Jewish Renaissance - July 01, 2007

So What is Jewish Theater?

Deborah Freeman reflects on the experience of participating in a theater festival in Vienna
courtesy of Jewish Renaissance Quarterly Cultural Magazine

An International Festival of Jewish Theater, incorporating the Wold Congress of Jewish Theater, took place in Vienna in March. Its umbrella title was: Tikun Olam (Repairing the World). Like all theater practitioners, Jewish ones believe that through theater the world can become a better place.

Day One: Warren Rosenzweig, of the Jewish Theater of Austria, opens the proceedings. Warren was once an unaffiliated New York actor. Now his life’s work is to promote a renaissance of Jewish theater culture in Vienna.

Theodore Bikel, keynote speaker of the opening session, tells us Jewish theater is all or any of: “high art, low art, naturalism, stylization, political and apolitical”. I think: OK, that covers everything. I look forward to the next few days. Musing on the question as to whether creating something Jewish might “set us apart”, he adds: “From the particular one reaches the universal. One flower in a big field. The Jewish flower”.

Dinner, the first night. Austrian actress Inge Maux sings Yiddish songs. Inge was born in 1944, to a mother who had successfully concealed her Jewish identity. But when school friends insisted she looked Jewish, Inge asked her mother why this should be. Her mother revealed the truth, and teenager Inge began to investigate her roots.

After dinner: a rehearsed reading of Warren’s play Die Judenstadt. About Theodor Herzl – himself a Viennese playwright (although better known as a liberal journalist). This reading takes place in the chill, darkly echoing neo-gothic Votivkirche. An unlikely setting for a play about the forces that led the Jewish people to their new land of blue skies.

Day Two: Atay Citron, Professor of Drama at Haifa University, talked about his years as Artistic Director of Israel’s Alternative Theater Festival. This festival takes place annually in Arab Acco. Jewish Israelis flock to it to enjoy its cultural collaborations.

We watch videos of Arab and Chassidic fusion music, and the opening ceremony of last year’s festival based on Sufi poetry and circle dancing. The conference finds the vision of a mystically spinning Israeli theater both lively and soothing. Citron shows us Arabs and Jews seeking a common language through the medium of Indian movement theater and pleases all of us.

Evening: Dinner and ‘cabaret’ at the Piaristenkeller, a restaurant as old as Imperial Vienna, with a hat museum and a wine cellar beneath us, in a maze of underground corridors lined with old wood barrels, the air thick with rich bouquets of wine and Habsburg legends.

Under us lies the history of Imperial Vienna. On the tiny stage sits Ruth Schneider, daughter of the Viennese Yiddish actress Klara Meisels and the playwright and chief dramaturge of the Jüdische Künstlerspiele in the Nestroyhof Theater, Abisch Meisels. Ruth Schneider left Austria for London in 1938. Now she is here again, with her grandson, writer/comedian David Schneider. Also with them is Sanford Goldfless, son of Jacob Goldfliess, founder and director of the Jüdische Künstlerspiele in the Nestroyhof. In 1942, after 11 months internment in Southern France, Goldfliess escaped to America.

Yiddish theater in Austria in the 1920s and 30s was itself a culture of nostalgia. The Jews had come to Vienna from their Yiddish-speaking lives in the stetls of Eastern Europe. And here we now are, another stratum of the mountain that is our cultural history.

Next: performances by Canadian Sharon Fedder, Israeli Howard Rypp, and American Naava Piatka. But the Israeli had previously been Canadian, the Canadian had a family that came from Europe and the American was of Lithuanian origin. Fedder’s piece is post-modern, surreal, Piatka’s is in memory of her actress aunt in the Vilna ghetto, and Howard Rypp had adapted Gimpel the Fool, by Isaac Bashevis Singer, himself of Poland and then America. Moving and on the move, Jewish theater is kaleidoscopic in form and full of emotion.

Warren Rosenzweig and Sandy Goldfless speak about a different venue. The Nestroyhof building, not far from here, survived the war only to become the store-room of a supermarket chain. Now, they say, is the time to work towards reclaiming it, opening it as an International Jewish Theater.

