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A Yiddish diva! Requiem for a fabulous woman in Avraham Heffner's film Laura Adler's Last Love.

Abstract: Avraham Heffner's film Laura Adler's Last Love (Israel, 1990)focuses on an admired Israeli Yiddish theatre star and her colleagues in a Tel Aviv theatre company in the 1980s. This essay reviews the cinematic articulation of the actress performing in a diasporic, almost forgotten Yiddish language while living in a Zionist Israeli culture dominated by the Hebrew language. The film presents Yiddish diva Adler's as a member of several minorities simultaneously, struggling to maintain her disappearing heritage. She is often depicted as a melodramatic, colorful and campy drama queen, hence revealing the theatricality and arbitrariness of mundane heteronormative codes of sexual (mis)conduct and opens.


Avraham Heffner's film Laura Adler's Last Love (Israel, 1990) focuses on an admired Israeli Yiddish theatre star and her colleagues in a Tel Aviv theatre company in the 1980s, her success, love life, intense relationship with her longtime female companion and personal assistant, and the star's terminal disease. The cinematic articulation of the actress focuses on her performance in a diasporic, almost-forgotten Yiddish language, living in a Zionist Israeli culture dominated by the Hebrew language. (1) As a member of a linguistic minority, Laura Adler (Rita Zohar) feels like a foreign star, an exile in her own country. She is admired by her fellow actors and actresses in the theatre group performing Yiddish plays in small theatres for a decreasing number of elderly audiences, recycling cliched melodramatic plots full of romantic intrigues, sexist jokes, Jewish-Orthodox Hassidic dancing and emotional dialogues.

The Yiddish theatre, as exposed in Heffner's film, is a theatre whose glory has long passed. The Yiddish shows and films that had flourished in the United States, mainly between 1927-1940, generated several divas who enthralled their audiences, mostly East European Jewish immigrants, oscillating between separation and segregation in the Jewish cultural ghetto, and assimilation in the Anglo-Saxon, gentile (mass) culture. Among the significant divas of the golden age of Yiddish musicals and films in New York were Miriam Kressyn and Molly Picon. The latter performed in the highly popular Yiddish film Yidle Mitn Fidl (in Yiddish: "Jew with the Fiddle"), directed by Joseph Green and Jan Nowina-Przybylski in Poland in 1936. In this unusual film, produced 47 years before Barbara Streisand's Yentl, a woman is masquerades as a man in order to join a group of Jewish musicians in a shtetl, a typical Jewish township in Poland. Other famous Yiddish divas include the Andrew Sisters--Patty, Maxene and LaVerne Andrew--known for their hit song from 1938 Bei Mir Bist Du Schon (in Yiddish: "You are so handsome to me").

Laura Adler, as an actress in a non-established unsubsidized Yiddish repertory theatre in (Hebrew) Tel Aviv in the 1980s, is (self)secluded from the Israeli cultural consensus. Encouraged by an American female producer who wishes to cast her in a Hollywood film, Laura Adler is a diva with certain mannerisms (fashionably late for rehearsals, sleeping in a king-size bed, taking casual young male lovers, and with a devoted female assistant), who is doomed to live in a liminal space between the diasporic and the Israeli, the professional and the amateur.

Notably, Laura's private life is a continuation of her melodramatic performance on stage. At the beginning of the film, Sabitch (Menashe Varshavsky), an old actor who has been hopelessly in love with her for years, proposes to marry her during a rehearsal. For a moment, this appears to be an integral part of one of the simplistic melodramas of this Yiddish theatre, but eventually, this situation is seen as "real," not based on a written script but reflecting the annoying, effeminate Sabitch's authentic feelings. (2) Later, Laura arrives at her own birthday party in the wedding dress in which she performs in the show. In the morning, after her young male lover (Raffi Tavor) has disappeared, she wanders by the Tel Aviv Hilton hotel's shopping arcade in the same dress. The performance on stage is thus analogized and paralleled to the protagonist's actual life.

The Yiddish play performed by the Yiddish theatre company is a twisted family melodrama, focusing on 16year-old Rochaleh (played by Laura Adler), who falls in love with Itcheh. They are thrown out from their homes and Rochaleh goes to Naples, where she becomes a prostitute. After Rochaleh's villainous father is bankrupted and Itches's sister dies, the father finds his daughter in the italian brothel. In the happy ending, Rochaleh forgives him, marries itcheh, and they all immigrate to America. This narrative, inspired by popular romantic literature of the 19th century, and the subsequent radio shows and TV soap operas, resounds with excessive emotional situations and acting replete with pathos.

