Essen: A Little Jewish Bakery in South Philly

photo (7)As the aroma of freshly baked challah wafts down Passyunk Avenue, South Philly is returning to its Jewish roots. The source of the heavenly smell is Essen, a new Jewish bakery. “Essen,” which means, “eat!” in Yiddish, is the creation of Tova du Plessis.

Tova du Plessis, originally from Johannesburg, was dutifully studying to be a physician. After obtaining a bachelor’s degree in biology, she pivoted toward her true love and attended culinary school. Ms. du Plessis honed her craft at Citron & Rose, Le Bec Fin, and The Rittenhouse Hotel. After the birth of her first child, she felt ready for another new challenge, and decided to open her own shop.

Serendipitously, the proprietor of her local bakery decided to pursue other opportunities. Tova du Plessis was able to rent the bakery with all of its equipment. She tapped into the memories of preparing Shabbat dinners with her mother in South Africa. Then, she tweaked the recipes a little bit.

13122909_487661448094640_5776031625427631548_oThree types of challah are baked at Essen. There is a fragrant, slightly sweet plain challah, a saltier seeded challah, and an exotic za’atar challah. Fresh labaneh with olive oil and za’atar is available for purchase to pair with the za’atar challah. These challahs are soft, chewy, moist, and pareve. I bought all three for Shabbat dinner. When my father bit into the plain challah, he told my mother, “this is just like the ones you bake!”

Jewish apple cake, chocolate chip – sea salt cookies, and cheese cake with house made strawberry preserves are baked on the premises. The crowning cakes of the display case are the babkas. These delicious yeast cakes are baked with cinnamon and hazelnuts or chocolate and halva.

13112996_484225865104865_1420751969339691223_oI must confess that the chocolate-halva babka was so wickedly decadent that I knew that it would be a sin for me to tempt anyone who knows me with it. This is why I sat at a table in the corner of Essen’s cozy café and ate the whole delicious slice by myself.

Essen Bakery
Address: 1437 E Passyunk Ave, Philadelphia, PA 19147
Phone:(215) 271-2299
Hours:
Friday 8AM–6PM
Saturday 8AM–6PM
Sunday 8AM–3PM
Monday Closed
Tuesday Closed
Wednesday 8AM–6PM
Thursday 8AM–6PM
https://www.facebook.com/essenbakery/

Theater Review: Chekhov’s “The Three Sisters” at the Arden Theatre


Left to right: Sarah Sanford, Mary Tuomanen and Katherine Powell. Photo by Mark Garvin.

The world premiere of a new translation of The Three Sisters by Anton Chekhov, playing at the Arden Theatre until April 20, is a vibrant, well-acted, well-directed production that should not be missed this season.  

Chekhov’s influential story about a family’s unrealized aspirations was translated by Curt Columbus, and is directed by Terrence J. Nolen.

“Chekhov isn’t easy — there’s not a tried and true method to make his work speak to modern audiences,” stated Nolen, Arden’s producing artistic director. “But no other playwright speaks more eloquently to the essence of the human condition, and that challenge is irresistible to me as a director.”  

Through research, workshops, readings, and travel, the play is the culmination of a two-year exploration of the master storyteller’s work that took the theater company from Moscow to Providence, Rhode Island to Philadelphia.

More after the jump.

“The Three Sisters” was originally performed at the Moscow Theatre in 1901. It is a classic four-act drama that examines the lives of the three Prozorov sisters and their brother Andrei, who have lived for 11 years in a small provincial town, where their late father had commanded a brigade. Unsuited for provincial life, the sisters long to return to Moscow, their childhood home and idealized haven.  

Although there is not a single Jew among these characters, there is something profoundly heimish in Chekhov’s play, as Diane Samuels wrote in the Jewish Quarterly:

No Jew would have inhabited this social milieu. And yet the sense of community, the emotional highs and lows, the ill-tempered humor, the corny asides, the affection, the melodrama, the poignancy, the hope, the despair, all — as actress Tracy-Ann Oberman insightfully noted when she first mentioned to me that she hoped to find a writer ready to take up the challenge of writing a Jewish version of the play — smack of something very Jewish indeed. Maybe it is the Russian background.

