OY IS DUS A LEBEN: A TRIBUTE TO THE GREAT WOMEN OF THE YIDDISH THEATRE as part of the ASHKENAZ FESTIVAL OF NEW YIDDISH CULTURE Sunday (August 31), 9 pm. Enwave Theatre (231 Queens Quay West). $18-$25. 416-973-4000.
When I meet Theresa Tova at an Annex coffee shop, she's being hit on by a stranger in Yiddish.
For the Gemini and Dora Award-winning actor, who currently spends more time interpreting Jewish folk and theatre songs than characters in films and plays, the language is such an integral part of life that she barely blinks at her would-be suitor's choice of words. The language is all around Tova lately, especially because of A Tribute To The Great Women Of The Yiddish Theatre, debuting at the Ashkenaz Festival on Sunday.
Combining her love for performing with her passion for the personalities who dominated the Jewish musical stage in its heyday before World War II, the concert hints at a larger theatrical project in the works.
"I'm an actor first and foremost," says Tova, who recently spent several weeks in New York City digging into original scores, reviews and performers' biographies at the world's largest library for Eastern European Jewish and Yiddish studies, the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, to select her repertoire.
"I'm always serving the lyrics."
Songs chosen from the operettas of the late 1800s, novelty shows of the 1910s, melodramas of the 1920s and swing-era musicals of the 1930s cover a range of genres. Their common thread is the strength of the actors who originally performed them.
"These were incredibly ballsy women who were way ahead of their time," she says.
Some, like Jenny Goldstein, dealt with still controversial issues like childbirth out of wedlock. Others, like Sophia Karp - who, when her mother refused to allow her to perform until she married, wed the sole single member of a Yiddish theatre company, becoming the first woman to act in one - were groundbreakers.
Characters like Bessie Tomashevsky, who when told her songs were too risqué responded with the double entendre ("But my audiences love a good little piece of material"), were simply larger than life.
"What I'm trying to do is find the gems that I think deserve to have life breathed into them again," says Tova, who, in much the same way jazz singers reinterpret Broadway tunes, has been working on fresh arrangements of the Yiddish numbers to appeal to current sensibilities.
"I'm trying to look at which of those old tunes deserve to be reinterpreted because those lyrics are still so profoundly important today," she explains.
"Last year, someone said that when they listen to me they think of what Yiddish music would have naturally gravitated toward if Hitler hadn't happened. With the greatest respect, I'm just making sure this music is being brought out of the museum."