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"The Komediant": The Yiddish Legend of the 'Burstein Family'

by Gad Nahshon

The Yiddish 'Mispucha' (family) was united again, recently, at the last evening of the Jewish Films Festival at Lincoln Center in Manhattan. The event was sold out. Who would miss a unique evening of nostalgia and Yiddishkiet? Admirers and patriots came to the screening of the successful touching film, The Komediant. It is a unique, fascinating documentary which tells us the life story of the famous legendary family: 'The Burstein Family' or: The father who passed away many years ago (1986), Pesach Burstein, his wife Lillian Lux, the son Mike and the daughter, Susan.

Indirectly, the Komediant is also a survey of the life of the Yiddish Theater of the 1920's, 1930's, in many countries such as Poland, the U.S. and Israel. The narrator of this documentary is Lillian Lux, who is a great actress that pushes the viewer from tears to laughter and from despair to hope. She is indeed the star of this film. The film radiates love, nostalgia, and a lot of Yiddishkiet as well!

The Jewish masses were the 'family', and the family was the Jewish masses. Most of them were murdered by the Holocaust. The success of this film has to do with its great director, Arnon Goldfinger. The film was produced in Israel and the U.S. It took four years of action and love, years of dedication, to produce it.

The following people helped Goldfinger: The Lerner Foundation and its president, Ofra Al-yagon, Seymour Rextise, Ziporah Speizman, Israel Becker, and Nama Sandrow, as well.

Following the screening at the Lincoln Center, at a party, Arnon Goldfinger told the standing ovation mispucha: "Why did I decide to produce this film? One day the script writer, Oshra Schwartz, showed me an article about Mike Burstein, today a celebrity performer in this country. I learned that his wife passed away. Oshra told me: "That will be our project of a film about the Yiddish theater." I also say the film Two Kuni Lemel with Mike. Well, I do not control Yiddish but in four years of production, I managed to do my job. I met Lillian Lux and we worked together. I saw the material and especially their famous show A Wedding in the Village, a classical Yiddish melodrama." The father, the star of this family, Pesach Burstein, a legendary actor and whistler, passed away and the family planned to publish the English version of his bio.

Lillian Lux, Mike and Susan tell their story. Susan, who was also a star, decided to leave the stage. She said that it was very hard for her to be in the group as a child. The family tended to move from country to country, from city to city, looking for the Yiddish audience: Poland, France, the U.S. and then came the Holocaust: "They killed the Yiddish. They, the Nazis, murdered a million and a half of the children," Mike said in the film. The family moved to Argentina and to Israel: "In the 1950's, the government did not like the Yiddish culture. The Israelis were hostile. They said 'Here you speak only Hebrew.' I thought then that Yiddish would be the official language of the new country," Lillian Lux said in the film.

Indeed, Zionism meant also 'Hebrew revolution' and new sabra Hebrew culture! Ben-Gurion did not want to force Jews from Muslim or Arab countries to speak Yiddish. He fought for one national language. For many Jews, for many olim and Holocaust survivors, this attitude was a cultural shock, a trauma. Of course, Yiddish never died in Israel. At home many spoke Yiddish! But the government put a special tax on Yiddish theater or shows as if it was a foreign import. Israel was then hostile to the Yiddish culture. But as the Bursteins learned in the 1960's, this attitude has been changed: The family had great success in Israel with their Purim play: Di Megilla, a play based on the poems of the famous Yiddish poet Itzik Manger. The Megilla, directly by the great Shmuel Bonim, turned out to be a smash hit in Israel, the 'talk of the town.'

Israel expressed solidarity with the Yiddish culture and the 'family', especially Mike Burstein, became stars: "People loved Mike," said Lux, a great actress. Mike Burstein decided to develop his own career and it was very hard for the family to keep performing without him: "The audience came and asked: where is Mike? Pesach was not enough for them," recalled Lux. Indeed, Mike became a great star because of his acting in Goldfalden's Two Kuni Lemel. Later, Mike came back to America and became a great popular international star, as well. Mike left the family, Susan left the stage.

