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Australian Jewish News - Apr. 30, 2007

Jewish Theater Takes Center Stage in Vienna

By Darren Levin

For more than 50 years, Austrian shoppers could buy their groceries at the same place where some of the world’s great Jewish minds would gather to enjoy Yiddish theater. (1)

Erected in the heart of the Leopoldstadt, Vienna’s most active Jewish quarter, the Nestroyhof theater was once the cultural home of Franz Kafka, Theodor Herzl, Sigmund Freud and Martin Buber. (2) It was a communal hub, the place where Austrian Jewry could discuss ideas, or watch themes of Jewish identity, culture, and experience played out in Yiddish, German, or other languages on the stage. But in 1938, the Nazis seized control of the Nestroyhof, [...] murdering some of its most famed inhabitants [...]

Thanks to the work of Warren Rosenzweig, however, the Nestroyhof may yet rise again. As the artistic director of the Jewish Theater of Austria, Rosenzweig has made it his mission to return Vienna’s Jewish district to its past glories. Aside from a worldwide campaign to rebuild the Nestroyhof – the project is “vital to the social health and future of the Austrian community,” he writes on the theater’s website – Rosenzweig invited delegates from around the world for a recent conference on Jewish theater.

Held over a week in late March, the conference ran concurrently with the Tikkun Olam International theater Festival, which attracted an international array of presenters, actors and audiences.

Deborah Leiser-Moore, a Melbourne-based thespian, was one of the Australian delegates at the conference. She was invited by Rosenzweig to host a session at the Australian Embassy in Austria, where she delivered a brief history of Jewish theater in Australia, starting from “the Jews on the First Fleet to Yiddish theater in the late 1930s in Carlton”.

“Yiddish theater was really important because they needed to connect to home,” Leiser-Moore explains, “but for my generation, who was born here, we look at what it means to be Australian and Jewish ... I looked at this shift from Barrie Kosky to my work and the work of a number of other artists as well.”

In her own contemporary “performance pieces” – she doesn’t refer to her works as “plays” – Leiser-Moore has explored being a Jewish female Australian. She says that our ingrained sense of physicality makes Australian Jewish theater unique. “Australians are uniquely quite physical, obviously through our sporting culture,” she says.

“For an audience largely unaware of Australia, let alone Australian theater, the response was overwhelmingly positive. The Israeli ambassador to Austria commented that I had unlocked a door for him into Australian theater.”

Leiser-Moore also discovered parallels between her work and the works of Jewish artists overseas. In one of her plays, Hungary, Leiser-Moore does the tango with a gigantic Magen David before it crushes her. That motif, as she discovered at the conference, was used in a similar fashion by a performance artist in Israel. “There’s a lot of similar themes,” she says, adding that the Holocaust is no longer central to Jewish theater. “It’s always there and referred to, but it’s not just the focus,” Leiser-Moore explains. “They’re not interested in harking back to Fiddler, they want to move forward.”

The three-day conference has already laid the foundations for collaborations between Leiser-Moore’s production company, Tashmadada, and her counterparts overseas. And with the help of her newfound connections, Leiser-Moore hopes to set up a space for Jewish artists in Australia. “Even in Austria, where there are hardly any Jews, they still have a place,” she says.

“I’m not interested in old-fashioned pieces. I want to create a centre for people who are interested in the art forms as well as things to do with Jewish issues.” she explains.

Two other Australians attended the conference and festival, including journalist and first-time playwright Dr Anne Sarzin and Ira Seidenstein, an entertainer from Queensland.

Dr Sarzin, who is based in Sydney, was one of 11 playwrights chosen to have a scene from her work, My Green Age, performed at the Tikkun Olam festival. [A segment from] My Green Age, which focuses on the “inspirational and deceptive quality of memories”, was performed at the Jewish Museum of Vienna against a backdrop that included Judaica, Torah scrolls and Shabbat candlesticks.

Dr Sarzin, who decided to become a playwright after a career in media and communications, describes the festival as a “mentoring experience”. “[It] was an extraordinary experience that validated my play,” she says.

Highlights of the event included a keynote address by Theodore Bikel, a veteran Viennese actor who has appeared in The African Queen and The Blue Angel, a session by Atay Citron on the Acco Festival of Alternative [Israeli] theater, which brings together Arab and Israeli performers in Israel, and a [“process demonstration”] by a Russian avant-garde theater company (3) which melds contemporary art forms with ancient Jewish scripture.

For more information on the Nestroyhof restoration project, visit www.jta.at.

(1) The Jewish Theater in the Nestroyhof was used as a supermarket in the 1970s – 90s.

(2) Kafka was from Prague, which was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Herzl, who was also a playwright, and who had lived briefly in the Leopoldstadt near the site where the Nestroyhof was later erected, was a close associate and friend of the Zionist Nestroyhof architect Oskar Marmorek. Sigmund Freud was raised in the Leopoldstadt. Martin Buber was born in Vienna, where he also later studied.

(3) LaboraTORIA (Moscow).

Copyright © 2007 Australian Jewish News
Warren Rosenzweig in the Nestroyhof Theater in Vienna.
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