Minstrels mined joy of Yiddish culture

`Komediant' caught the ups, downs of Bursteins

Movie Review

July 05, 2002|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Arnon Goldfinger's group portrait of the Yiddish actor and song-and-dance man Pesach'ke Burstein and his family troupe is the documentary equivalent of a page-turner, filled with anecdotes that echo through a century-spanning saga and moments that define more than one generation at a time.

Born into the tight-knit, observant Jewish communities of Eastern Europe in 1906 (he lived first in Poland, then in Russia), Burstein fled home at age 15, when he hooked up with a traveling Yiddish troupe. He saw his mother one more time, his father never again. Pesach'ke's decision to turn his back on his family for Jewish secular culture unearths the seeds of an archetypal story that took hold in America with Al Jolson's The Jazz Singer.

Pesach'ke was already renowned as a Yiddish-operetta star and a wandering minstrel when the legendary Boris Tomashevsky brought him from Lithuania to New York in 1923, during the heyday of America's Yiddish theater. Deftly knitting the reminiscences of Yiddish stage vets like Fyvush Finkel (still going strong on TV's Boston Public) with archival stills and footage, Goldfinger evokes the competitive energy of that churning theatrical subculture. (After watching James Lipton genuflect toward acting-teacher legends like Stella Adler on Inside the Actors Studio, it's a kick to learn that the Hebrew Actors Union rejected her.)

Known for his birdlike whistle as well as his way with a tune, Burstein became a Yiddish singing sensation for Columbia Records. He recorded his Yiddish version of "Sonny Boy" as soon as Jolson left the studio after doing his English version, and Burstein used the identical sound-studio setup and orchestra.

In 1937, he met the 16-year-old budding Yiddish diva Lillian Lux, fell for her and proposed during a South American tour. Their seat-of-the-pants theatrical lifestyle - and tunnel vision - nearly ended their careers catastrophically. So immersed were they in entertaining and in meeting their play-dates, they apparently didn't realize that Hitler would soon be knocking on their stage door. During the European leg of a worldwide tour in 1939, they made the last steamship out of Poland before the Nazis marched in.

The Burstein chronicle resonates with all the upheavals of the 20th century: pogroms, world wars, fascism, the re-routing of Jewish refugees and their re-rooting in the United States and Israel. It also epitomizes the personal tensions that a clan can generate when the family business happens to be show biz. After World War II, Pesach'ke and Lillian had twins, Michael and Susan. who became part of their parents' act. Only Mike was a natural showman; Susan yearned for stability and chafed at the spotlight thrown on the most momentous scenes of their lives - such as the on-stage celebration of their bar and bat mitzvah.

Everything goes topsy-turvy for the Bursteins in the '50s and '60s. The forward-looking, Hebrew-speaking state of Israel initially shuns Yiddish culture. Susan leaves the troupe at age 18 to marry a much older man and live a more religious life. (Pesach'ke was 22 years older than Lillian when they wed.)

Susan's family comes to her wedding in makeup after the performance of their show - a last-minute arrival almost as dire in domestic terms as missing that boat from Poland would have been, since to Susan it epitomizes the phony priorities of theater life. When Mike makes a splash in Israel as a stage and screen musical-comedy star, he decides he has to go his own way - and his departure signals the end of the troupe.

Goldfinger's strength as a filmmaker and group biographer keeps this movie taut and compelling. You feel him lifting a thread and weaving it back in like a master novelist. For example, a supporting character, Israel Becker, once helped a rival performer in Poland steal one of Pesach'ke's beloved shows. When Becker becomes a movie writer-director in Israel after the Bursteins' successful return there in the early '60s, he offers Mike the star-making lead in his new film, Two Kuni-Leml - and, to assuage his guilty conscience, gives Pesach'ke a supporting part, too. Witnesses like Becker bind the globetrotting narrative together and put it into a universal context of theatrical impresarios and schemers.

Most important, by separately interviewing the three surviving Bursteins - Lillian Lux, Susan Burstein-Roth and Mike Burstyn (his chosen spelling) - and juxtaposing their sometimes-clashing memories, Goldfinger arrives at piercing comic-dramatic complexities.

It's fitting that the poster for The Komediant features quotes from Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner. At times, this documentary resembles a Yiddish parody of Rashomon that Brooks and Reiner could have cooked up for Sid Caesar. To borrow half a saying from Godard, this is a terrific documentary because the jokes are funny and the tears are real.

The Komediant

What: A documentary directed by Arnon Goldfinger

Released by New Yorker Films

Rating Unrated

Running time 85 minutes

Sun Score * * * 1/2

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