Still, a leap was required to find a way of extrapolating the Jewishness out of Chekhov.

This moving production’s most innovative turn takes place in the first act. We are watching a play within a play, as the actors seem to be having a dress rehearsal for a play, which is being videotaped as we watch it. Refreshingly disconcerting, the clever technique works, and by the time we get to the second act we are in the play itself, but the intimations of the video and the sense of life being a dress rehearsal linger.  

All three “sisters” are outstanding in their respective roles: Katherine Powell as Masha, the sardonic, restless middle sister; Sarah Sanford as Olga, the oldest sister; and Mary Tuomanen as Irina, the youngest sister.  

Lt. Colonel Alexander Vershinin, portrayed by Ian Merrill Peakes, is the play’s philosopher:

There will come a time when everybody will know why, for what purpose, there is all this suffering, and there will be no more mysteries. But now we must live… we must work, just work!

Fine. Since the tea is not forthcoming, let’s have a philosophical conversation.  

Chekhov might not have been Jewish but he speaks to the human condition in this sad, poignant play that embraces all of life: from the boredom of marriage to the ravages of war, from the hopes of youth to the regrets of the middle age. Near the end of the play, Vershinin reflects on that:  

In two or three hundred years life on earth will be unimaginably beautiful, amazing, astonishing. Man has need of that life and if it doesn’t yet exist, he must sense it, wait for it and dream of it, prepare to receive it, and to achieve that he must see and know more than our grandfathers and fathers saw or knew.  


The full cast of “Three Sisters.” Photo by Mark Garvin.

In “The Three Sisters,” Chekhov has written a masterwork that doesn’t reduce life to easy platitudes or resolutions, but captures the fleeting nature of life in four acts that the Arden’s production staff honors in its bold new production.

Single ticket prices are between $36 and $48, with discounts available for seniors, students, military and educators. Groups of 15 or more enjoy significant discounts. Main stage subscriptions are on sale for between $84 and $135.

For tickets, call the Arden’s box office at 215-922-1122, order online, or visit the box office at 40 N. 2nd Street in Old City, Philadelphia.

Post-show discussions will be held following the performances on March 30 at 2 p.m., April 3 at 8 p.m., April 9 at 6:30 p.m., April 13 at 2 p.m., and April 16 at 6:30 p.m.

Tug of War Over Iraqi Jewish Archive

— by Ronit Treatman

When the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003, American soldiers discovered an Iraqi Jewish archive in Sadam Hussein’s secret police headquarters. These documents belonged to Iraq’s 2,500-year-old Jewish community.  

When the soldiers entered the building, it was flooded. The documents were located in the basement, under four feet of water. As soon as they were exposed to the air, they began to get moldy.

With the consent of the Iraqi authorities, the archive was sent to the National Archives in Washington, D.C. for preservation.

More after the jump.
The archive includes:

  • a Hebrew bible from 1568,
  • a Babylonian Talmud from 1793,
  • a Zohar from 1815, and
  • a lunar calendar printed in Baghdad in 1972, among other documents.

Most of Iraq’s Jews left before the 1990s, due to persecution, leaving the archive behind.

When the exhibit is over, the archive is expected to be returned to the Iraqi antiquities ministry. It is not known where the archive will be stored. The experts at the National Archives trained two Iraqi preservation experts in the conservation procedures used on these materials.  

A group of Iraqi Jews is mobilizing to prevent the archive from being returned to Iraq, and keep it in the Babylonian Jewish Heritage Center in Israel. This museum is located in Or Yehuda, a center of the Iraqi Jewish community in Israel.  

An Unknown Country: Documentary on Ecuador’s Jews

— by Ronit Treatman

Exotic, tropical Ecuador is a paradisaical destination for a romantic vacation. But who knew that it was also a refuge for Jews fleeing the Holocaust? They joined the Sephardic community, which had been there since the beginning of the Spanish colonization.

Emmy award-winning producer and writer Eva Zelig has been producing a new documentary about this community’s story, which is also that of her own family, for the last three years. The project was largely financed by a fundraising campaign on Kickstarter.  

