Montreal International Yiddish Theatre Festival: Yiddish theatre celebrates history and culture


Festival is about inclusion, says director Bryna Wasserman

Source: Montreal Gazette, 6-11-11

The Montreal International Yiddish Theatre Festival is not just about theatre and it’s not just for people who understand Yiddish.

More than 80 events featuring more than 150 artists from Canada, Romania, France, the United States, Israel and Poland gather to celebrate Yiddish in and through theatre, music, film, poetry, lectures, workshops, plus a symposium, at the Segal Centre for Performing Arts, from Monday to June 22.

Yiddish is the predominant language, but there are also events in English and in French. English subtitles are supplied in both theatre and film, where necessary.

“What we’re seeing is a panorama,” director Bryna Wasserman said. “It’s grown from a theatre festival to a culture festival.”

Wasserman said the festival is about inclusion and the aim is to reach beyond the conventional Yiddish-speaking community to embrace a wider audience.

The opening concert is a case in point.

Soul to Soul features Israeli-born cantor Magda Fishman with African-American Broadway veteran Elmore James and African-American singer and actor Tony Perry. All three will sing in Yiddish.

“I think this is a festival which can forge extraordinary bridges,” Wasserman said. “It’s a program which emphasizes variety. We see everything from the cutting edge to the most traditional.”

Soul to Soul is presented by the New York-based National Yiddish Theatre – Folksbiene and created by its artistic director, Zalmen Mlotek.

In July, Wasserman leaves her job as director of both Montreal’s Yiddish Theatre and the Segal Centre to become the executive director of the National Yiddish Theatre – Folksbiene.

“It’s a bittersweet feeling,” Wasserman said. “I’m excited, but at the same time these rooms and hallways (at the Segal) have a special meaning. I hope I’ve made a difference. And I am confident that there will be new and wonderful ideas coming to the Segal in the future.”

The festival program is packed with activities from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.

“And there will be coffee and treats to keep you going,” Wasserman said.

Every day ends with a Klezkabaret.

“It’s the type of cabaret that will get people dancing,” Wasserman said. “The idea is for people to connect, learn and celebrate.”

Those who want to learn can listen to people such as New York Times film critic J. Hoberman or film historian Eric A. Goldman talk about the history of Yiddish cinema. Or attend the symposium, which gathers some of the biggest names in the study of Yiddish culture, including keynote speaker Joel Berkowitz, director of the Centre for Jewish Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

Also part of the symposium is Université d’Ottawa professor Pierre Anctil’s French roundtable Parodie, Humour et Grotesque dans le Théâtre Yiddish.

On Father’s Day (June 19), the action moves to Mackenzie King Park. The free event, called Zumerfest, runs from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m., and features headline acts Sister of Sheynville, from Toronto, and Brooklyn’s Yiddish Princess. Special guests are Dis Meschugeles from Israel, Germany and Belarus; Jingju Canada (representing the Chinese community); Marco Gentille and Cynthia Cantave (representing the Haitian community); Sinag Bayan Arts Collective, from the Filipino community and Zaftik Trio from Australia.

The festival ends with the documentary Mending the Torn Curtain, directed by Raphael Levy and produced by Ben Gonshor, about the first Montreal festival.

The Montreal International Yiddish Theatre Festival is at the Segal Centre for Performing Arts, 5170 Côte Ste. Catherine Rd., Monday to June 22. For program details and tickets, call 514-739-7944,