After Laura Adler is diagnosed with cancer she refuses to stay in the hospital and have the surgery that could save her life. in her refusal, she effectively sentences herself to death. This is not a simple death, however, but a continuous, fascinating requiem for a fabulous woman, whose agonies are portrayed as melodramatization of real life, or, rather, as a poetic-realistic version of the melodramatic pattern. "I won't have an operation. I won't take pills. I won't have radiotherapy. I'm an actress!" the diva tells Becky (Shulamit Adar), her personal assistance. When her pain gets worse, she admits: "I'm not a heroine," and asks Becky to help her to commit suicide, but Becky refuses. As the spectacle of agony and the cries of the suffering star--fading to a black screen--intensify, an excerpt from an old black-and-white-Yiddish film is shown on screen, analogizing the dying of Adler and the dying of Yiddish theatre.

Laura Adler dies on stage during her performance. Old Sabitch bows down, holding the dead Laura in his arms in a classical Pieta position. This amazing grace is interrupted by the crying of Becky, Laura's closest friend. This is a picture of a love triangle between Laura, Becky and Sabitch. The relationship between Laura and Becky resonates with love, devotion, sacrifice, solidarity, sisterhood and a symbiotic attachment. According to Brett Farmer, the divas (e.g. Marilyn Dietrich with her men's suits and her bisexual romantic affairs) often subvert conventional forms of erotic identities and sexualities, and thus can often be understood as highly queer subjectivities. (3)

Significantly, queer Israeli viewers are able to identify with Laura Adler's happiness and hardship, and her particular subaltern position as a member of several minorities at the same time. As a Yiddish performer in a Hebrew dominated culture and society, she belongs to a decadent, diasporic socio-linguistic culture struggling to maintain her almost-disappearing heritage, unaccepted by both Ashkanazi (western-Jewish origin) and Sephardi (eastern-Jewish origin) Hebrew speakers. This situation can be analogized to the queer communities' efforts not to assimilate within the mainstream but to maintain their lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender people's history, culture, sisterhood/brotherhood, bonding and solidarity.

The Yiddish diva is often depicted in this film as a melodramatic, colorful, and campy drama queen, revealing the theatricality and arbitrariness of mundane heteronormative codes of sexual (mis)conduct. Queer viewers can also suggest a genuine reading of Laura Adler's intimate (albeit not sexual) relationship with her longtime companion, her assistant and flat-mate Becky; a relationship that is characterized by love, jealousy, devotion, caring and admiration. (4) Becky's almost obsessive devotion for Laura, and the fact that she herself has never been involved in a relationship with a man (unlike Laura's one-night affair with a young man at her birthday party) may be interpreted as Becky's unfulfilled, perhaps unachievable, love for the apparently straight diva. In this respect, many queer people, who fall in love with straight people, can easily identify with Laura's (and Becky's) last love.


(1) This linguistic conflict echoes the debate between educators in the Jewish secular community in Palestine in the early 20th century, who wished to teach their classes in German, French, Yiddish (a Jewish language, written in Hebrew letters, based on ancient German developed in Europe in the 9th century), and their rival, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda (1858-1922) who demanded that classes should be taught exclusively in (modem) Hebrew. In 1922 the British Mandate government proclaimed Hebrew as one of the country's official language, together with Arabic and English. Since the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, Yiddish has been perceived by the Zionist Jewish majority as old-fashioned, diasporic and irrelevant language, while modern Hebrew nationally symbolizes the powerful New Jewish (see Daniel Boyarin, Unheroic Conduct: The Rise of Heterosexuality and the Invention of the Jewish Male. Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press, 1997). Currently, in the 2000s, there are only 3 million Yiddish speakers in the world, mostly in Europe and the United States, and only 215,000 Israelis still speak Yiddish (about 3 percents of the Jewish population), many of them belonging to the Orthodox Jewish communities, while the others are secular or traditional Israelis of Jewish East-European origins.

(2) Nurith Gertz, "The Israeli Vision and the Yiddish Vision: Laura Adler's Last Love" [in Hebrew], Motar 9 (2001): 19-23.

(3) Brett Farmer, Spectacular Passions: Cinema, Fantasy, Gay Male Spectatorships (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2000).

(4) Alexander Doty, in Flaming the Classics: Queering the Film Canon (New York and London: Routlcdge, 2000), pointedly suggests that we live in an era when only the most insistently ignorant still think all straights or all gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and other queers look and act the same. Doty wonders: "Why do most people still register 'queer' only when confronted with visual and aural codes drawn from a narrow (and often pejoratively charged) range?" (p.3)

Dr. Gilad Padva teaches at the Film & TV Department at Tel Aviv University; the Department of Photographic Communication at Hadassah College Jerusalem; and Beit Berl College, Israel. His mail address: Dr. Gilad Padva, P.O. Box 39985 Tel Aviv, Israel. His e-mail address:
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Author:Padva, Gilad
Publication:Women and Language
Geographic Code:7ISRA
Date:Mar 22, 2007
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