Caroline, a Viennese gentile, had studied Jewish culture at school and concluded that “Jewish history is part of Austrian history”. Later she formed a group – The Goyim – which performed klezmer pieces. Currently she is setting to music Jewish poetry of 1920s Vienna. She declares: “Jewish culture has a future. It must have a future”. She means in Austria. We mean in Austria too, as we applaud. Although the Israelis at my table ask bluntly: “Why recreate anything Jewish here? Why don’t they come to Israel?”

Day Three: Israeli playwright Motti Lerner spoke on political theater, once again drawing a distinction between particularist and universalist themes. His conceptual framework is of ‘re-examination’. Of the very foundations of Judaism, no less – this, he says, being one of theater’s tasks.

A re-examination of the place of religion in Jewish and Israeli politics; of Israel-Arab relations; of the interface between Judaism and other religions; of pluralism (or not); of the responsibility of Jewish communities to other communities; of Jewish-Moslem conflicts; of anti-Semitism; of Holocaust denial; of Jewish historical memory; of Hebrew, Yiddish, Ladino, of the Jewish world and, of course, of globalization. He misses out global warming.

Now theater practitioners from Strasbourg, Sao Paulo, Melbourne, and Moscow, under the chairmanship of Atay Citron, discuss the nature of Jewish theater. I wish for an on-site anthropologist, who might identify in the people and their processes where Jew ends, and Russian, Australian, Brazilian, Frenchman, begins.

In the afternoon, Shimon Levi, Professor of Drama at Tel Aviv University presents ‘The Bible as Theater’, with an accompanying performance by a stunning German actress in a red dress. We watch the biblical tale of Avigail and King David in an improvised dramatization.

Later, at the International Playwrights’ Forum, we hear extracts from 11 different Jewish plays in the evocative building of the Vienna Jewish Museum.

Day Four: Moti Sandak introduces his website: ‘All about Jewish Theater’. He has spent years setting up this database. The aim of ‘All about Jewish Theater’ is: “Recollect our past, understand our present and plan for the future”.

Over an afternoon tea at the Australian Ambassador’s Residence, we watch a DVD about Australian Deborah Leiser-Moore’s ‘Jewish conceptual theater practices’. She shows us physical theater, visual, oral, surreal. The script, she insists, will only come about at the end of the process – if at all.

Suddenly I get it. The whole Jewish world is here, right inside our conference. Here are the Chassidim, the performance artists, who believe, like Leiser-Moore, that dancing, singing and the moods of the heart create theater. In opposition stand the Mitnagdim – the purists, who like a script, made all of words. Like the old days when scholars required words on a page, until the Chassidim stood up to sing and dance their way to heaven.

Shabbat comes. Three visiting groups send representatives to the Friday night service. One group comprises returning children of the city. One group is at a Vienna university conference on the history of Austria’s Jewish communities.

Final day: The last day of this kaleidoscopic conference – as varied as the others. Robin Hirsch of Greenwich Village reads from memoirs of a post-war childhood in St. John’s Wood, London. In the afternoon, in an atelier in Vienna’s Turkish Quarter, American Yiddishist Murray Wolfe and New York Drama Professor/ Holocaust survivor Saul Elkin both perform again. Both move me to tears.

Night, and the final piece of the jigsaw. American writer/actress Brenda Adelman performs My Brooklyn Hamlet. Adelman, half-sister to Warren Rosenzweig himself, tells the story of her childhood. This is the particular, the Hamlet story, becoming if not universalized, Judaized. Her father shot her (and incidentally Warren’s) mother, then a few months later, married their aunt. This is theater with the lid off, raw but disciplined. Passion, pain, truth and then love, all in an hour. The audience, me included, are drained.

After a closing performance of this intensity and brilliance, I no longer care whether my theater is Jewish or not. Neither, I can assure you, will theater repair our world. But I can promise you this – at its best, Jewish or otherwise – it reflects and illuminates it.

For more information go to or the Jewish Theater of Austria site:

Deborah Freeman is a playwright. Her plays include Candlesticks and The Song of Deborah. She is currently working on a new play Of Our Birth, a play for a mixed Israeli/Arab/British cast.

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