Is Your Jewish Family from Poland Originally From Spain?

— by Aaron Biterman

My family left northern Spain, likely around the time of expulsion in July of 1492. I am unsure what path they took to arrive in Poland, but oral tradition suggests that my Jewish family settled in the town of Hrubieszow in southeast Poland (near Lublin and Zamosc) by 1600. The surname they eventually adopted sounded much more Eastern European than Spanish. I talk more about the origins of the surname below. It’s possible my family was Ashkenazic and migrated west to Spain from another place, and then migrated back east after expulsion from Spain, but it seems more likely that they actually were Sephardic.

More after the jump.
Evidence that the family was Sephardic includes:

  • Dual Hebrew names (Yehuda Aryeh ben Yosef Tzvi) is a Sephardic practice. Ashkenazi tradition is “Yehuda ben Yosef.”
  • Concluding Shabbat davening with Ein Kelahaynu instead of Adan Olom is a Sephardic practice.
  • There may have been a synagogue in Hrubieszow before WWII which was Sephardic, where my ancestors prayed.
  • The family was religiously observant but not Hasidic even though the town they lived in (Hrubieszow) was a mostly Hasidic town.
  • There is an oral tradition of arrival in the area in Poland in the mid-1500s.

Jews had a very difficult time in Europe during the later portion of the Middle Ages. The beginnings of some of the behaviors of the Holocaust can be traced to the period in Europe from 1200 to 1500. Throughout Europe, the Jews were gradually confined in ghettos as the Middle Ages progressed. The first compulsory ones were established in Spain and Portugal at the end of the fourteenth century. Jewish ghettos existed in Madrid, Barcelona, Venice, Naples, Rome, Florence, Prague, and other European cities (Source: Jewish Displacement).

Beginning in the 8th century, Muslims had occupied and settled most of the Iberian Peninsula (Spain). Jews, who had lived in these regions since Roman times, were considered “People of the Book”‘ and given special status and often thrived under Muslim rule. The tolerance of the Muslim Moorish rulers attracted Jewish immigration, and Jewish enclaves in Muslim Iberian cities flourished as places of learning and commerce. Living conditions for Jews in al-Andalus became more difficult after the fall of the Muslim Umayyad Caliphate around the year 1030.

The Reconquista was the gradual reconquest of Islamic Iberia by the Catholic kingdoms with a powerful religious motivation: Iberia was being reclaimed for Christendom. By the 14th century, most of the Iberian Peninsula, present day Spain and Portugal, had been regained from the Moors. Overt hostility against Jews became more pronounced, finding expression in brutal episodes of violence and oppression. Thousands of Jews sought to escape these attacks by converting to Catholicism.

The Alhambra Decree (also known as the Edict of Expulsion) was an edict issued on March 31, 1492 by the joint Catholic Monarchs of Spain (Isabella I of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon) ordering the expulsion of Jews from the Kingdom of Spain and its territories and possessions by July 31 of that year. The punishment for any Jew who did not convert or leave by the deadline was death. Scholars disagree about how many Jews left Spain as a result of the decree; the numbers vary between 130,000 and 800,000 (Source: Wikipedia).

Migration to Poland

Toward the end of the Middle Ages, Jews lived in 85 towns in Poland, totaling 18,000 — a mere .6 percent of the total population. But the 16th and the first half of the 17th century saw increased settlement and a relatively fast rate of natural population growth of Jews in Poland. Among the new arrivals there were not only the Ashkenazim banished from the countries belonging to the Hapsburg monarchy, but also Sephardim who were driven away from Spain and Portugal. Beginning in the middle of the 16th century, Jews started to settle in the countryside in larger numbers. During the hundred years of the 15th century, the Jewish Polish population exploded from about 15,000 to 150,000. In the middle of the 17th century there were 500,000 Jews living in Poland — five percent of the total population.

