Wasserman’s Yiddish festival a North American first

By Alidor Aucoin on July 2, 2009

It was touch and go whether the troupe from Poland would make it; translating two dozen Yiddish plays into French and  English proved to be a bit of a headache  and the logistics of meeting the specific requirements of eight theatre companies and 200 actors, artists, musicians and scholars from around the world was an enormous challenge. Still, in spite of a few last minute glitches, and some anxious moments, all of the world’s major Yiddish players came together under one roof in Montreal for last week’s opening  of the International Yiddish Theatre Festival which wrapped up Friday June 25. “We’ve learned a lot, and I think we’re going to put that knowledge to use,” said  Bryna Wasseman,  artistic director of the Segal Centre for the Performing Arts who came up with the audacious idea.  There have been other Yiddish festivals before, but none In North America, and none on this scale. Delegates to a Yiddish symposium at Oxford  ten years ago agreed to meet again, but never did. 

Montreal’s festival originally was envisioned nine years ago as a Millenium project and as a tribute to Wasserman’s mother, Dora, the Russian émigré who founded North America’s first Yiddish Theatre Company in Montreal in  1958.  “There was a delay in the federal funding, and when the money finally came through, the timing made it impossible for us to actually go through with it in 2000,” explained    Bryna.  “After Dora died in 2003, I put the file to bed, never thinking I would open it again.”  

Last year, however, marked the 50th anniversary of the Montreal Yiddish Theatre, and Bryna Wasserman revived the original idea.  Recent renovations to the Segal Centre meant there were now two stages instead of one available for participants.  Wasserman thought the time was again ripe to celebrate “not just the 50th anniversary of the Wasserman Yiddish Theatre, but to celebrate  our survival as a people, the survival of the language and of the culture.  Within that culture is what we call the Yid in Yiddish. Yiddish never had a country, but it has always been a language of unity. It originated with Ashkenazi Jews in Prussia and uses the Hebrew alphabet in the same way that English and French use the same Latin alphabet, but it is not Hebrew. It was the language that unified the Jewish diaspora. ”

Invitations went out two years ago, but was only in January that everyone agreed to take part. Participants represent a cross-secction of the Yiddish experience in miniature; Israel’s Yiddishspiel, DerLuftheater from France, The State Jewish Theatre from Bucharest, Poland’s  Esther Rokhal and Ida Kaminiski National Jewish Theatre of Warsaw, the New Yiddish Rep from New York, as well as artists from Austria and Australia are included in the festival. There is also a scholarly symposium on Yiddish culture, a film festival, readings and concerts. Zumerfest, a large, free outdoor event featuring everything from jazz music to puppet workshops, in partnership with KlezKanada was also part of the program. 

 “Not only do you have to believe you can have a festival, everything surrounding the festival has to be in the proper order as well,” said Wasserman.  “You need people to support the venture financially, then all the governments involved had to agree. You not only have to make a financial commitment, but you have to make a commitment to resources. You have to cultivate a loyal, devoted, committed, incredible team.’’

Wasserman says the festival helped introduce a new generation to the language.

“I won’t say the Yiddish language is dying,” said Wasserman,  “Perhaps the people who speak it are dying.  Who better and where better than in Quebec can we understand how important language is to culture?”


Please login to post comments.

Editorial Staff

Beryl P. Wajsman

Redacteur en chef et Editeur

Alan Hustak

Senior Editor

Daniel Laprès


Robert J. Galbraith


Roy Piberberg

Editorial Artwork

Mike Medeiros

Copy and Translation

Val Prudnikov

IT Director and Web Design

Editorial Contributors
La Patrie