International aspects of the World Congress of Jewish Theaters, Vienna, Austria, March 2007
“To Jews and non-Jews in the audience, we must show not just a rosy picture, glossing over blemishes, but a picture as close and sometimes as painful to the truth as we can come.”
Theodore Bikel’s (Austria/USA) advice from his important keynote address for the members of the Association for Jewish Theatre (AJT)—now the Alliance for Jewish Theatre--and many other theater groups around the world, organized by Warren and Sonja Rosenzweig, founders of the Jewish Theatre of Austria.
Bikel's address represents one of the many powerful images in our constantly changing conference kaleidoscope where theater people from around the globe contributed beautiful, thought-provoking, and sometimes even terrifying aspects of life, showing the strength and tremendous range of Jewish theatre worldwide.
“Acting as a Nazi with an SS collar, I take one of the hand-sized paper puppets, Willem—whom the audience has grown to know quite well—set him on fire, and throw him into an “oven.” Later, without any expression of anger or hate, I take the remaining characters out of the family portrait and throw them away, except Hetty, the main character—the only one left. She then tries to find out if there are any family members left and reads from the lists of the deported and murdered on the miniature Red Cross building. During those scenes, both children and adults tend to sit in an edgy silence."
wearing an SS collar, burned Jewish paper dolls for kids. AJT World Congress of Jewish Theater, Vienna, 2007.
ABOVE RIGHT: The multi-linguistic Coby Omvlee, together with her husband Jaap den Hertog, run a well-known puppet theater in Trondheim, Norway, but they also perform in many other countries in various languages.
In 2019, Australians experienced Medea: Kaddish for the Children, a re-imagining of one of the most iconic and tragic figures, Medea—played by Deborah Leiser-Moore.
[Kaddisch performed via the link above by Nikola Hillebrand (soprano) & Alexander Fleischer (piano) in Heidelberg, Germany, 2019.]
Centered around Theodor Herzl in the months before he conceived the Zionist manifesto Der Judenstaat (The State of the Jews), the play follows the psychological journey of Herzl, a frustrated bourgeois playwright, as he faces down his inner demons and, in particular, his self-hatred, to emerge at last with a grand vision of himself as redeemer of the Jewish people.
The performance of Rosenzweig’s play on the Jewish city and the Jewish state—an extraordinary event—was held in a sacred Christian place. Three generations ago, such a Jewish performance would not have been allowed, and if it had taken place in secret, would have led to most audience members being carted off to Theresienstadt (Terezin)—coming from Germany, this scenario colored and haunted my perception of the entire Jewish theater conference in Vienna.
ABOVE: Jewish Museum of Vienna, Austria--Museum Judenplatz, host of AJT's annual short play gala with playwright Rich Orloff (USA) as the lively MC.
RIGHT: At the Jewish Museum in Vienna, Austria, Henrik Eger holding up a photo of his father. Mira Hirsch holding up a photo of Lily Spitz, whose husband had been deported from Vienna first to Dachau and then to Buchenwald.
Our scene began with both the original German and the English translation of my father’s letter to my mother: “Lies mehr als meine Buchstaben, lies was ich nicht schrieb, lies was mein Herz zerspringen lassen möchte."—“Read more than my letters, read what I did not write, read that which could shatter my heart.”
At the end of the scene, Mira dressed in black, slowly went to the back of the stage in silence, picked up a poster-sized photograph of Lily, the young Holocaust survivor, and held it up for all to see. Then, also dressed in black, I went to the back of the stage and picked up a poster of Lily’s contemporary, Alf—my father.
We both stood there holding up the photos of real people. Neither Mira nor I said a word, while a metronome was ticking mercilessly, until the audience broke the Third Reich spell and applauded—a cathartic moment in my life.
Shortly before the reading of that scene, I had asked our conference host, Warren Rosenzweig, whether he would like to have the two large photographs from our presentation. He told me that he would feel honored and that those historical images would hang on the walls of his Jewish Theater of Austria—a permanent reminder of the work that still had to be done.
and host of AJT's international theater conference, accepting the two posters for his theater.
RIGHT: Photo of the daughter who not only wrote My Brooklyn Hamlet, but who also developed
THE FORGIVENESS PROJECT.
The Russian cultural revolution spawned many ideas and books, including Utopian Construction — Judaism and the Soviet Avant Garde, which in return helped in fostering the next generation of Russian theater artists, especially in the theater and film world to advance their own revolutionary ideas.
Quite a few small Jewish theaters had to close their doors over the last few years, simply because they could not generate enough funds to pay all the expenses and find enough audiences to play to full houses—especially as more and more theaters in the US are producing Jewish-themed dramas and musicals.
The strong emphasis on revolutionary Jewish theater in Russia captivated, even mesmerized others, including Daniel Kahn (USA/ Germany), whom some conference participants considered “our young Jewish-American revolutionary.”
This multi-talented Michigan native, who left the United States for Berlin, walked through the streets between conference events, playing klezmer music on his accordion and singing Yiddish songs in the rain—charming some Viennese, challenging others—an unforgettable experience.