During the 15th and 16th centuries, Poland became the center for Jewish learning. Between 1501 and 1648, Jews intensified their economic activity. The primary sources of income for Jewish families were crafts and local trade. The rapid development of Jewish settlement and economic activity was accompanied by expansion of their self-government organization. As in the Middle Ages, every autonomous Jewish community was governed by its kahal — a collegiate body composed of elders elected as a rule from among the local wealthiest. The kahal organized funerals and administered cemeteries, schools, baths, slaughterhouses and the sale of kosher meat. In the closed “Jewish cities”, it also took care of cleanliness and order in the Jewish quarter and the security of its inhabitants. Administering charities such as the organization of hospitals and other welfare institutions and the dowering of poor brides were also taken on by citizens or organizations within these Jewish communities (Source: Mike Rosenzweig).

There was a period when members of the Sephardic middle class could establish themselves with some distinction in Poland. This most important page in the history of Sephardic Jews in Poland began with the reign of the Polish King Sigismund II Augustus (1529-1572). At that time, one of the most influential statesmen of the Ottoman Empire was Don Joseph Nasi, a Sephardic Jew who died in 1579 (Source: Alexander Beider).

In 1588, Polish Chancellor Jan Zamoyski established a special privilege allowing Sephardic Jews to live in his own newly founded private town of Zamosc. Many advantages were offered to those Sephardic Jews who decided to move there, which prompted a number of Sephardic families to migrate to the town. During the first part of the 17th century, new settlers generally came from Italy and Holland, according to Alexander Beider. Some of the Sephardic Jews left the area; others intermarried with Ashkenazic Jews. As a result, during the second half of the 17th century, Sephardic names do not appear in the historical documents of Zamosc and Lvov. The census of 1664 showed only 23 Jews in Zamosc, most Ashkenazic.

The presence of Sephardic families in the territory of Poland during the 16th to 18th centuries did not influence the surnames used by Polish Jews during the 19th and 20th centuries. The cultural fusion of foreign Sephardic Jews with local Ashkenazic Jews, who had lived in the same area for several centuries and were far more numerous, was rather rapid. The Sephardic Jews lost their language, and their descendants used Yiddish as the vernacular. They dropped their Sephardic names and were named according to local Ashkenazic patterns (Source: Alexander Beider).

Jews lived in Russia for centuries — sometimes welcomed and other times barely tolerated. Before 1500, Jews were permitted to live anywhere in Russia. As Russia’s western boundary moved west in the 1600s and 1700s, more Jews were annexed into a country which was intolerant of Jews. In the late 1700s, Catherine the Great decreed that Jews could only live in the territory along the western Russian border, known as the Pale of Settlement. In 1772, more Jews lived in the Pale than in the rest of Europe.

Prosperity continued until the second half of the 17th century, when a series of massacres by Cossacks ruthlessly killed Jews and Gentile Poles alike. Poland was then pummeled by another Cossack uprising, two invasions by Sweden, and a war with Turkey. In the 1700s, Poland was divided three ways, and the Jews of Poland fell under the rule of Russia, Germany, and Austria (Source: Jewish Displacement).

Surname Biterman

My family’s surname of Biterman could either have Eastern European or Sephardic origins. I talk more about it on my genetic genealogy page http://chelm.freeyellow.com/bi…

A Kippah Question

There’s something sad about seeing many of our American youth wearing a kippah while visiting Israel.

Please don’t get me wrong, I’m not against them wearing a kippah; I am gratified by it. The reason I think it is so sad is because the vast majority of those same kids will not wear one at home in America other than when sheltered from the outside world. For example, they have no problem wearing their Jewish identity openly when going to synagogue, attending religious school or participating in a Jewish event but wearing one in the general public, well that’s a different story.
[Read more…]

The Soap Myth Off Broadway: “Unreliable Memories” & the Holocaust

— by Lisa Grunberger

Although I saw it over 48 hours ago, The Soap Myth,  playing in New York City at the Black Box Theatre, through April 22, continues to haunt me. This is the theatre of witness at its best – provocative and  morally ambiguous that raises more questions than it answers.  Playwright Jeff Cohen and director of the National Jewish Theatre, Arnold Mittelman’s The Soap Myth explores the claim that the Nazis made soap out of Jewish bodies.  

