Yiddish Theatre founder and artistic director Dora Wasserman’s passion and sense of purpose were such that time, money or even mundane things such as copyright laws did not stand in her way when she wanted to stage a play.
Pinchas Blitt, a longtime actor with the amateur troupe based at the Saidye Bronfman Centre (SBC) recalled at her funeral how she charmed and mollified Nobel Prize-winning author Isaac Bashevis Singer, who was livid that she had dramatized one of his works without permission.
“After he met her, he was completely disarmed and surrendered himself to her direction… He gave her carte blanche to adapt and stage his works,” the only person he gave that right to, Blitt said.
Wasserman, who headed the Yiddish Theatre and its predecessor for more than 40 years – leaving only because of ill health – died Dec. 15 at age 84, just two weeks after her husband Sam, affectionately known as Shura. She had been in fragile health for some years after suffering a stroke.
Wasserman also gained the confidence of other Yiddish literary greats Chaim Grade and Abraham Shulman, as well as celebrated Quebec playwright Michel Tremblay, who called her 1992 Yiddish version of Les Belles Soeurs the best interpretation of his play in any foreign language. The production was also hailed as a bridge-builder between the Jewish and Québécois communities.
Wasserman, it seems, never had any doubts.
“She felt there was no reason to ask the author for permission because she was certain he would be as delighted as she was to see it on stage. If Singer was angry and indignant, so what?” Blitt said.
She took a similarly nonchalant attitude to the fact there are only 24 hours in a day. Rehearsals frequently extended past midnight, and sometimes to dawn.
“Dora was never bound or fettered by the ordinary rules of life… No hour was too late, no test too difficult, no challenge too daunting, no sacrifice too great. She was driven by an uncontrolled discipline, and had many wonderful contradictions,” Blitt said.
Wasserman’s rehearsals are the stuff of legend. She demanded nothing less than the best out of her amateur troupe, who, in return, became as loyal to her as if she were their mother.
“For her, the process of bringing a play to stage was almost God-like. There could be no impediment or interference,” Blitt said.
Rikee Madoff, another actor, remembered Wasserman would exhort them to “m’darf brenen auf bimah” (loosely translated: set the stage on fire), while waving her arms for emphasis.
“Although we were amateurs, she demanded professionalism… You would think it could never be done, but like magic, she somehow pulled everything together,” Madoff said.
Blitt thinks Wasserman’s daring and sometimes brashness in not only preserving Yiddish theatre, but expanding it into genres not seen before, may be explained by the freedom she enjoyed after arriving in Canada in 1950 from the Soviet Union, after years of Stalinist repression.
Born in Chernikhov, Ukraine, in 1919, Wasserman (née Goldfarb) was an actress in the Ukraine and Kazakhstan State Theatres after studying at the Moscow Yiddish Art Theatre.
Wasserman was also hailed for keeping Yiddish culture alive among younger generations of Jews, as well as extending its universal appeal to Montrealers in general. English and French supertitles greatly widened the Yiddish Theatre’s audience. It is estimated that about half of its patrons today are not Yiddish-speaking.
She also toured the theatre across Canada and to the United States, Europe, Israel and the former Soviet Union.
As controversial as she could be at times, Wasserman remained respectful of Jewish sensitivities. Before putting on plays such as The Agunah and Shaindele, which challenge religious dogma, Blitt said she first sought the “hechsher” of not one, but two Orthodox rabbis.
Another longtime actor Shirley Gonshor first met Wasserman when she was 18, “and my life was changed forever. By the sheer force of her charisma, we were all her children.” Theatre members became like family with Wasserman sharing with them their joys and sorrows, she said.
Federal justice minister Irwin Cotler, who attended many plays and rehearsals, said Wasserman was a “soulful presence who ignited the neshamah of many others.” He called her the “grande dame of Yiddish theatre and the doyenne of Jewish culture.”
In a written message, Gov. Gen. Adrienne Clarkson cited her “enthusiasm and joyous spirit.” Wasserman was named to the Order of Canada in 1992, and this past October to the Order of Quebec.
Helen Fotopulos, the Montreal executive committee member responsible for culture, said she saw her first Yiddish play 10 years ago and “felt immersed in that passion and dynamism,”even though her knowledge of Yiddish was limited to the few words she learned growing up in Mile End in the 1950s.
“Dora is a woman who built bridges with elan and passion… who shared the warmth of Yiddish cultre with us. Language was never a barrier.”
SBC chair Lorraine Singer cited Wasserman for her vision and perseverance in sustaining the theatre.
The Theatre’s forerunner, the Yiddish Drama Group, founded in 1956, had its origins in the gym of Jewish People’s School, where Wasserman taught drama to children.
Even in the early years, she reached out to the broader community. Theatre great Gratien Gélinas of the Comédie Canadienne was an early collaborator.
The group, many of whom were “folkshuler” graduates, struggled because it had no permanent home, Singer said. Then, in 1967, the SBC opened and made the Yiddish Theatre a resident company. Wasserman remained at the helm for more than 30 years.
Today, under the direction of Wasserman’s daughter Bryna Wasserman, it is the only permanent resident Yiddish theatre in North America.
Dora Wasserman directed more than 70 plays in Montreal, from beloved classics to translated plays of the Quebec and international repertoire to original works. Ever mindful of the long term, Wasserman never stopped working with children and teens, inspiring them with her love of the Yiddish theatre.
Fittingly, Wasserman’s funeral cortege, led by police escort, passed by the SBC and paused for a moment of tribute.
Dora Wasserman, The indefatigable founding director of Canada's only Yiddish theatre died at 84.
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