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Jewish Spaces in European Theatre

European Performing Arts Forum
Prague 14-16 June 2003

 

 

Session V: Navigating the cultural boundaries: who are the
audiences for Jewish themes?


The Stage Jew: Between the personal and the stage
identity


Enrico Fink, playwright, actor and singer, Florence

The search for, and the display of, the "artist's roots" as defining his/her identity, are some of the big trademarks of these past years - especially, but not only, in the performing arts. And as performers and writers who deal in what can be generally defined as "Jewish themes", we are often confronted with some embarassing questions - and not only when addressing non-Jewish audiences: is the culture that we speak of, or that we use, our own, or rather something that we (re-)invent in order to display it? Are we simply giving in to a demand for "ethnicity" and choose to segregate ourselves in a cultural ghetto, so that our art may be more readily accepted - and bought - by the audience? Or again, are we using our own work as means for a personal definition of identity? Finally, are we just following the ageless Jewish tradition of mimetism, of hiding, of masquerading - posing, this time, as Jews?
I have no conclusive answers to any of these questions, but I have often thought about them, performing in front of the most widely distant audiences - from the Jewish Italian to the standard European theatre-goer to the Christian activist groups to the American ones - and meeting, and sometimes working with, some of the leading artists in "Jewish culture" (whatever that means) on both sides of the Atlantic. I will present a few reflections on these issues, and some excerpts from my work to illustrate them.

 

A few days ago I was In Los Angeles, dining out with some friends, among which was an Israeli lady. I had barely just been introduced to her as an actor, performing Jewish theater in Italy; she shook my hand and she said: "what do you do it for? All Italians are antisemites."

I'm sure that everybody here who, like me, has many long time Israeli friends, knows that it is a widely spread characteristic - to jump to the heart of a problem, without losing time on complimentary frills. And this lady was, I guess, no exception. So I tried to find a swift answer.

I didn't want to say "well, not everybody…": such a line of reasoning was off center, for it is undoubtedly true that not all Italians are antisemites, and I am sure my Israeli friend would be the first to acknowledge it: but there is a subtle truth to such a generalization - a very influential and famous Italian philosoper, Benedetto Croce, wrote a sentence that has become as popular as a proverb: "we (Italians) cannot not call ourselves Christians"; and I have often felt how the bimillennial, intimate relationship of Italian culture to Christianity, has shaped a very particular form af antisemitism, coated in a compassionate attitude, but in some way an essential, if almost invisible, aspect of Italian culture. Moreover, answering to that question saying that not every Italian is an antisemite would have implied that my usual audiences were made up of a "non-antisemite" selection of Italians, a fact of which I have not only no proof, but even no significant suggestion.
So, I thought about describing the recent interest in Jewish themes, the "hipness" of Judaism that has so evidently affected many Europeans, and so many of us: but I immediately checked myself, for I well knew how such an interest could be taken for a form of antisemitism - I often wonder about it myself. Maybe I could contend that this recent - maybe already dwindling - interest for "roots" has nothing to do with Jewish roots in particular; it is a very wide phenomenon, that relates to a generalized search for identity and is in no way confined to the Jewish people. It is just our problem, as -let's say it - egocentric as we have alway been, to understand if maybe it comes from a bad will, or a bad conscience. But I'm sure my Israeli friend would have taken this answer as "beating around the bush".


So in the end I can only say that, like many other times, I could not find an apt answer to a remark I had immediately dismissed as "blunt". All my Diasporic righteousness notwithstanding, I must say: as always, with the Israelis.

This dinner in Los Angeles came in a moment, in my personal life, extremely significant from this point of view. I was there to perform an old show of mine, Patrilineare, to an american audience - for the first time. I had looked forward to this for a long time: I feel a strong urge to perform in front of… well, maybe not Jewish audiences, but - let's say - "Jewish-knowledgeable" ones. To be able to give for granted much of the explanations, the bits of Judaism 101 I often find myself giving; and performing in the United States is a whole different experience from performing in Italy. On the other hand, this was a problem; my show was tuned to an Italian audience, had been written with many painful compromises between artistic intention, and necessity for instruction. All this had to be changed.

Patrilineare had been conceived without a definite plan in mind. I had been touring Italy for a while with a couple of bands, playing yiddish songs, klezmer tunes and other Jewish melodies, and at a certain point I felt I could make the thing more interesting by introducing the songs with a story about my family; I could use the legendary figure of my great-grandfather, who had escaped at the turn of the century and had become a cantor in various synagogues (Gorizia, Parma, Ferrara) before ending his life dramatically in the nazi camps, along with most of my father's family. He was a perfect way to tie East European Jewish music, which at the time formed the core of my music, to the Italian Jewish world. It justified my singing all those cute little songs I had learned from Brave Old World or Klezmatics.

I remember perfectly the reaction most of my long time friends had the first time I performed Patrilineare. They thought I had gone crazy. I can't blame them, I must say - it must have seemed very strange - I had never before attached much significance in public to my Jewish heritage or supposed "identity", and there I was on stage ranting about my family, even about my own relation to religion…
I know the parallel may seem far-fetched, by I still feel the the only comparison that can be made is to a public "outing" regarding one's being gay. In a way, there are similarities; I know I'm referring to the Italian reality, but I suspect this holds true in large parts of Europe. In the cultured and liberal environment that we "artists" often live in, our being Jewish is something everybody knows about; and nobody would dream having prejudices about it; but it is something considered… let's say, private? Something that, if you address it in public, is bound to cause some embarassment. Up to that point, your opinion, your art, your performances, claim to be part of the same world as everybody else's; to stem from the same background. Even if you deal in "ethnic" culture, you do it from an outsider's point of view - I mean, outsider with reference to the ethnicity, insider with respect to your audience, your peers, your fellows. That is why, I'm sure, it happens so often here in Europe that Jewish music and theater are performed by non Jews; it is reassuring, an element of continuity between the artist and the audience's frame of reference.
And this is exactly what I found myself addressing, with Patrilineare. I wasn't telling my great-grandfather's story: I was telling my own. I was telling the story of an Italian person who had the same background as everybody in the audience, relating with a past that perhaps biologically was his own: but that was as strange to him as to anyone else. I had learned yiddish songs from american bands; that little bit I knew of the language couldn't come from a family I had never known, having almost everybody died during the war; it came from teach-yourself cassettes. I wasn't on stage performing folkloristic art that I had learned in my youth; I wasn't telling a story which I was an expert on. What I was telling was something intangible, my emotions towards that culture - and emotions work very well on stage, but being real emotions, for the people close to me they were, understandably, embarassing.

