at Victory Gardens Theater
By Carol Burbank
The Yiddish theater tradition and Jewish political cabarets in Europe were lively and innovative influences on performance in the first half of this century. Now an isolated branch of academic history, this once thriving pop cultural force can mainly be seen in the shadows of secularized melodrama and in the structures and physical humor of vaudeville.
Until last week, I’d experienced the original plays and comic routines of these traditions only in fascinating but clunky museum-theater restagings intended for Jewish audiences eager for representations of their cultural and personal ancestry. But to my delight, the Chicago YIVO Society’s “East Meets West” festival of Yiddish culture demonstrated that Yiddish theater is very much alive, in contemporary adaptations that combine ancient folktales with modern storytelling. Through music, cabaret, and ritualistic drama, the festival revived both the mysticism of Yiddish drama and the broad self-parody of Yiddish comedy.
Revival is the purpose of YIVO, an organization founded in Vilnius, Lithuania, in 1925 to preserve Yiddish culture. The Chicago YIVO Society is the local affiliate of the original eastern European group, which after World War II gathered its scattered artifacts from basements and Nazi vaults and expanded into an international cultural network. Last week’s festival included klezmer performances by Brave Old World and a spoken-word cabaret featuring the Canadian group Golus Storytheater, which performed excerpts from its intellectually satisfying, coarsely ironic mythobiography Sex in Yiddish: It Could Happen to You! Local performers like Donna Blue Lachman and Jeff Dorchen provided a comic perspective from Chicago’s branch of the Diaspora.
But the highlight of the festival was the intensely ritualistic passion of the Polish troupe Teatr Wierszalin, whose adaptation of S. Ansky’s The Dybbuk brought the old ways of Jewish mysticism to the stage. Written in 1897 and first staged in Warsaw in 1920, this original mythodrama of Hasidic culture has been reimagined as a compelling ghost story that honors the past and enters the present with chilling theatricality. It makes us see that the Yiddish branch of the Jewish Diaspora links eastern Europe with the West in a fascinating and contradictory act of self-invention and survival. YIVO shared the music and theater of this process in its revitalizing project.
Aided by American director Michael Griggs, Teatr Wierszalin made Ansky’s drama into a kaddish, a prayer to comfort the living and honor the dead. The dead in this case are Ansky’s characters, two betrothed lovers and their families–a community that experiences the darkest intimacies of love when the betrothal is broken through ignorance and greed. The two lovers–a poor scholar, Khanon, and a devout maiden, Leah–were promised to each other in the sight of God by their exuberant parents, friends who vowed their families would be joined forever. But time and circumstances separate the friends, and their betrothed offspring meet again only to be parted when Leah’s father decides to marry her to a rich man. In folkloric and melodramatic splendor, Khanon dies of grief and returns to earth as a dybbuk to possess Leah’s body. But even after a successful exorcism Leah’s life is bound to Khanon’s, and she chooses to die so that her soul can be joined with his forever.
Teatr Wierszalin stages this complex story of rending loss and joyful reunion as a ritual in a cemetery initiated by an old man. He enters slowly in near darkness and dense mist; tombstones and a toppled crypt door cast dim shadows over the space. He pauses to grieve silently over a tombstone, then lights candles, illuminating his face, and begins his prayers. Taking old photographs from a suitcase, he rests them against the gravestones–these are images of the lovers and their community, the people who begin as memories but soon animate the actors in a theatrical form of possession. As the old man begins his kaddish, the performers enter, whispering, chanting, haunting the stage. Claiming a stone and an image, holding these in their arms, they become the characters. In a remarkable yet simple kind of puppetry, the gravestones become powerfully symbolic of bodies and the photographs symbolic of souls, just as the play acknowledges the ways members of the Diaspora are linked to ancient traditions.
Yiddish, Hebrew, and Polish songs and prayers strengthen the mystical effect of the theatrical ritual, the transformation of stones and photographic images. Although I couldn’t understand the verses, the haunting klezmer music, the chanting, and the performers’ clear emotions conveyed the meaning without any alienation or interruption. Many in the audience must have recognized the songs and prayers, but it was enough for me to understand that they were a dramatic doorway to another time and culture, and that they carried everyone with them. The rapt audience–primarily middle-aged Jewish couples who arrived in groups and called greetings across the theater–seemed almost additional performers, Americanized inheritors of this ancient story. All of us became more celebrants than witnesses.
Throughout the play the stones remind us of the cemetery, animating a sense of ancestry and history: the stage is haunted not only by the ghost in the story but by the ghosts of many cemeteries left behind as Jews have fled persecution and made new homes. When a character dies, or when Leah is possessed, the tombstone is mourned as if it were an empty body, and the photograph, moving with the actor in a dazed dance, serves as the wandering spirit. Without the photographs, the stones seem bleak and empty.
The photographs eventually become the actors’ mirrors–as their pale faces and bodies, dressed in black, are occupied by the story’s spirits. In the most intense moments of the play, the photographs enhance our understanding. Carrying Leah’s stone and image, the dybbuk topples a wide gravestone marked by a photograph of many dignified and somber men in a congregation: symbolically he defiles the community that has neglected his claim, yet the act is as physical as a teenager vandalizing a graveyard. In the same way, the wry intensity of the rabbi’s photograph lends power to the exorcism, his white beard and earlocks giving it the weight of a lost time and place. The images of the young lovers, their dark eyes brooding, blend with the grace and eagerness of the two actors to modernize their passion yet keep it rooted in ancient custom.
This profoundly moving dislocation of old and new reminded me of the way Yiddish culture has scattered, of the simultaneous rootedness and rootlessness of Zionists and American Jewish communities. As the story continued and the desperate lovers were linked in an erotic spiritual marriage, drawing unnaturally close through mystic possession, I began to understand the beliefs that made arranged marriages and carefully orchestrated family bonds into a manifestation of God’s will. Astonishingly, I forgot my modern pragmatism, my cynical secular training. When the lovers were reunited in the spirit world, I joined in the audience’s collective sigh, full of joy at the happy ending and sadness at the harsh but just punishment that had been meted out, as the story was fulfilled rightly, simply, inevitably.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): The Dybbuk theater still/ uncredited.