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Across the Former Soviet Union the Jewish World’s a Stage at Theater Festival in Ukraine

November 27, 2002
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Before World War II, this city — then part of Poland and home to that country’s third largest Jewish population — boasted as many as 16 Jewish theater companies.

Earlier this month, Lvov — now in Ukraine — was reminded of this page of its rich Jewish cultural history when troupes from all across the former Soviet Union took part in a Jewish theater festival here.

But if the festival conjured up echoes of the past, it also exemplified how much Jewish life has changed in the past 60 years.

Many of the new theater companies were started as offshoots of the Hesed welfare centers run by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

A Belarussian company presented the festival’s only Yiddish-language production, but most of the audience did not understand the dialogue and even a key actor didn’t seem to know the language well enough and kept forgetting his lines.

The other 15 full-length productions showed at the festival were in Russian.

Most of the festival productions portrayed recognizable Jewish images — from King Solomon to the ubiquitous “Fiddler on the Roof” and other shtetl characters based on the writings of Sholem Aleichem or Isaac Babel.

“If there is anything that allows a contemporary theater to be called Jewish theater, these are the specific themes,” said Iosif Shats, a theater producer from Kishinev, Moldova.

Some of the plays were performed at the First Ukrainian Theater for Children and Youth, which once housed the Lvov Jewish Theater, home to one of the city’s professional Jewish troupes.

Before the war, Lvov was a hotbed of Yiddish theater. In addition to its homegrown companies, many famous troupes from Warsaw, Vilna and other East European Jewish centers toured here.

That Yiddish theater “did not survive. Its actors and audience died in the Holocaust,” said Ada Dianova, director of the Lvov welfare organization Hesed Arieh and head of the festival’s organizing committee.

The last 10 years of Jewish community building in the former Soviet Union have witnessed a rebirth of Jewish culture, including theater.

For many of the participants in this year’s festival, the present and future are more important than the past.

“We are not trying to revive the Jewish theater that was,” said Alexander Chevan, artistic director of the Spiegel Open Jewish Theater in the Ukrainian town of Chernigov.

His troupe presented “Solomon’s Ring,” an avant-garde tale about King Solomon built on a variety of sources — from the Bible to 20th century Russian literature.

“We are trying to build Jewish culture here and now using modern artistic means,” Chevan said.

In Russia and Ukraine there are now a few professional companies with permanent space of their own. But most troupes that exist — and all the participants of the Lvov festival — are amateur troupes that usually operate as part of Jewish communal institutions.

During the last few years, the focus of many of JDC’s Hesed centers shifted from purely charitable work to encompass cultural activities as well. The change is attributed to some economic improvements in post-Soviet countries, as well as to the maturation process of Jewish institutions.

“The problem of malnutrition and hunger that was so acute a while ago is no longer our only focus,” Dianova said. “Today, a community that only feeds without giving people some food for the soul is like a poorhouse.”

She added: “When we turned a soup kitchen into a club where people can watch a theatrical performance, celebrate holidays and birthdays — many of those who have been embarrassed to come for a free cup of soup are now more comfortable with the idea that they come to a Jewish club.”

But Jews aren’t the only target group for the theater — either as audience members or as performers.

“If we were to create a theater only for Jews and only of Jews, we would have missed the target,” said Dianova, who is also artistic director of the Jewish theater studio called Debut.

Indeed, about 40 percent of the actors in her troupe have no Jewish background in their families.

And while the actors are amateurs, they are devoted to their hobby.

“I give all my time to the theater. For the festival, we have been rehearsing for three-and-a-half hours every night for six months,” said Vanya Bilonenko, a 16-year-old high school student who acted in “What Is Your Uncle’s Name” at the festival.

The play, based on books by Russian Jewish author Ephraim Sevela, is centered on the figure of a young Jewish man whom the 1917 Russian Revolution turned into a Communist fanatic. The tragicomic story is set against the background of a Jewish neighborhood plunged into deep economic and moral crisis by the revolution.

Pasha Alexeev, a 27-year-old Jewish professional who played an elderly Chasidic Jew in the same production, said the months he spent preparing for his role helped him better understand his own family’s past.

“I just realized how little I know about my own family. Working on this role gave me a whole new horizon in understanding how my grandparents lived — what made them cry and what made them happy.”

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