At the AJT conference, she presented one of her company’s action-oriented political theater pieces, Robert Blum, der Außenseiter (Robert Blum, The Outsider), who was executed in 1848 for his revolutionary activities, shortly after he wrote his famous Abschiedsbrief (farewell letter).
Tikun Olam at its best, as witnessed by the Jewish Arab peace song, or, in Aldor’s words, “sharing and working together in the theater makes us forget our different origins. It makes us become and stay close friends.”
ABOVE RIGHT: Photo montage of Farid al-Atrash, Syrian-Egyptian composer, singer, virtuoso oud player,
and actor (1910-1974), played by Jewish Israeli, Ziv Yehezkel, Israeli singer and popular oud player,
born to Iraqi Jewish parents, who sings in Arabic (1985-), Arab Hebrew Theatre of Jaffa.
“The Politics of Jewish Theatre” at the palatial Austrian Theater Museum in Vienna, March 2007.
Looking at Lerner’s theses and his many plays performed worldwide, I thought of Karl Marx’s “Theses on Feuerbach,” especially number 11 (published in 1888) which postulates that philosophers have only interpreted the world, but that others must change it.
Lerner is one of those Jewish intellectuals and dramatists who, in his own way, may eventually do both—interpret and contribute toward a change of the world—at least by giving theater back its ancient centrality in life.
Via The Wayback Machine, I managed to create a section on Drama Around the Globe, called, “Rescued Jewish Theater,” which features my articles, reviews, and interviews, including the richly illustrated “’Don’t ask me what happened. It’s best not to know!’: A DYBBUK, or Between two worlds.”]
The president of the Austrian Chamber of Commerce Brigitte Jank (Austria) had earlier welcomed the conference participants, telling them how important their presence was to the city of Vienna, and encouraging them to come back and enrich the city with their culture.
I was honored to have been asked to serve as her translator during her conference welcome speech.
Later, she was elected as the Deputy to the Austrian National Council, and became Chair of the University Council of the Module University Vienna.
Bazijan then introduced the actors to a passage from Zilinski ist tot (Zilinski is dead) by Franz Mon—one of Germany’s most avant-garde authors, famous for his semantic turmoil and intricate acoustical pantomimes.
Directed so creatively by Bazijan that I thought I was witnessing actors from the U.S. transforming themselves into huge insects, reliving Kafka’s Metamorphosis. The acting by the young Jewish-American performers, rolling on the floor under a table, head to head, reciting Mon—was so persuasive that during those moments I actually thought my American friends had permanently and irrevocably transformed into Beckett characters on speed.
Rafael Goldwaser (Argentina/France), founded Der LufTeater (Le Théâtre en l'Air) in 1992 with the goal of presenting Yiddish European Culture after the Shoah.
We were in awe of his colorful, multi-layered, and inspiring Yiddish Theater through sketches of ordinary Jewish folks, based on the stories of Sholem Aleichem with the kind of innovation, high energy, and humor only found in a few places on earth.
DHE, a reviewer, describes Goldwaser’s “furious interpretation” with “a whole life pouring out of him.”
[. . .] “as if he were a complete Shtetl in one person.”
[my translation from Schwäbisches Tagblatt, Tübingen, Germany, 2007. For more and the original, click here].
Robin Hirsch was born in London during the Blitz to German Jews who had escaped Hitler. Coming of age in postwar England, he quickly learned the ironies of survival: His best friend at school, an English Jew—at the age of six—called him a “Nazi.” Hirsch moved to America as a young man and became well known for his literary, artistic, and musical career sponsoring rising artists through the performance room at the Cornelia Street Café in New York's bohemian Greenwich Village.
Witty New York dramatist Richard Orloff (USA), author of over sixty popular short plays, mostly comedies, emceed the International Playwrights’ Forum at the Jewish Museum in Vienna.
Thanks to senior drama judges Norman Fedder and Diane Gilboa (USA), eleven playwrights from around the world were chosen to present scenes from one of their most promising new plays through ten-minute excerpts.
The International Playwrights’ Forum presented a wide range of short dramas, including a piece by the visually stunning Eliran Caspi (Israel), a writer whose well-built play showed old and new worlds clashing in modern Israel.
He also works as a director, film and stage actor. However, according to an Israeli interview, Caspi “stays away from media and public events and strongly refuses to talk about his private life."
Caspi founded Dad left the Group, and writes a personal comedy column for Haaretz, the progressive and longest running newspaper in print in Israel.
Yossi Vassa (Ethiopia and Israel) took the international viewers on a present-day Jewish odyssey in It Sounds Better in Amharic—an Ethio-Semitic language, spoken by Jews and others in Ethiopia. Carrying a cheap suitcase, he took us along on a painful secret flight, not from Egypt, but from Ethiopia, their homeland of thousands of years—a country that did not allow them to leave.