She wanted a simple life: family and children. And then a shock: Pesach, who was born on Pesach (Passover), died on Pesach 1986. He was a legendary performer, an actor of the best Yiddish melodrama. Millions of Jews remembered his great A Wedding in the Village. And in the film, Lillian Lux told us that one day a survivor told her that people were singing the songs from this Pesach's play in their last way to the gas chamber: Where are you Mama, Where are you Papa? And tears came to her beautiful Jewish eyes. I remember the evening in N.Y.C., in which Pesach Burstein was honored with the 'Goldie Award.' (Goldfaden). He acted, he whistled, and ended his remarks saying: "Do not put stones on the grave of the Yiddish theater." He protested aggressively against the many who already, by now, passed a death sentence on Yiddish culture and theater.

Who will carry the torch of Yiddish culture? There is a revival of Yiddish life here and first of all in Israel. There is a Yiddish theater in Israel. Israel's Knesset established a new Yiddish authority, a governmental official agency, in order to preserve and promote Yiddish in Israel. But it is hard to predict as to its future in this century. Of course, Yiddish is well and alive inside the Orthodox community here. And there is a Yiddish revival inside the Jewish academic elite but it is not easy to preserve the heritage in the open society.

This film is being screened in this country from March on thanks to New Yorker Films (212-247-6110) and Susan Norget, P.R. and Marketing (212-477-3195) and is a must for everyone. You do not have to be Jewish in order to enjoy this touching production. One must praise the ones who are featuring in this film: Lillian, Mike, Susan and Fyvush Finkel, Shifra Lerer, Israel Becker and Mina Bern. All are 'stars' in the Yiddish Theater, the last of the Mohicans as well.

Arnon Goldfinger remarked: "I was attracted to this film because it has all the elements of a novel. Except one, the participants in the movie are actors..." The Komediant won many awards such as: the Israeli Academy Award, Haifa International Film Festival, Berlin Jewish Film Festival, and many other awards. The following is the film's synopsis:

The glory days of the Yiddish stage are brought to life in this bittersweet saga of a legendary theatrical family, the Bursteins.

Pesach Burstein, the dancing-singing comedian, was born in a small Jewish town in Poland in the late 19th century. Drawn to the disreputable profession of komediant (actor), fourteen-year old Pesach ran away from home to join a traveling troupe of Jewish actors - from that day on, the theater became his life.

Armed with an engaging ability to whistle, young Pesach arrived in New York in 1924 and quickly became a leading figure in the Golden Era of Yiddish theater. On stage, he met and fell in love with sixteen-year old rising star Lillian Lux. The couple would later marry and together embark on a triumphant acting tour of South America and Europe, only to narrowly escape on the last boat out of Poland in 1939.

After the war, the Bursteins became the parents of twins, Mike and Susan, who before long were given the stage names Motele and Zisele. By the age of seven, the two children were appearing regularly on the stage, accompanying their parents as they wandered around the globe in search of the dwindling Jewish communities of a decimated and dying Yiddish culture.

In time, the pressures of theatrical life would take its toll on the Bursteins. At age 18, stage-shy Susan would escape via early marriage, followed shortly thereafter by her brother Mike, whose solo success would leave Pesach and Lillian without their show's star attraction.

Smoothly incorporating rare archival footage and interviews with Yiddish stage veterans (including Fyvush Finkel and Shifra Lerer), this tightly edited, briskly paced documentary is as richly bittersweet - filled with laughter and tears, schmaltz and grit - as the Yiddish theater itself. The 'King' and soul of this family was: Pesach (Paul) Burstein was born in Warsaw, but moved to Berdiansk, Russia at age 6. By the age of 10 he joined a local circus, and by the age of 15 he ran away from home with a traveling Yiddish troupe, never seeing his parents again.

