Making Yiddish Hip, Heymish & Hot

For Eleanor Reissa, the stage is often crowded. No matter what role she is playing or what tunes she is belting out, Reissa’s late parents and grandparents and other Holocaust survivors she has known are always present, right next to her.

For Eleanor Reissa, the stage is often crowded. No matter what role she is playing or what tunes she is belting out, Reissa’s late parents and grandparents and other Holocaust survivors she has known are always present, right next to her. 

“You don’t know it when you look at me, but you are seeing them,” she says. 

Reissa is an acclaimed actor, singer, director, impresario, writer, comedian, translator, choreographer; she skates between the Yiddish and English worlds, at home in both. At heart, she’s a storyteller. Sometimes she’s telling her own story and that of her parents, Ruth Hoff and Chaskel Schlusselberg. Other times, she’s retelling others’ stories, in the theatrical roles in which she is cast, channeling her craft. 

“It’s my interpretation of someone else’s story, my feet slipping into someone else’s shoes. Their shoes, but my feet.” 

Those feet are graceful and energetic. She recently danced onstage in the Broadway production of “Indecent,” and sways her hips in sequined dresses while singing in her own cabaret-style shows or accompanying bands. Music seems to lift her from mournfulness. She has managed to turn the hole in her heart into art. Amidst the sadness, she’s also very funny. 

I’ve followed her over these last months, as she was prepping backstage in a Boston theater, taping a podcast in a Manhattan studio, singing American and Yiddish standards at City Vineyard, chatting in her sunny apartment in an Upper West Side brownstone and in cafes and on calls. The voice is steady, authentic, reflective and resilient. She dives deep, and more than once her words bring on tears. She speaks English with the warmth, zest and soulfulness of Yiddish, her first language. 

That she loves what she does is clear, and these are busy times for Reissa. She’s directing Paddy Chayefsky’s “The Tenth Man” for the National Yiddish Theater Folksbiene, in an original translation into Yiddish that she did with Harvey Varga. “Der Tsenter,” The Tenth, opens in May. She recently finished a starring run in “We All Fall Down,” Lila Rose Kaplan’s new play that premiered at the Huntington Theatre Company in Boston. She’d been traveling to New York, Philadelphia and Boston with Paul Shapiro’s Ribs & Brisket Revue presenting “The Music of Mrs. Maisel”—described as American standards with Yiddish flair—with tunes of the Barry Sisters, Connie Francis and others. She sings in English and Yiddish in a voice that’s torchy and sweet. 

Internationally, she travels as vocalist with Frank London and his Klezmer Brass All-Stars and says, “I feel like I’m in a rock band, in Yiddish.” She had planned to highlight a show in April at Symphony Space, “Zol Zayn: Yiddish Poetry into Song,” alongside London, Anglo-Indian percussionist Deep Singh, Radical Jewish Culture guitarist Yoshie Fruchter and others. 

Reissa is a bridge between the generation of wonderfully talented Yiddish actors and musicians who grew up immersed in Yiddish, and those of a younger generation who have rediscovered the language anew and bring to it a hip sensibility. She shares the polished old school talent and the vibrancy of the new. She’s very much a force in reigniting the Yiddish imagination. 

And in English, she recently appeared in the HBO miniseries, “The Plot Against America,” as Philip Roth’s grandmother (a character not in the book; the mother of Winona Ryder and Zoe Kazan on screen). She plays opposite Ron Rifkin in a new movie by Eric Steele to be released later this year: “Minyan,” set in 1987 Brighton Beach. 

“Sometimes I feel like Little Jack Horner. I stuck in my thumb and pulled out a plum,” she says. “Holy mackerel. Look at who I get to work with. How great to be in the company of such excellence.” 

“She is an extraordinarily gifted artist” says Melia Bensussen, artistic director of Hartford Stage, who directed the recent Huntington Theater production of “We All Fall Down.” 