We experienced the 700 kilometer journey on foot via a hostile Sudan, the robbery of 10 of their donkeys, and the death of his grandmother and two of his brothers on a torturous, secret passage during many nights before finally reaching Israel, where the rabbis had decided to accept Ethiopia’s Falasha, the forgotten Jews, whose ancestors claimed to have roots going back to King Solomon.
In Israel, Anda Argi, now renamed Yossi Vassa, lived in a rough town together with many other immigrants without money. Yet, he succeeded at Haifa University, “dabbled in theater,” performed in the army, and even put on a show in Amharic for his fellow immigrants.
When his mother walked into his show, expecting perhaps classical theater, not a retelling of their own lives, she exclaimed, “They pay you to do that? But you're just talking!” Like so many other parts of this comic-tragedy, the audience roared with laughter.
However, the young actor who tried to develop a new identity as a Jew from Africa in an almost all-white Israel also had the courage to describe the difficulties of getting accepted by people whose ancestors, not too long ago, were discriminated against brutally because they were Jews.
It was during those parts that I wasn’t the only one fighting tears as it showed the dilemma of an immigrant, trying to start a new life as a Jewish artist of color in Israel. We saw Vassa as a mensch who has come into his own as a theater artist and educator—another ambassador of good will. For an excerpt of his show, click this link.
The past came back forcefully but also showed us a new spirit of hope, which surfaced again when Warren Rosenzweig introduced Ruth Schneider, a Viennese Holocaust Survivor (Austria and Britain), who spent some time incarcerated at Holloway Prison in London.
We also met Ruth Schneider’s son David Schneider, a former student of Yiddish at Oxford where he pursued a Ph.D. in Yiddish Drama—before he became a professional writer, actor, and stand-up comedian, including his video The Story Of The Day The Clown Cried, where Schneider “presents a look at some exclusive behind the scenes material from the notorious unseen Jerry Lewis film about the Holocaust.”
When he told us with a poker face that he now speaks the “Queen’s Yiddish,” even the wine in our glasses giggled, chuckled, and laughed full-throatedly about so much chutzpah. The talented Schneider with his Mad Hatter look had all of us in stitches. For more information, click this link.
Up on stage, she brought parts of the past into our own lives with Better Don't Talk: A Holocaust Story—“A daughter discovers her mother's hidden past. The uplifting musical theater tribute to comedienne Chayela Rosenthal, wunderkind of the Vilna Ghetto."
Piatka drew us into the past in such a way that everyone there came alive, making quite a few of us fighting tears. At the same time, Piatka also made me laugh and feel empowered by her art, her work, her life.
I wasn’t surprised when Piatka—physically and emotionally drained but radiant—received one of the biggest rounds of applause at the international conference.
I will never forget the way Piatka held her hands up to her chin in utter surprise, radiating even more joy and energy than before—if that is possible.
With much laughter and mutual admiration about the quick transformation, the cultural ambassadors then sauntered into the Imperial wine cellar, where the theater royalty drank more of those good spirits, toasted, sang together, and listened as the beloved Theodor Bikel (songs)—a native son of the city on the Danube—treated us to another song.
with Kayla Gordon (R), actor, teacher, and artistic director, Winnipeg Studio Theatre, Canada. Vienna 2007.
Michael Posnick (USA), writer, editor, academic, and Artistic Director of the Mosaic Theater (New York), a caring, modern Solomon who united everyone on the last day of the conference with his group meditation and singing, responded to these concerns by quoting the Haggadah which invites everyone:
“Let all who are hungry come and eat. Let all who are in need, come and share”—next year at the Jewish Theatre Conference, hosted by Evelyn Orbach, founding artistic director of the Jewish Ensemble Theatre (JET) in Michigan (USA), and the following year, we hope, in Israel.
Everyone is invited to come and share. Everyone around the world:
איעדער. Ayeder.כולם; העולם כולו. كل شخص, كل امرأ Die ganze Welt.
Tout le monde. Полностью мир. Tutto il mondo. すべての世界
Al wereld. Всеки. Todo el mundo. Όλος ο κόσμος
All verden. Todo o mundo. 所有世界
The whole world.
Everyone is invited to come and share.
Australia, Austria, Brazil, Bulgaria, Canada, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Russia, Singapore, UK, and USA
The Latin-American representative of the AJT, Leslie Marko Kirchhausen (Brazil), whose mother also escaped Vienna and the Holocaust like her contemporary Lily Spitz (see Metronome Ticking above), decided to support Jewish theater in her way.
Following the advice of our keynote speaker Theodore Bikel, “Like all theater, Jewish theater is not one thing alone,” Marko Kirchhausen translated the AJT conference poster into Portuguese, inviting people in Brazil and elsewhere to learn more about Jewish theater around the world and perhaps even attend the conference.
Back home in São Paulo, she encouraged playwrights, directors, actors, editors, and academics to contribute to Jewish theater—continuing the work that was shared in Vienna—all in the spirit of Tikkun Olam.
let’s interpret and change the world and with it, ourselves:
L’Chaim, wherever you live, wherever you work.