Ida Schuster, actor, director and above all Yiddisher momma, tells

JACKIE McGLONE of her life and great loves

IDA SCHUSTER tells me several times how flattered she is to be

interviewed by The Herald, ''just when I thought I was past my sell-by

date''. It is in fact 13 years since she was written about at any length

in this or any other newspaper, which is quite extraordinary for an

actor of her experience. She is into her seventh decade on the boards,

having started virtually as a babe in arms and she is almost a living

record of the history of Scottish theatre.

Which is not to make the impish, gamine-faced Schuster, with her

pointed chin, huge lively eyes and inquiring mind, sound like some

latter-day Methusela; she is simply one of those women who never seem to

age, unless the role requires it. Such is the longevity and variety of

her career that she came armed with notes, fearing that in conversation

memory might play tricks as to the precise year when some event or other

that might be of interest occurred.

She was a Glasgow Unity actor, directed the first production which

opened the Tron Theatre in Glasgow more than a decade ago, and has been

a regular in five Citizens' Theatre companies, including Giles

Havergal's, for whom she is currently creating the cockney cameo of

Rummy Mitchins in his superb production of Shaw's Major Barbara.

A tiny (5ft-and-[1/2]-inch) trim figure in a smart black skirt and

blouse with a froth of chiffon scarf pinned at her throat, Schuster is

wearing her best jacket for the interview -- it is in vivid lipstick-red

leather and it's a stoater.

I am taken into the dressing-room she is sharing with the ''other

plebs'' in the play -- ''the 'ladies' are all next door'' -- and at the

end of our talk she offers me a meal in the Citz canteen. Once a Jewish

momma, always a Jewish momma. I know she will find that remark neither

racist nor sexist but take it for the compliment it is because despite

being a staunch Glaswegian, she is immensely proud of her Jewish roots

-- indeed, her brother-in-law Avron Greenbaum founded the Jewish

Institute Players, one of the arterial forebears of Glasgow Unity, in

the city's South Portland Street in the late 1930s, when the 15-year-old

Schuster appeared in his producion of his own play about Jewish

persecution, Bread of Affliction. Also, at heart Schuster is a true

mother -- ''you always carry that with you wherever you go, whatever you


When we part, she tells me she feels guilty because this is the first

year since her boys left home -- she has two sons in the medical

profession and six grandchildren -- that she has not kept up her own

mother's tradition of making various jams in season. But she has been on

a diet, so she made only marmalade this year and it was delicious.

Schuster is famed for her groaning table. When the critic and writer

Michael Coveney went to talk to her about her recollections of various

Citizens' regimes for his book, The Citz, she entertained him so

splendidly and so royally that he still talks about it with relish to

this day.

Such warm hospitality is part of the Jewish family tradition she grew

up in. The youngest of nine children, her parents came to Glasgow from

Lithuania, thinking they were going to land in America, and Schuster

recalls a mother who had wonderful hands, and who baked, made wine,

sewed, and made things out of nothing for her brood of umpteen children

and her husband, an antique and second-hand furniture dealer. Later she

even learnt to improvised all sorts of theatrical costumes for the

stage-struck babe of the family.

''She had had six seamstresses working for her in Vilnius in a factory

she started as a young teenager before she married my father at 16. In

Glasgow, I remember she would bake through the night for Jewish holidays

and we would wake up in the morning to magic smells of breads and

teacakes and sponges and wonderful dishes made from potatoes and beans

and meat, which she had cooked slowly all night for the Sabbath, when

they were not allowed to cook. She would often be up all night cooking

in the communal bakehouse, which was the cook's equivalent of the


It must have been a marvellous family to grow up in, with a sister who

had got engaged when Schuster was eight years old to Greenbaum, an

artist, a musician, a writer, a director and producer of plays, as well

as a talented bespoke tailor in the city's Scotch Street. There would be

huge family parties when people sang and danced and acted and the wee

Ida won a much-prized string of beads for her rendition of the

charleston. Like her Dutch grandchildren, Schuster was bilingual. Her

biochemist son Howard has two children ''who speak beautiful English as

well as Dutch. I keep promising myself I'll learn Dutch but someone put

me off by saying it sound more like a throat infection than a language.

As a child I wasn't even aware that I was bilingual.

''My parents spoke Yiddish to each other at home and my father went to

night-classes to learn English, although there were certain words he

never got -- he always wrote 'kinght' for goodnight, for instance.''