More after the jump.
Greg Mullavey is brilliant in the role of Milton Saltzman, a Holocaust survivor who bears personal witness to the production of the alleged soap.    The play explores the “inherent conflict between the eyewitness survivor memories and the evidentiary standards demanded by scholars.”  It explores too what role, if any, Holocaust deniers play in this issue.   To what extent ought the Holocaust deniers, who figure prominently in the play, affect Jewish museum exhibits?  More than you would like to think.

“All history is speculative” says Annie Blumberg, the young journalist (played admirably by Andi Potamkin) reporting on the soap myth for a magazine.   The denier, played brilliantly by Dee Pelletier (who also plays the museum director) gives a disturbing lecture, based on actual facts, delivered to a university audience, where she casts doubt on the number of victims who perished during the Shoah. “Must the Jews be greedy even in this” — referring to her claim that Jews have egregiously exaggerated the number of victims who died.    

In exploring the politics of memory, The Soap Myth asks uncomfortable questions about what constitutes enough evidence to make it into a museum exhibit. When the museum gatekeepers reject Milton’s repeated requests to include the soap in their exhibit, they are effectively denying this survivor’s testimony as purely anecdotal. The dramatic struggle of The Soap Myth is Milton’s attempt to get somebody to listen to his painful story.  

The Soap Myth is presented as part of the National Jewish Theatre Foundation and Holocaust Archive initiative, directed by Arnold Mittelman.  Mittelman is the Former Producing Artistic Director for over two decades of the Coconut Grove Playhouse in Florida.  Mittelman founded the National Jewish Theatre in 2007.   Its mission is to celebrate the “genius, creativity and history of the Jewish people.”   NJT produced the Soul of Gershwin, the Musical Journey of an American Calmer, Sholom Alechem: Laughter Through Tears with Theodore Bikel as author and actor.  Future plans of the NJT include plays and musicals such as: The Rothschilds, Joseph Vass’ Words By, Mark Saltzman’s Rocket City Alabam and Hannah by John Wooten.  

NJT’s latest initiative is to create the first comprehensive research and production oriented around the Holocaust Theatre Archive. According to Mittelman, the NJT is filling an unfortunate void that has occurred by the loss of many professional resident English-speaking Jewish theatres, in major cities, including New York.  

It is worth a ride to NYC to see this provocative, haunting play which will have you thinking about the nature of memory and how a survivor survives these memories for a long time.   The Soap Myth is not to be missed.  

The Soap Myth: Black Box Theatre at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre in NYC. Click here for tickets.

Remaining Showtimes

  • Special Holocaust Remembrance Day performances, Today, Thursday, April 19, 2012 3:00 PM and 7:00 PM
  • Friday, April 20, 2012, 8:00 PM
  • Saturday, April 21, 2012, 3:00 PM
  • Final performance, Sunday, April 22, 2012, 3:00 PM

Black Box Theatre at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre, 111 W. 46th Street, New York, NY 10036
Ticket Price: $50-$60; $20 student rush
Ticket Information: 212-352-3101

King Lear of a Role: Tovah Feldshuh in Bristol Riverside’s Gypsy


Broadway veteran and four time Tony nominee Tovah Feldshuh will star as Momma Rose in the Julie Styne-Sondheim-Arthur Laurents musical Gypsy at the Bristol Riverside Theatre December 6, 2011—January 15, 2012.    I had the chance to interview Ms. Feldshuh about the upcoming show and her life as a performer.  

Gypsy opens on December 8, which is a good omen, as Tovah noted it’s the yahrzeit (anniversary) of Golda Meir’s passing as well as the date of her own Bat Mitzvah.    Tovah performed Golda’s Balcony, the longest running one-woman show on Broadway, at the Bristol Riverside in 2010.  

Tovah was not always called Tovah: “I was named after my Aunt Tilley who died in her 30s from tuberculosis.  The Sue comes from my Great Grandmother.”  After she changed her name from Terry Sue to Tovah, her Hebrew name, and began her performance career Tovah said that “it changed the landscape of my life.”  She starred in Yentl on Broadway and in Golda’s Balcony on Broadway, the longest running one-woman show.  But interestingly, she has worked hard not to let her notable Jewish name typecast her: “I’ve played all kinds of roles from Diana Vreeland to judge Danielle Melnick in Law & Order and now, Rose in Gypsy.  What’s in a name? Everything.”

