This Week in JPL History: Break a leg!

Theatre has long been a part of the JPL. We have partnered with Montreal institutions such as the Centaur Theatre and the Saidye Bronfman Theatre, as well as to staged our own productions directed by seasoned professionals. Over the years, we have had dozens of Hebrew and Russian play readings directed by people such as Dr. Aviva Ravel and Gregory Ziskin.

Dr. Ravel is the author of more than twenty-five plays, numerous short stories, and works of non-fiction. Her plays touch on Jewish life throughout the world, though they most often are set in Montreal. The playwright often explores subject matter such as Jewish marriage, multiculturalism and those who are marginalized. Her works have been featured on the CBC, Kol Isreal, and at the Segal Centre. Two of her plays were also adapted into film.

She is the recipient of many awards including the Women Write for Theatre Award, J.I. Segal Award, Women’s Press Club Award for Humour, Québec Drama Festival Award, Women’s Federation Honoree for Contribution to Montreal Theatre, and the Ministry of Cultural Affairs of Québec Award. Most recently, she was honoured by the Association for Canadian Theatre Research. The JPL-Archives has an Aviva Ravel Fonds, which contains her biography, photographs, correspondence, scholarly works by Dr. Ravel and promotional material for her works.

Dora Wasserman (right) was a Yiddish theatre titan

Another theatre powerhouse who was closely affiliated with the JPL is Dora Wasserman, who ran a theatre youth group at the JPL for nearly two decades.

Wasserman was born in the Ukraine in 1919.  At the tender age of sixteen, she began rigorous studies at the Jewish Theater of Moscow (the GOSET). She graduated in 1939, after 4 years of formation with great masters, including Solomon Mikhoels. With her diploma, Dora left Moscow for the Ukraine, but WWII forced her to move to Kazakhstan. She performed theater tours in Uzbekistan and in Tadjikistan. Here she met Sam Wasserman, a Polish refugee, whom she married in 1943.  They survived the war, but heard nothing from her family for decades. The family joined the flow of refugees moving from one transit camp to another, finally arriving in Vienna. At the Rothschild Hospital, Dora  began to boost the morale of refugees by performing, creating programs and entertaining in various displaced persons camps. The family moved to Montreal in 1950.

Intent on finding work, Dora approached various Yiddish cultural and community organizations. She began recitations in schools, singing for organizations, performing at festivals and conventions. She also began the children’s theatre troupe at the JPL, drawing on her experience with the Tyuz Children’s Theater in Kiev. She ran the theatre youth group for almost twenty years, and went on to found the Yiddish Drama Group in 1956, which was largely composed of her pupils from the youth group. She often encouraged non-Yiddish speaking actors to perform in her plays and her audiences were also often a diverse group.

Between 1974 and 1988 Wasserman worked with Isaac Bashevis, adapting six of his works for her company, among them In My Father’s Court (1974), Yentl (1979), Gimpel The Fool (1982) and The Ball (based on The Gentleman from Frampol) (1988). In 1992 her Yiddish version of Les Belles Soeurs by Michel Tremblay received a vibrant staging, fostering ties with Montreal’s Francophone community.

In 1992, Wasserman was awarded the Order of Canada.  In 1996 she handed direction of the Montreal Yiddish Theater to her daughter Bryna. She passed away in 2003.

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