When Billy Finkelstein brought his new girlfriend Keila to the Yiddish theater, they expected a fun cheap date. Instead, they discovered an entire culture – and a family.
Billy Finkelstein of the McGill Redmen marching band sat in the middle of the McGill gymnasium conducting flag-bearer auditions for the 1968 football season when he saw a beautiful woman strut into the room. During the audition that followed, Billy demonstrated a fancy about-turn. The beautiful woman was a bit nervous and forgot the steps. But, being a classically trained dancer, she improvised and did a full pirouette. Her name was Keila, and she won the job – and a place in Billy’s heart.
That very same year, a Yiddish theater pioneer named Dora Wasserman was planning to stage her first full scale musical in the newly-opened Saidye Bronfman Centre for the Arts. The Yiddish Theater required a small band, and Billy was suggested as the new saxophone player. Billy agreed, and brought his new girlfriend, Keila, to rehearsals. “There was a lot of down-time during the rehearsal process to get to know each other, plus, we were students, we joked that it was a great cheap date,” Billy recalls with a grin. More than that, they found people they genuinely loved. “We had such fun and made friends that we still have to this day,” says Billy. “The Yiddish theater really became our second family.”
According to anyone who knew Dora, she created a family atmosphere in her theater that was contagious. “Dora loved people, and family and she loved cast parties,” says Billy. “We would sing. The piano would be going,” Keila nodded in agreement. “Dora would give amazing speeches in Yiddish then break into English for the Yiddish impaired like Billy.” During one such cast party, Dora overheard Keila translating for Billy, and—having always assumed Keila was Spanish—nearly fell over with shock and delight. Keila, it turned out, was born in Ecuador, but she was also Jewish. During her childhood, she had shared a room with her Yiddish-speaking Bubby, and, as it turned out, was completely fluent.
Keila and Billy in the Yiddish Theater’s production of Uncle Moses, 1980.
The show proved to be very successful, and was offered an extension, but some of the dancers had already committed to new projects. Keila, who had watched countless rehearsals while being wooed by Billy, danced her way onto the stage – and she’s been there ever since. After his tenure in the band, Dora asked Billy if he would like to get on stage too. “I didn’t know a word of Yiddish, and it sounded ridiculous when I tried to speak it,” recalls Billy. But Dora found a solution, first casting him as an English teacher and, in the following show, as the village deaf-mute. “It was a slow start,” laughs Keila, “but he went from no Yiddish to speaking lines phonetically, to really learning the language.”
Billy and Keila were married in 1971 and like a good comedic drama, Keila went into labour with their first child during a multi-language sing-song at a Yiddish theater cast party. The couple’s two girls, Audrey and Stephanie, were raised in the theater. “In fact,” says Keila, “I danced with them on stage while they were still in utero.” The girls, now in their thirties with families of their own, were involved in theater from the time they were very young. When Stephanie became Bialik High School’s Yiddish Valedictorian in 1995, she thanked her family and the woman who taught her the cultural side of Yiddish; Dora.
The Yiddish theater also allowed the Finkelsteins to give back to the Jewish community – both locally and globally. The volunteer troupe travelled extensively during the 80’s and 90’s, visiting local summer camps and community centres giving children a taste of a Jewish language and culture that they otherwise would not have been exposed to. And they went all the way to Israel, and to Europe, in order to bring the Yiddish theater back to the very villages and towns where it had been eradicated by the Nazis.
In one particularly moving experience, the Finkelsteins and their cast-mates performed Those Were the Days in Prague, Czech Republic, to 150 elderly Jewish Holocaust survivors. “It was a real privilege being able to bring back wonderful memories for them – memories of childhood, of a time before the war when they experienced Yiddish theater in their communities, which no longer exist.”
“At one show in Amsterdam we sang at a seniors’ residence. An elderly man was there, who had been in a vegetative state for years as the result of dementia. When he heard the Yiddish songs, he woke up, and started to move to the music. Moments like that, you just don’t forget.”
After 45 years in the Yiddish theater, Keila is happy to report that Billy can finally hold a fluent conversation in the language. That is, of course, if he replies using lines from plays they’ve been in over the years. Keila, still fluent as ever, is now busy passing on the language to a whole new generation; their four year old granddaughter.
This Summer The Dora Wasserman Yiddish Theatre in association with the Côte Saint-Luc Dramatic Society present The Producers – A New Mel Brooks Musical in Yiddish with English and French supertitles – June 19 to July 10. For tickets call the Segal Centre 514.739.7944 – Segalcentre.org .