“While many in the theater are capable of practicing different aspects of the craft, it’s extraordinary for someone to do so at Reissa’s degree of expertise and accomplishment.” When I ask if Bensussen senses those generations of loved ones that Reissa describes as surrounding her on stage, she laughs and says, “Very much so. There’s an energy and fullness in everything she does. I can feel her history.” 

Eleanor Reissa in her Manhattan apartment. Photographed by Joan Roth, December 11,2019.

To Reissa, the theater is about “the community that has stood shoulder to shoulder to create an imagined world that didn’t exist before and the audience who shares the anonymity of the darkness together and laughs and weeps as one. That’s different from books or other art.” 

“I try to tell the truth in my work,” she says “I come from people who felt the truth was dangerous. It was better not to tell the truth. I didn’t know that was lying.” 

Born in the East New York section of Brooklyn, her parents were about to name her Alta Rishe Schlusselberg, but a doctor intervened, and someone suggested Eleanor, perhaps for Eleanor Roosevelt. Both of her parents had been previously married in Europe, with families. Her mother and her mother’s parents survived by fleeing from Bilgoraj, Poland, to Uzbekistan and her mother’s first husband abandoned them. Her father’s first wife and daughter were murdered in 1942, and he survived Auschwitz. Her parents were cousins who met after the war in Ulm, Germany, and married in the U.S. One half-brother lived with them in Brooklyn, and her father’s son—whose existence she learned about only when she was about 13—was in England. Her parents worked hard in New York; he in a paintbrush factory and she in a garment factory. When Eleanor was six they divorced. 

Reissa attended public schools, and praises her teachers, many of whom were Jewish men trying to avoid the draft. For about 10 years beginning when she was three, she attended ballet school weekly, with a Russian teacher. Her mother sewed beautiful costumes for their recitals. 

“That was a beginning,” she says. Her mother took her to see “Swan Lake” at Lincoln Center and her father took her to her first Broadway show, “The Zulu and the Zayda” set in South Africa. Her own first production was “Peter Pan” in third grade. Later on, in seventh grade, she played Emily, who comes back from the dead, in “Our Town,” a theme that has carried over in her career. 

All along, her plan was to become a math teacher. A tough course in calculus at Brooklyn College made her reconsider. In those days—the mid-1970s—she got involved in politics and street theater. The first Off-Off Broadway play she acted in was “The Horrors of Dr. Moreau,” adapted from an H.G. Wells novel. Then, she was still Eleanor Schlusselberg, not yet thinking of theater as a career. 

She has always worked hard, and enjoys it. At 16, she heard of a job opening for a switchboard operator at a hotel in the Catskills. To get the job, she went to a neighboring hotel and asked their operator to teach her. When she showed up for her interview already trained, she was hired. Throughout her career, she has pushed herself toward such boldness. During the summers and on weekends through college, she supported herself—her father got her a car and she moved into her own apartment in Brooklyn at 17—by waiting tables in the Catskills, a step up from staffing the phones. Proudly, she says, she could carry 16 main dishes at a time, just like her male counterparts. 

One of the waiters was stage-managing a national tour of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and invited her to join their cast. Until then, her acting had been in experimental theatre. 

Eleanor Reissa and Cilla Owens with Paul Shapiro’s Ribs and Brisket band, photographed by Joan Roth, December 26, 2019.
Eleanor Reissa and Cilla Owens with Paul Shapiro’s Ribs and Brisket band, photographed by Joan Roth,
December 26, 2019.

She says she didn’t know what she was doing, but auditioned for a small role and got it, along with an Actor’s Equity card and salary for six months. 

“I never waited tables again,” she says. 

Back in New York City after having a great time on the road, she saw an ad for a musical in Yiddish at Town Hall starring Mary Soreanu, “Rebecca the Rabbi’s Daughter.” She auditioned and got a role in the chorus in 1979. 