World War I found Burstein stuck in Poland and arrested by Russians as a spy. Escaping, he wandered as a minstrel from country to country, until in 1923, when Boris Tomashefsky brought him from Kovna, Lithuania, to star at the Nora Bayes Theater on Broadway. Beside his singing and dancing he was a renowned whistler. The Al Jolson Theater was situated in the same building as the Nora Bayes Theater, and by chance Pesach became acquainted with the man he found he had so much in common with, Al Jolson. Already having a 20-year contract with Columbia Records, Pesach was asked to record Jolson's song Sonny Boy, in the same studio as Jolson, on the same day, with the same orchestra.

After traveling worldwide as a star in Yiddish operettas, he returned to new York, and met actress Lillian Lux, 22 years his junior, who became his stage partner and eventually his wife. The newlyweds took off on an acting tour of Europe, which happened to end in August 1939, and were fortunate to leave on the last ship, before the outbreak of war.

Eventually he became the father of twins in 1945 and settled with his family in Israel. Wandering around the globe, his children learned their "trade" in their father's theater, while attending 14 schools all over the world.

The Burstein Family made history in Israel with The Megilla of Itzik Manger, which they played for more than 400 times. Pesach appeared in the movie Salach Shabati, and also sang and whistled in the Israeli Oscar winning movie The Two Kuni Lemels, in which his son Mike starred. Pesach Burstein appeared in dozens of plays in his lifetime, but was best known for The Komediant and A Village Wedding. His costumes from both shows are on display at the Jewish Heritage museum in New York.

His memoirs were serialized in Di Letzte Nayes (The Last News), before being published in a book titled Geshpielt a Leben (What a Life!) - The Syracuse University Press is currently publishing the English translation. Lillian Lux, who lives with us, active and charming in the film as in life, lives to tell the legend of the Burstein family and about its saga, legacy and contribution to the Yiddish theater. All these aspects radiate from this great film, The Komediant.

Lillian Lux - At age 6, Lillian's father brought her to Maurice Schwartz Yiddish Art Theater where she played children rolls until the age of 12. She learned her craft as a child watching the greats of the Yiddish Theater. She also became popular on Yiddish radio programs, which were then relevant in New York.

At age 15, Lillian played a primadona role at the famous 2nd Avenue Theater, followed by a partnership with Danny Kaye in Summer Stock before she joined Pesach Burstein's troupe when she was 17, traveling with them to Argentina as Leading Lady. When she turned 18, Lillian married Pesach in Montevideo, Uruguay, and appeared with him in London, Paris, Belgium and Poland.

Lilly and Pesach would later appear in the Catskill Mountains together with the young Jerry Lewis and his parents. In 1943 they opened their own theater, The Hopkinson, in Brooklyn and in 1945 she became a mother to twins, Michael and Susan.

In 1952, the family traveled worldwide with the Yiddish theater, settling in Israel, where eventually her son became an Israeli star (her daughter Susan would leave the theater to marry). Their greatest success was The Megilla of Itzik Manger, which was brought to The Golden Theater on Broadway in 1968, and to South America and South Africa.

As an author and songwriter, Lilly wrote several of the musicals played by her family. She is a member of SAG, AEA, ASCAP and a board member of the Hebrew Actors Union. Her recent appearances were: Law and Order on T.V. and the film the Body with Antonio Banderas, filmed in Israel, as well as Salah with Topol. She is currently appearing on a weekly radio show called Yiddish Stars of Yesterday on W.E.V.D. In her spare time Lillian is reading for the blind at the Jewish Braille Institute.

Her husband's memoirs: Geshpielt a Leben was penned by her and her English translation is currently being published by the Syracuse University Press entitled What a Life! Harvard University has accepted the Burstein family archives.

Since Pesach's death, Lillian has returned to Israel several times, joining her son Mike Burstyn who has been playing his father's roles in The Komediant and A Village Wedding.

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