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Arts & Culture First Family of Yiddish Actors Subject of New Documentary

April 12, 2002
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Walking into Lillian Lux’s Lower East Side home is like entering a museum of Yiddish theater.

The apartment holds a photo of Lux and her husband — the late Yiddish actor Pesach’ke Burstein — from an appearance in Argentina in the late 1930s. There also is a picture of Lux, Burstein and their actor-son, Mike, at a benefit for wounded Israeli soldiers, and another of Mike from when he played in “Barnum”on Broadway.

Awards are strewn all over.

“Everything is a something,” Lux says.

Something similar could be said about Lux’s family: Everyone is a someone, as far as Yiddish theater goes.

The patriarch of the family, Pesach’ke — he was both born and died during Passover — was a Polish-born actor who became a matinee idol during the Golden Era of Yiddish theater.

Along with Lux, whom Pesach’ke married after moving to America, he traveled the world — Europe, Argentina, Israel — as one of the ambassadors of Yiddish theater.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the two often performed togther with their two children, Mike and Susan — or Motele and Zisele, as they were billed.

The story of the family, and of the history of 20th-century Yiddish theater, is told in a new documentary, “The Komediant,” that is being released in theaters in the United States.

For Israeli director Arnon Goldfinger and scriptwriter Oshra Schwartz, the film served as a sort of therapy. In 1995, both were recently separated from their spouses and needed a new project to dive into. Schwartz showed Goldfinger an article about Mike, who uses the name Burstyn.

Goldfinger was skeptical, but agreed to meet Mike, whose wife had just died from cancer. The director was won over, but it took Mike some time to be convinced that the two Israelis were sincere in making a serious movie about his family and the Yiddish theater.

In Israel, Yiddish, which lost out to Hebrew as Israel’s primary language, was denigrated as the language of Diaspora Jewry, the language of the vanquished past. Goldfinger himself admits that he shared this attitude until he made the film.

“It took time until we succeeded in gaining his trust,” Goldfinger says of Mike Burstyn. “We made it clear to him that we were not investing so much time in order to ridicule Yiddish.”

As with any film about the Yiddish past, the film can’t help but be bittersweet. The stories of the family traveling the world like a circus clan to perform offer a glimpse of a lost world, since the once-vibrant world of Yiddish theater has been reduced to a shadow of its former self.

It’s difficult not to be moved by Lillian retelling the story of how she and Pesach’ke were able to get passage on a booked ship out of Poland on the eve of World War II because the ship’s captain recognized them from a previous trip.

And the shots of an adult Mike happily singing “Romania, Romania” — a song he learned as a kid — with a record played on a hand-cranked Victrola evoke nostalgia.

But “The Komediant” — the name comes from one of Pesach’ke’s best-known plays — goes to great lengths to show the often-tough reality of life in the Yiddish theater.

The backbiting among the actors as they competed to join the Yiddish actors association is made clear, as several former actors remember how many voted against them.

“I went in with only one no. And I know who gave me the no,” Lux says.

The fear of plays being stolen was so great that performers were sometimes only given their own lines, not the lines of their fellow actors.

“Back then, you never knew what your partner was going to say,” Mike says.

The film, which won an Israeli Oscar for best documentary, depicts the downside of life on the road as well.

Pesach’ke, Lux and Mike all were comfortable with the stage.

Mike, in fact, eventually became an international actor, known in Israel for his role in “The Two Kuni Lemls” and in America for his role in “Barnum.”

Susan, despite her early success as a ventriloquist, said she resents having had an unusual childhood. She left the stage at an early age, married and retired from performing.

Director Goldfinger was nervous that Susan would not agree to appear in the film But she did, and offers a more critical view of the family’s life on the road.

“It’s like being a gypsy. Instead of being in a tent, you’re in a hotel room.”

For Goldfinger, having Susan, now an Orthodox Jew living in Israel, in the film was a Godsend because she offers another perspective on the family’s experience.

Similar to old-time actors on the Yiddish stage, the family members did not know what the others were going to say.

“We ended up with a mosaic of stories — a number of perspectives on the same events that at times unite and at times contradict one another,” he says.”I think the film is loaded with layers.”

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