“I didn’t know enough to know that I didn’t know anything,” she says, repeating a refrain she voices a lot in talking about her career. Just as the cast was scheduled to go on tour after a successful run, Mary Soreanu got sick. Her husband, the producer, was about to cancel the tour when Reissa stepped up and suggested that she could play the lead. Offer accepted. “That put me on the little Yiddish map.” 

“Yiddish has reminded me that no matter how far I have wanted to run away, it kept me exactly where I belong, as a testament in some way to my family.” 

Soon after a gig at a regional theater in Alaska, she met Zalman Mlotek, then a musician and now artistic director of the National Yiddish Theater—Folksbiene. He invited her to join him in a Yiddish concert. That led to their collaborating on several shows along with Moshe Rosenfeld, including “The Golden Land,” a musical revue they created for the Forward’s 85th anniversary, and in which she performed. 

“This was the first time the youth had risen up; a talented batch of American Yiddish speakers were taking over the stage.” 

The producing team had a kind of break-up, so she was surprised when she was called to do another show with them, a Yiddish revue called “Those Were the Days.” In another of her bold moments, she negotiated to become director and choreographer. 

“I wanted my opinion to count,” she recalls. “It doesn’t count when you are an actor.” 

She put together a strong cast, with Bruce Adler, Mina Bern and others, and she also acted, sang and danced. Producer Manny Aizenberg came to see it, and she soon learned that her first directing job was going to Broadway. In 1991, she was nominated for a Tony. 

Once, the great choreographer Jerome Robbins came backstage after a performance, visibly moved by the production. She then wrote to thank him and his assistant for coming, and suggested that if they ever could use her to be in the room as they worked, she’d love that. Robbins was then exploring his life in dance for a still unfinished piece called “The Poppa Project” and invited her to attend rehearsals. “I sat in that room for two weeks,” she recalls, “just watching the most beautiful thing ever created, every day.” 

In the mid-90s, she got involved with the Folksbiene, and she and Mlotek became co-artistic directors, replacing the old guard. They pitched themselves as the new wave, wanting to bring new life to the Yiddish theater. One of their first shows was a modern play that Reissa wrote, “Zise Khaloymes,” Sweet Dreams, adapted into a musical. 

“I was determined that Yiddish be seen as a language that anyone can speak,” she says, as they tried to present Yiddish theater that was contemporary, multi-ethnic and multi-generational. While she stepped away from the co-directing role a few years later, she says she is grateful to remain connected to the company. 

Since then, she has directed a lot—including co-creating with Seth Rogovoy, directing and performing in Carnegie Hall’s sold-out “From Shtetl to Stage” program last year—although the beginnings weren’t easy. 

“I had a big mouth. That was not attractive, because I was a woman. I got too excited, too passionate. I didn’t think anyone was listening. They weren’t,” she says, adding, “My mother was a strong, opinionated, self-sufficient woman. Not happily so. She wished someone would have taken care of her, but she took care of herself. That’s where I come from.” 

“I had to stand on my own shoulders, and they weren’t very high,” she says. “There weren’t a lot of women directors. I fought very hard.” Over the years, she has learned to temper her anxiety and passions, gaining patience and trust. As she explains, “I was weak and I pressed hard. Now I am stronger and don’t have to press so hard.” 

“I didn’t go to Julliard or the Yale School of Drama. I learned by trial and error and observation so it took a little longer,” she says. “That is how I have lived. I raise my hand and then try to find out what the answer is. I want to play. I want to be picked. I want to be seen. I like the challenge of it all.” 

She watched sports a lot as a child, emulating her older brother. Her first dream was to be a football coach—she wanted to be the first female football coach. “I wanted to inspire and direct men. When I think of myself as a director, I came as close as I could to doing that.” 

Recently, she published a book of six plays, The Last Survivor and other Modern Jewish Plays, some of which have been produced. These plays are all about her, she admits, and they all end with the dead coming back to life in some form. 