For the audience, instead, I immediately became "a Jew". If I happen to do some other shows, and play or sing the same jazz or blues songs I have being playing for years before Patrilineare, somebody is sure to remark that I am doing in a klezmer style. Not surprising; we have here Ruth Gruber, who's a master in unveiling false sterotypes about the Jewish world, and whose book "Virtually Jewish" recounts endless examples of this sort: but let me draw easily from my own experience, just remembering an accomplished saxophonist who in Florence showed me a review of a CD of his, where the reviewer described his work as "klezmer-jazz". He asked me what klezmer was. He had never even heard a tune. It's just that after the John Zorn explosion, especially in Florence where many of New York contemporary jazz musicians come to play and are greeted by articles describing them as dealing in "klezmer", klezmer and contemporary jazz have become synonimous.

Arriving in the United States, this perspective had to change completely. My being Jewish wouldn't set me aside from my audience; on the contrary, for them I would be an "Italian", which for all the aforementioned reasons sounds a lot like being "a goy": so I probably would need to make some effort in order to establish my being as Jewish as them. Moreover, my great-grandfather's story wouldn't be so strange at all - I could be pretty sure that many people in the audience would have had very similar background, and similar great-grandfathers. So I worked hard on reshaping the show, under the supervision of a very accomplished playwright who agreed to direct me, Donald Freed; whose take on the story was to exploit its being so common; transform it from the particular tale of a particular family into something representative of a whole generation.
This is an experience which definitely gave me new insights in the difference between a - shall we call it - American versus European attitude towards Jewish roots in theatre.

Donald Freed asked me to do something, at the end of Patrilineare, which I had never even thought about doing: to make the contact with my legendary great-grandfather. As I sang a Ferrarese synagogue hymn, I should - for the space of that instant on stage - actually become my greatgrandfather; and think about him not in the standard pictorial image of the Chagall painting, but as a real man, in the moment of fear, of hiding - because that was a much more significant part of his reality than any yiddish song. But as I made that brief contact possible, in front of my american audience, I told an essentially American story: the story of persecution, of hiding, of flight - but ultimately, of survival. As an Italian Jew, I would never have even dreamt of such a possibility. We - and here I speak not only of myself, but of us as European Jews as a whole - even if an improbable one, I do realize - we are the grandchildren of dead people, not immigrants. The sheer quantity of death in my family history, in our history so largely overwhelms the survivors, that it makes such a contact unthinkable. Our history is a gaping black hole: what we can tell is not the story of our survival, but the story of an absence.

As I looked - and took photographs - out of that window yesterday, I thought that we European Jews have grown accustomed to think of ourselves in essentially a diagonal form: like the flying figures in Chagall, and like the oblique tombstones of this symbol that is the Prague cemetery. And we have become oblique, false: we mimick, we ape, a past that is not real or at least not really ours. But we do so because we feel a strong need for verticality: the feet in the moulding earth, the rotting corpses under the tombstones, the head in the contemporary atmosphere we breathe. So we are ultimately political, and testify to our audiences the absence of a whole generation that could have taught us the "real thing". More than that, we shout this absence to a world that is not made up, today, of "all antisemites"; but that is, in the end, responsible for that absence.

And I close by quoting the same poem that ends Patrilineare; a poem written in the United States, and in a very different time: in 1938, by the yiddish poet Yakov Glatstein; but that portrays in a magnificent way the feelings that I believe run under the shmaltz of our false Jewish identity.

A gute nakht, Velt

Good night, bright world

Big and stinking world.

'Tis not you, it's me the one who slams the door.

With my long dress, with my fiery yellow badge

With my proud step

To my own command

I return to the ghetto.

I wipe away and trample upon any alien trace.

I revel in your dirt,

praise praise praise

the Jewish, deformed, life.

A ban, world, upon your cultures impure.

Though it be all laid barren and waste,

I plunge into your dust,

sad Jewish life.



You German pig, you hostile Pole,

You thief Amalek, thou country of drink and food devoured

Stuttering democracy, with your cold

Sympathy-compresses.

Goodnight, world of electric insolence,

I return to my kerosene, to the shadow of my candles,

To the eternal October
,
To the sleepy stars,

To my crooked roads, the twisted lampposts

To my broken pages, the Twenty-four books,

to my Talmud, to the difficult

questions, to the splendor of ancient Hebrew

to the Law, to the profound meaning, to duty, to justice.

World, I gladly walk towards the quiet light of the ghetto.




Good night. I give you back, world, all my supporters,

All my liberators.

Take the Jesusmarxists and choke yourself on their courage.

Gag on a drop of our baptized blood.

Though as yet He has not come, I do hope

Day after day my wait grows long.

Green leaves will yet rustle

Up on our barren tree.

I need no consolation.

I return to my four walls,

from Wagnerian pagan music to nigun, to melody.

I kiss you, entangled Jewish life

I feel the painful joy of the return.