9226 or www.svjff.org.

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Michael Fox

Michael Fox is a longtime film journalist and critic, and a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Film Critics Circle. He teaches documentary classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute programs at U.C. Berkeley and S.F. State. In 2015, the San Francisco Film Society added Fox to Essential SF, its ongoing compendium of the Bay Area film community's most vital figures and institutions.