In between directing and performing, she is now writing a book called “The Letters Project”—it’s the thing she says she now cares most about. Reissa, who is twice divorced, enjoys the solitude of her lakeside cabin in upstate New York for writing The letters refer to a collection of 60 letters that her father wrote to her mother in Germany, in German. She came upon them, as if by accident, in 1986 after her mother’s death. She didn’t know that her mother spoke German. Since she didn’t understand the German, she put them aside, to pick them up 30 years later, in 2017, when she decided to have them translated. 

She learned, among other things, about her father’s life in Germany in the 1930s and about his first wife and daughter. The following summer, Reissa traveled to his town, Stryzw, in the Carpathian Mountains, and found other documents. And she learned things about her parents and about herself that she is still processing as she completes the memoir. She admits that she’s not sure if her mother left the letters for her to find, years after she and Reissa’s father divorced, and then years after his death. 

“To be in front of my father’s pain and anguish and the horror of his life—I’ve spent so much time acting as though I can handle it, but in fact taking it in is really too much,” she says. “You don’t know where your journey goes. I look at the body of my work for the last 40 years and I see where I am now, in terms of every single thing that I’m doing. You could tie it up with a bow in a box, a big box.” 

Reissa is more than ready to speak publicly about the Shoah. There’s much that she wants to say to students, and hopes to do so, perhaps in connection with a recent project for Yale University’s Fortunoff Archive for Holocaust Testimonies. She narrates a new podcast series, “Those Who Were There: Voices from the Holocaust,” unfolding the plainspoken stories of survivors to provide a historical record. 

“I have one foot in this world and another foot in this other world. I know the survivors and know the world without survivors. I knew them, I saw them, I touched them, I love them, I can tell about them,” she says. 

Reissa was raised with a sense of European Jewish Orthodoxy, with her observant grandparents living nearby. She grew up sitting upstairs in the women’s section of their shul. She used to believe in God and feel comforted by religion, but for the last decades her spiritual life has been different, spent searching for her parents, “for their spirit, their company. I felt like I wanted to connect.” 

She searched for synagogues where she would feel at home, but came to see that she really didn’t believe in God. “I believe in the spirits of dead people. I do believe that the souls of the departed are occasionally accessible.” 

She participates in the Jewish traditions of mourning and remembrance, and also enjoys the rituals of Passover and Chanukah. Sometimes she lights Shabbat candles. “It’s about bringing light into my life,” she says. 

Always leaning toward progressive values, she says there was a time when she didn’t worry much about anti-Semitism but now feels very frightened. “When do you know if history is repeating itself ?” she asks. “When do you know if it’s time to run away? We can’t see into the future so all you can do is look at signs. The current situation scares me. I fear for our democracy and I fear totalitarianism. 1945 was 75 years ago, so the ink is still wet. It affects me a lot, daily; it colors some of my day.” 

In her last show at Feinstein’s, she performed her own translation of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is My Land” into Yiddish (substituting the Ketzkill Bergn, Catskill Mountains, for the Redwood forest, closer to the Jewish immigrant experience), expressing her deeply felt wishes for a fair, peaceful, educated and open land. 

Reissa is well aware of the miracles in her life. She says, “Like Goldilocks, the shoe fits, it’s just right. I’m my own prince. That’s important. I’m single and I was kind of looking for a partner with a house on a lake. I found one and it was me. It’s really empowering. I don’t need to find someone to get me what I want. I can get it myself.” 

“I have a life of enormous richness that I didn’t always recognize and appreciate,” she says. “I do now. Most of the time. I’ve had a lot of plenty.” 

For Reissa, feeling her absent family nearby gives her courage. 

“It makes me feel less afraid and less alone. And I feel like I come from something. Sometimes I sing to them, when I have to say the word ‘mother’ or ‘father’ or ‘love’ in a play, they come up. The images that stimulate me as an artist are them.” 

Sandee Brawarsky, an award-winning journalist and editor, is the culture editor of The Jewish Week and author of several books, most recently 212 Views of Central Park: Viewing New York City’s Jewel from Every Angle