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USCJ - Sept. 01, 2007

The Way of the Jewish Theater

By Susan F. Lodish

We gathered together to talk, to interact, to heal. We came from six continents, 16 countries, and 20 U.S. states, representing Jewish theaters from around the world. As a theatrical community we were stronger than the individual theaters we represented. It was a week I will never forget.

We had come to Vienna, Austria, to save a specific Jewish theater. The ethical imperative of tikkun olam suggests that there is no world without humanity. If we don’t do what we can to counter social injustice, the whole world will fall to pieces.

The Nestroyhof Theater, closed since World War II, had been home to the Yiddish theater company Jüdische Künstlerspiele (1927-1938) and center of the once-robust Viennese Jewish theater scene. After the Nazis confiscated Jewish businesses and property and the lives of many of its world-renowned artists were destroyed, the building was closed. Later, it was rented to a supermarket. Instead of pulling down the balconies, glass roof, and sculpted reliefs, the new tenants simply concealed the original structure from unsuspecting shoppers for decades. Today, the Nestroyhof building remains in the hands of the family that first took possession in 1940 in its attempt to build a family empire.

Since late 2001, the Nestroyhof Initiative has been trying to reestablish an international Jewish theater at the site under the ambitious direction of Warren Rosenzweig, director of the Jewish Theater of Austria. But in 2004, a representative of the family that owned the property remained adamant, saying that it would “never be a theater and certainly not a Jewish theater. Even if I wanted it, my family would never agree. A Jewish theater is the last thing it will ever be!”

The Association for Jewish Theaters consists of theater groups from all over the world. When Mr. Rosenzweig told the association about the situation, its members decided that for the first time it would hold its annual conference outside the United States. The meeting would be held in Vienna to support efforts to restore the Nestroyhof.

Artistic directors, playwrights, performers, and other theatrical professionals came from Russia, Australia, South America, Israel, Hungary, South Africa, France, Germany, Norway, Canada, and the United States to support the Jewish Theater of Austria as well as the future of intercultural diversity in Vienna. I was there to represent Theater Ariel of Philadelphia and the Delaware Valley.

Jewish theater is performed around the world, in the languages of the artists who stage it, inspired by at least as many social and cultural settings. The companies are so aesthetically, thematically, and politically diverse that it is impossible to define a common principle. But the one thing they do share is the spirit of tikkun olam. They are at the forefront of a growing artistic network exploring the role of theater in putting the broken pieces of the world together. The Nestroyhof Initiative has symbolic resonance in a city that gave rise to the 20th century’s greatest devastation at a time when the world is increasingly at risk of falling to pieces once again.

In his keynote address, the renowned actor, musician, and activist Theodore Bikel inspired the congress to take action. It was in Vienna that Mr. Bikel, who was born there in 1924, developed his passion for theater, and where his father used to read Yiddish plays aloud after dinner.

In putting Jewish theater into context, Mr. Bikel explained that those who work in it are not educators, preachers, or social workers. “We are performers. We dance, we sing, we make grownups laugh and children clap their hands. While we sometimes draw the audience into a heightened awareness of their lives, we just as often make them forget the day and lighten their burden.”

On the other hand, according to Mr. Bikel, Jewish theater’s cultural, literary, historical, and contemporary indicators “present a picture of the Jewish world in its many facets to a general audience. But we also hold a mirror up to ourselves for Jewish audiences to see.”

Artists present plays, films, poems, and songs pointing the way toward a better world. As Mr. Bikel said, “Theater helps restore faith. It reminds us that greatness is to be measured not by economic or military might, but rather by music, poetry and drama. The arts may be society’s last best hope for meaningful survival.”

The congress itself consisted of a variety of performances from all over the world. LaboraTORIA. olem, from Moscow, connected the work of the Yiddish poet Halper Leivik with biblical texts and contemporary forms. Teater Fusentast, a Norwegian children’s puppet theater, explored issues of discrimination and anti-Semitism in “Sand Between Your Toes.” In “It Sounds Better in Amharic,” Yossi Vassa of Tel Aviv’s Nephesh Theater recounted his 700-kilometer journey on foot from Ethiopia to a refugee camp in the Sudan and then, finally, to Israel. Irina Andreeva’s Teatr Novogo Fronta, of St. Petersburg and Prague, creates work that fuses mysticism and abstraction, circus art, and modern dance. Its performance of “The Dybbuk” made language unnecessary. Steven Cohen, a prominent South African performance artist, used his own body as his medium to point an accusing finger at social injustice.

The Nestroyhof Theater has not been converted into a Jewish theater yet, but everyone can share in this particular form of tikkun olam by writing to Restore the Nestroyhof, Kandlgasse 6/1, 1070 Vienna, Austria. Ask the government of Austria to restore the oncevibrant historic theater and bring Jewish theater and culture back to Vienna and Austria. Go to www.nestroyhof.at for more information.

And just as importantly, support your local Jewish theater. As Theodore Bikel said, “I do not believe that the Jewish song is better than the song of my neighbor. I sing it because it is mine. This is us, our turf, our theater. We do it because it is we who were entrusted with its guardianship.”

Susan F. Lodish, a theatrical director, is a Women′s League consultant and trainer, member of the Board of Directors, and past vice president. She is also a past president of the Philadelphia Region.

Copyright © 2007 United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism
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