Yiddish theater impresario Dora Wasserman receives Order of Canada
April 21, 1993
Yiddish theater producer and advocate Dora Wasserman received the Order of Canada, the highest honor bestowed on civilians by the Canadian government, on April 21, 1993.
Born in Ukraine in 1920 [some sources say 1919], Wasserman studied at Moscow's Yiddish Art Theatre and acted with the Kiev State Theatre and Kazakhstan State Theatre before Stalinist repression closed down most Yiddish theatres in the Soviet Union. In 1950, she fled the U.S.S.R. with her husband and two young daughters. After stints in Poland and a displaced persons camp in Vienna, Austria, Wasserman and her family arrived in Montreal, where she would spend the rest of her life.
In Montreal, Wasserman at first taught drama to Jewish schoolchildren, many of them Yiddish-speaking refugees like her, and performed as a singer, pianist, and guitarist. After six years, she formed the Yiddish Drama Group, an adult amateur ensemble that later became the Yiddish Theatre and then was renamed the Dora Wasserman Yiddish Theatre. The Group's first production, The Innkeeper, was staged in 1957.
Although her troupe was not made up of professional actors, Wasserman insisted on a high level of both performance and dedication and was rewarded with the loyalty of her actors and the high praise of critics and fans. The more than 70 plays she directed over four decades earned her the title of grande dame of the Yiddish theatre.
Among the Yiddish Theatre's productions were classics by well-known Yiddish writers like Sholom Aleichem and Sholem Asch; modern works translated into Yiddish for her company, like Montreal playwright Michel Tremblay's classic Les Belles Soeurs (the Sisters-in-Law); and new works written especially for her troupe. The most successful of these was A Bintel Brief, based on immigrants' letters to the advice column of the Jewish Daily Forward. Tremblay called her production of Les Belles Soeurs the best interpretation in any foreign language.
Wasserman's theatre reached an audience beyond the population of native Yiddish-speakers, which grew smaller with each passing decade. She believed that, "if [a play] is good, you will feel it. You don't need to understand the language on the stage." Still by providing supertitles in English and French, the Theatre's works became accessible to a wide audience in Quebec, and on tours in Israel, the United States, Austria, and Russia. In addition, Wasserman traveled frequently to Jewish schools to lead extracurricular programs designed to instill a love of both theatre and Yiddish. These programs reached some 3,000 students each year.
In 1973, the troupe moved to the Saidye Bronfman Centre in Montreal, where it is now the only permanent resident Yiddish theatre in North America. It is also one of only four Yiddish theatres in the world – the others are in New York, Warsaw, and Tel Aviv. Wasserman passed leadership of the theatre to her daughter, Bryna Wasserman, in 1996, after a disabling stroke. The elder Wasserman died in 2003. Her headstone in a Montreal cemetery reads, "with love and magic, Dora founded the miracle of Yiddish Theatre in Montreal, a bridge to the Jewish people's continuity."
To learn more about Dora Wasserman, visit Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia.
See also: Yiddish Theater in the United States.
Sources:Lilith, 19:4 (December 31, 1994); The Forward, December 26, 2003; New York Jewish Week, December 26, 2003; Canadian Jewish News, January 1, 2004, November 11, 2004; www.segalcentre.org/en/yiddish_theatre/; www.folksbiene.org; www.gg.ca/honours/nat-ord/oc/index_e.asp.