Sofia Laski arrived in Buenos Aires from Poland in the 1930s, and her earliest memory of life in Argentina is anchored in the theater--the Yiddish theater. "My father, Moises Florman, laid down the law," she recalled. "I was just six years old, but we went every weekend."
For East European Jewish immigrants, the theater was more than a distraction from a bleak existence. "It was a place for community, where they could find their language, their music, and each other and hold on to their identity," said actress-turned-historian Rosa Rapoport. "And they took their families, regardless of whether the children understood." Laski still remembers her first play--A Night in the Old Marketplace, a classic by Y.L. Peretz, who called it a "dream of a fever night." Said Laski, "I clung to my mother. I was so scared."
The Yiddish playhouses have vanished from the Argentine capital, but the show still goes on for Laski, although it's in Spanish now. As chair of the board of directors of the Teatro IFT--short for Idisher Folks Teater--she presides over more than 30,000 square feet of prime performing space. This year, the IET celebrates the seventy-fifth anniversary of its founding in 1932 as a club that included Laski's father and Rapoport's mother. Its state-of-the-art facility opened twenty years later, thanks to the passion, purpose, and pure chutzpa of the club's members, mainly needle-workers, shopkeepers, tradespeople, and cuenteniks--peddlers who sold door-to-door on credit.
The building is tucked just around the corner from the cacophony and congestion of the garment district known as Once, the hub of Argentine Jewish life for most of the twentieth century. The community's rich Yiddish tradition is not limited to the IFT; in Once's heyday, five or six professional-level Yiddish productions ran simultaneously, Tuesday through Sunday. But the IFT survives as a bricks-and-mortar reminder of an era when Buenos Aires was a pillar of the Yiddish stage, along with New York, Moscow, and Warsaw, and hosted its great stars--Jacob Ben-Ami, Molly Piton, Joseph Bulof, Maurice Schwartz. Visiting troupes introduced unheard-of technical innovations--Schwartz's company brought the first lighting console to Buenos Aires--and international hits, such as Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, that premiered in Yiddish before being staged in Spanish. (Laski and Rapoport, both native Yiddish speakers, are working independently to translate documents related...