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'The Cafeteria:' a dignified portrait of the vivid world of Jewish intellectuals

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The world of Isaac Bashevis Singer is Manhattan's Upper West Side. The natural habitat for this Nobel Prize-winning writer lies between West 72 nd and West 96th Streets, bounded by Central Park West on one side and Riverside Drive on the other. In The Cafeteria (PBS, Tuesday, Feb. 21, 9-10 p.m., check local listings for premiere and repeats), writer Ernest Kinoy has taken a mystical short story by Singer and turned it into a kind of West Side fantasy, a Jewish science-fiction drama.

Most of the action takes place in the 1960s in a neighborhood cafeteria where Yiddish-speaking (and writing) intellectuals meet to eat bagels and lox . . . and schmooz about literary happenings. Into the circle comes Esther, a concentration-camp survivor now a button-sewer in a local factory. Eventually, she believes she has seen Hitler conducting a Nazi meeting in the cafeteria at night.

Is she mad or was it ''a glimpse back in time''? In the mystic tradition of the Jewish cabala, Singer speculates on whether his hero is dealing with the woman's hallucinations or ''a piece of reality that heavenly censorship prohibits, as a rule.''

Zohra Lampert, now unfortunately too often lost to audiences except in commercials, plays Esther with enormous intensity and sensitivity. Bob Dishy, Morris Carnovsky, and Howard da Silva bring the Yiddish intellectuals to life with a minimum of stereotypical gestures and inflections.

This unique film is directed by Amram Nowak with unprepossessing dignity. It is the kind of drama for which only specialized cable channels or PBS can find a place. ''American Playhouse'' has thus added another unusual jewel to its season of laudable programming.

The synagogue-rich Upper West Side of the 1960s has now become an anachronism. So has much of the Yiddish intellectual life in the cafeterias which Singer writes about so vividly. But such grand and savory anachronisms!


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