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January 18, 2017 7:29 am

Yiddish Theater in Romania Fights to Stay Alive, Despite Dwindling Number of People Familiar With Former Lingua Franca of Eastern European Jewry

avatar by Shiryn Ghermezian

Bucharest, Romania. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

One of the last vestiges of Romania’s formerly large and flourishing Jewish community — a theater that puts on plays in Yiddish — is struggling to keep itself alive and relevant, despite the dwindling number of people in the country who speak the language, a New York Times feature detailed on Sunday.

Indeed, the story described, the State Jewish Theater, located on a small side street in downtown Bucharest, sometimes has more people on stage than in the audience.

But its manager and one of the troupe’s actresses, 55-year-old Maia Morgenstern, who began at the theater when she was 18, is not deterred from working to preserve the institution — which opened in 1940 and operated throughout World War II — and what used to the lingua franca of eastern European Jewry.

“We want to continue our tradition of speaking and performing in Yiddish,” she said, “I don’t want to transform this theater into a museum.” To this end, the theater now provides subtitles on portable screens.

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Morgenstern, who played Mary in Mel Gibson’s controversial 2004 movie “The Passion of the Christ,” said that the last two years have been particularly tough, as heavy snowfall in 2014 brought down the theater’s roof, forcing the establishment to close. Until it reopened in November, its actors were forced to perform in other theaters and public libraries.

Nevertheless, the theater has attracted performers from all over the world — including American actor Allen Lewis Rickman — most of whom had to learn their parts in Yiddish before taking the stage. One of the troupe’s members, 32-year-old actress Anka Levana, who has been with the theater for a decade, told the Times that it took her 2-3 years before she was “truly comfortable” with the language.

The State Jewish Theater was established in 1940 and became an official state institution in 1948. It remained open throughout World War II, even as many Romanian Jews were sent to labor camps.

Less than 11,000 Jews are estimated to live in Romania as a whole — down from a population of 800,000 before the war — and a mere few thousand reside in the capital. An official at Choral Temple, one of the few synagogues remaining in Bucharest, said, “There is no Jewish neighborhood [here] now, just drawings on a map.”

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