The lights dim. An elderly Jewish man wearing a turn-of-the-century cap and vest greets audience members with smiles and Yiddish salutations. Others join him on stage. With a backdrop of a tiny Eastern European village, they break into a spirited rendition of "Main Steitale," their mellifluous voices and impassioned dances conjuring up images of a Jewish world of yore.
So begins the musical "The Great Lottery Ticket," by Sholom Aleichem, one of 12 plays presented this season in Yiddish by the Jewish State Theater of Bucharest.
In a country with a Jewish population of only 14,000 - down from a prewar high of nearly 800,000 - and shrinking, the Jewish Theater helps keep the flame of Judaism flickering deep in the heart of the Balkans.
"This is a part of my life," says Victor Barladeanu. "I've been coming here for almost 50 years."
Some of Romania's finest actors and directors have honed their talents at the theater. Romania's most accomplished actress, Maia Morgenstern, who co-stars with Harvey Keitel in the award-winning film "Le Regard d'Ulysse," began her career there in 1980. "I learned how to sing, dance, and act at the theater," Morgenstern says. "And I've never stopped working there." In 1994, director Catalina Buzoianu won a Uniter, Romania's most prestigious theater prize, for her direction of "The Dybbuk," by S. Ansky.
Like Romanian Jewry itself, Jewish theater in Romania has had a turbulent, often tragic past. Avram Goldfaden, a poet and playwright, established the world's first professional Yiddish theater in the Romanian city of Iasi in 1876. Actors performed in the city's outdoor Green Tree Garden, weather permitting, and throughout Eastern Europe. Other Jewish theatrical companies sprang up, including one in Bucharest, but none had a permanent playhouse, according to Israil Bercovici in his book "One Hundred Years of Jewish Theater in Romania."
In an odd twist, Romanian anti-Semitism during World War II laid the foundation for today's Jewish Theater. Ion Antonescu, Romania's wartime dictator who oversaw the deportation of 185,000 Jews from Bessarabia and the northern tip of Moldova to their deaths in Trans-Dniestria, banned Jews from public performance and banished them to a single theater on Barash Street in Bucharest as part of his plan to establish a Jewish ghetto. The Jews "will be able to live in their medium with their businesses, their synagogues, etc., until calmer times arrive, when we will transfer them beyond the borders to areas yet to be determined," he said.
Ironically, Antonescu's discriminatory policies led to a flowering of Jewish culture. Working together, Jewish artists reached new levels of creativity, performing as many as four plays a day. The Barasheum Theater in the early 1940s represented the apogee of Jewish artistic life in Romania.
The Communists nationalized the theater in 1948, renaming it the Jewish State Theater of Bucharest. In an officially atheist state, the Communists banned certain religious plays and proscribed the use of candles and the words "God" and the "Holy Land." Despite these restrictions, the theater flourished and enjoyed an excellent reputation. The Communists, trying to prove their tolerance to the outside world, were only too happy to subsidize Yiddish plays.
Emigration, not Marxism, decimated the Jewish Theater. More than 350,000 Romanian Jews left Romania, most for Israel, during the Communist era. "A lot of very good actors left," says Harry Eliad, managing director. "We had to replace them with amateurs." And with non-Jews, too.
Today, only half the theater's actors are Jews. "Some of the new actors lack the Jewish spirit," says Rudy Rosenfeld, a 35-year veteran of the theater. "They must learn it."
The theater's location has added to its woes. In the mid 1980s, the late dictator Nicolae Ceausescu destroyed about a quarter of Bucharest's historic center - 9,000 19th-century homes, three synagogues, and 16 churches - to make room for House of the People, a 1,000-room monument to totalitarianism. Among the neighborhoods he demolished was the stately Jewish Quarter that once surrounded the theater.
Now, weed-strewn fields and mud border it. A family of stray dogs patrols the theater looking for patrons to snarl at. Attendance is down.
Not surprisingly, the theater has lost some of its luster. "I'm happy to be there, but it's kind of a stepping stone for me," says actor Andrei Aradits, a Jewish Theater newcomer in his final year of studies at the Film and Theater Academy in Bucharest.
And perhaps the biggest challenge of all is maintaining an audience. Seventy percent of Romania's Jews are 65 or older, according to Nicolae Cajal, president of the Federation of the Romanian Jewish Community. "In my opinion, there won't be any Jews here in 15 years," he says.
Even so, the show must go on. The Jewish Theater will tour Europe and Israel this spring and hopes to visit the United States in the winter.
Meanwhile, "Cabaret," starring Morgenstern as Sally Bowles, just opened to rave reviews. "As long as there is a single Jew left in Romania," managing director Eliad says, "there will be a Jewish Theater."