National Jewish Theater

at the Frank Theater, Mayer Kaplan Jewish Community Center

I may not be an especially good Jew, but G-d knows I’m authentic. I’ve had my bar mitzvah, my confirmation, my wedding under the chupah, my hospital circumcision. My grandfather was an immigrant tailor and my son’s got a head full of curly, dark hair. Like every other boom generation American Jew with Yiddish-speaking relatives, I feel a peculiar nostalgia for places that disappeared before I was born. And a vivid (sometimes startlingly vivid) sorrow for the tailors and curly-haired children who disappeared with them. I understand the arguments against Israel — the tragedy inherent in its nature — and I’m a Zionist anyway.

The most authentic thing about me, though — the thing that most effectively pegs me as an American Jew of my time and background — is my ambivalence. I fell out of the organized Jewish community during high school, and I’ve yet to find an acceptable way back in.

Not that I haven’t visited from time to time. My wedding and my son’s bris (performed at home, with a rabbi and a mohel) were two moments of sweet affinity between me and my Jewishness. Moments when we both got what we wanted. But the rest of it — the holidays, the practices, the attempts to join a congregation where I don’t feel like a complete misfit — always ends up like any family argument, with lots of door slamming and a wistful sort of bitterness. I want to be a Jew, and I know Judaism wants me to be a Jew, but neither of us can figure out how.

Which is why I was overjoyed, a year or so ago, to hear that some theater-loving local Jews had got together with the JCC and Stanley Brechner, of New York’s American Jewish Theater, to open a theater of their own in Skokie. The National Jewish Theater, no less. This, I thought, has got to be my way back in. Religious practice can have enormous poetic force, but it doesn’t easily absorb critique. The stage, on the other hand, can argue and enchant. A Jewish theater might tolerate my dissent — maybe even express it — in ways no liturgy ever had, while simultaneously allowing me access to the lost pleasures of Jewish communion. There might be a shot at reconciliation anon here. Either that, or the best proof yet that I don’t belong.

Brechner and company seemed to welcome thoughts like the ones I was having. “The National Jewish Theater is dedicated,” their mission statement announced, “to the exploration of the contemporary Jewish experience. . . . The magical interaction between audience and stage that is theater will now give expression to the delicate, complex, comic, and interesting relationship between the American Jew and American experience.” The concept was so appealing, I offered to help realize it.

Nothing’s come of that offer yet, and I really can’t say whether anything will. I’m just telling you this so you’ll know there’s a lot at stake for me in seeing the National Jewish Theater idea succeed — and so you’ll understand my uneasiness when the second production of NJT’s premiere season turns out to be Peretz Hirschbein’s Green Fields.

Green Fieids is a sentimental classic of the Yiddish stage. First performed in 1917, it tells the story of a young rabbinical student, a yeshiva bocher from the city, who finds himself living out in the sticks with a bunch of uneducated Jewish farmers. And, of course, slowly learning to love it. The play had some political and cultural punch to it 70 years ago, because it championed the idea of the strong Jew — the muscular Jew, the self-sufficient Jew who labors with his own hands for his own living. After centuries during which Eastern European Jews were kept landless, and therefore dependent, as a matter of state policy — after generations during which pious Jews etherealized themselves into luftinenschen, or “men of air” — this new flesh-and-blood image was nothing short of revolutionary. It was fundamental to every progressive Jewish notion of the time, from Zionism to the Jewish Bund. It helped bring Jews out of their study rooms and into the world, out of their prayers and into their bodies.

Crucial as it was, however, it’s no longer much of an issue. The last luftmensch became literal air in Auschwitz; the Israeli sabra has made Jewish strength unquestionably real. Hirschbein’s concerns, consequently, seem as quaint now as his pastoral setting and the innocent romance he sets up between the city boy and a farm girl named Tsine. There’s nothing here that applies, in more than an anecdotal sense, to the “relationship between the American Jew and American experience.”

And even if there were, Brechner’s strangely reticent production wouldn’t very likely bring it out. David Studwell’s cramped performance as Levi-Yitskhok, the yeshiva bocher, allows us no insight at all into the character’s affection for Tsine much less his transformation into a happy hayseed. The script makes some noises about the sturdy virtues of country folk and the sweetness of country air, but we never get to see Levi-Yitskhok actually discovering these wonders. We never see him emerge into his physical self. Likewise, though Shira Piven tries hard to animate Tsine, she can’t make us see what the girl wants with this overeducated urban lump.

What we’re left with, finally, is a production in which nothing happens for any reason, logical or otherwise, but only because the script wills it. The NJT Green Fields not only lacks a connection to contemporary Jewish concerns — it’s got no apparent center of its own, either.

So nu? So I’m disappointed. But not disillusioned. A new theater with a significant mission can be forgiven a few failures of skill and judgment. What can’t be forgiven so easily is a failure of nerve. The big worry here isn’t whether the National Jewish Theater’s any good, but whether the choice of Green Fields indicates a retreat from stated intentions. The big worry is that this is going to be another bright hope down the drain.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jennifer Girard.