SCHUSTER continues: ''The Yiddish language, which is often thought of

as the language of the ghetto, is so beautiful, it has a richness and a

coarseness just like colloquial Scots and the culture is full of

fantastic fables and mysticism. [One of Schuster's most favourite roles

remains that of the possessed Leah in the Hebrew classic The Dybbuk,

which she played for her brother-in-law's company.] My older sisters

remember him reading to my mother at night in Yiddish and in English

because he was a great reader, a left-winger, a Trotskyist, always

deeply suspicious of Stalin when everybody else was hailing him as a


''So we would be getting all that on one side, meanwhile my mother

quietly kept a very orthodox home. My father was very cynical about

religion, calling it 'the dope of the masses', yet mother quietly

observed all the feasts and holidays and he wasn't going to object

because the food was always superb, all out of nothing.''

Although Avron Greenbaum encouraged her to act, Schuster says she was

a shy child. ''I was and am very shy. Being the youngest of a very large

family, you have a kind of Walter Mitty existence anyway, otherwise you

are bullied left, right and centre. So the world you live in is a

private one and that has made me shy, not a good thing in a collective

profession like this.''

When Schuster married after a spell in the WAAF during the war -- she

recalls cycling through from Edinburgh to take part in numerous

productions such as Priestley's Time and the Conways at the Glasgow

drama school -- her mother came to live with her and her late husband,

Dr Alan Berkeley. Mrs Schuster encouraged her daughter to keep an

orthodox Jewish home, buying kosher food and always reminding her

daughter that preparations must be made for religious festivals.

''Alan and I were liberal parents, letting our children play sport on

the Sabbath and so on, it's interesting that my son Peter, a Glasgow

doctor, refuses to let his son play rugby on a Saturday, but that's the

way it is with the generations, some need religion, some don't.

Certainly, I could never have gone on acting if it hadn't been for my

mother, because I remember weaning Peter when he was only

four-months-old so that I could play in Awake and Sing, and she was just

great, always there to help when I went off on marvellous tours with the

Citizens' to the Netherlands or Venice.

''Women's liberation is about economics, isn't it? A woman needs a

woman. My husband was a wonderful, good-natured man, a much-loved doctor

with a practice in the Gorbals, who also became the Citizens' theatre

doctor, but he never changed a nappy in his life and if you left him a

meal you had to draw arrows and diagrams for him to find it and eat it.

That's the way it was for us. Our generation of women took everything

with us, we took our family and our work, but that is what motherhood is

about. And then you get caught up in big family traumas and you don't

work for a bit and then you have to find your way back. So if I have any

regrets, then it is that I wasn't more ruthless, that I didn't push more

with the directing because some people thought I was rather good at


Schuster's personal trauma came a couple of years ago when her

much-loved husband of 45 years died. She was appearing in The Steamie at

the time and had to leave the cast. ''I'm just starting to get back now,

it takes a long time to get over it because it cuts across everything .

. .right across,'' she says, with tears in her eyes.

Then there is also the fact that she belongs to a generation of women

who were never very good at selling themselves, women who would

apologise rather than assert themselves. ''I suppose I could have been a

lot more ambitious, but I'm the sort who remembers all the things I

should have said at the job interview long afterwards. But I do regret

not keeping up the directing because all the best directors are also

actors.'' As an actor, Schuster has had to wage her own war against

directorial typecasting -- ''too many couthy wee Scots roles, suffering

peasants, and aged retainers''. The parts she has loved best have been

when she played against type, as Mrs Higgins in Pygmalion, for instance,

in A Woman of No Importance when Philip Prowse had the courage to cast a

small, strong woman as a top-drawer aristocrat, and in Ian Wooldridge's

House of Bernarda Alba at the Edinburgh Royal Lyceum. ''One critic said

I was a veritable King Lear,'' she says, proudly.

Perhaps, muses Schuster, the problem has been that she played all her

star roles before she turned professional in the 1950s. ''I did Juno and

the Paycock, Mother Courage, The Glass Menagerie, and Blood Wedding, all

for Avron, who did world premieres of so many great plays with the

Jewish Institute Players. Then I started playing character when I was

actually quite a youngster because I stood in for someone who was ill

and so I had another fight to get back to playing young.

''I suppose that's why people who saw me way back then when I was

always 'old', will say, 'my God, is she still alive?', when they read


* Major Barbara continues in repertoire at the Citizens' Theatre,

Glasgow, until September 27.