Gypsy is loosely based on the 1957 memoirs of Gypsy Rose Lee, the famous striptease artist, and focuses on her mother, Rose, whose name has become synonymous with “the ultimate show business mother.”  Following the dreams and efforts of Rose to raise two daughters to perform onstage, the musical contains many popular standards, including

Interview follows the jump.

LG:   When I look at the all the things you do between Law and Order and your one-woman shows, films, and now Gypsy, I wonder how you do it all.  Would you consider yourself a driven person?

TF:  I’m at the prime of my faculties as an artist.   I’ve worked hard for my achievements.  As I get older, the process slows down, but the wisdom increases

LG: Gypsy is a play about a lot of things, but at its heart, it explores the mother-daughter relationship.   How has being a mother and a daughter shaped your life?

TF:  Gypsy is a King Lear role for a woman.  I’m trying not to be derivative in my performance.  Rose is a woman of flesh and blood and guts, not a beast.   She’s driven.  I think the abandonment of her mother is the key to her character.   From the moment you have children, they come first.  So you necessarily have to slow down.   But I think my husband and I did ok – as Amanda’s at MIT studying physics and Brandon is at Harvard studying economics.  

Tovah began to sing some lines from the song, Rose’s Turn for me.    

LG: Did you encourage your own daughter, Amanda, to become an actress?

TF:  I discouraged my own children from going into show business.  

LG:  Why?

TF:  I’m very bourgeois.  

LG: What would you have been, if not an actress?

TF: I came into the theatre after I was wait-listed at Harvard Law School.   My Father went to Harvard Law, and it just so happens so did my husband, who I adore.  You don’t need Freud to figure out how this work!.   It was my brother, (David Feldshuh a Pulitzer price nominated playwright for Miss Evers’ Boy) who encouraged me to apply for the McKnight Fellowship, which I received, and this launched my career.

LG: You have worked in show business for 37 years.    You have done film, television, musical theater, drama – how does this fit into your bourgeois bias?

TF:  I’ve been on my own since I was 21.  I had to live life on a budget and worry whether I had enough money for cab fare in NYC.  At 23, when I was starring in Yentl on Broadway, I decided I didn’t want to be poor.    I was committed to making enough money so I could have some freedom.   I have always tried to balance more commercial jobs with more artistic projects.   I also married a Harvard trained lawyer, which helps!

LG:  Do you have stage fright?

TF:  No, I’m at home on the stage.    Being on the stage is like a warm bath.  I let the gold dust settle where it settles.  I try to remain very loose on the stage and let the truth of the character bubble up.  I hope audiences will see my full skill set in action in this performance of Gypsy at the Bristol.  

LG:  What are you currently reading?

TF:  I’m listening to the book American Rose about Gypsy Lee Rose’s life.  I’m also listening to my voice teacher on an Ipod, as I have to stay focused on my singing.  

Tovah sang a few more bars of Rose’s Turn for me and had to return to rehearsal.  

Tovah Feldshuh stars in Gypsy at Bristol Riverside Theatre as part of its 25th Anniversary Season on December 6-January 15.  With music by Jule Styne, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by Arthur Laurents, the production is directed by Keith Baker and also features Robert Newman, Amanda Rose, Brittney Lee Hamilton, Joe Grandy, Bethe B. Austin, Kathryn Kendall, and Demetria Joyce Bailey.

Previews begin Tuesday, December 6 with opening night on Thursday, December 8.  Performances run Tuesday through Sunday until January 15.  Tickets start at $40, with discounts for students and groups.  Tickets are available online or by phone at 215-785-0100.  Bristol Riverside Theatre is located at 120 Radcliffe Street in Bristol, PA.

“They Were Our Neighbors”: Our Class at the Wilma Theater

The Wilma Theater begins its season with the United States Premiere of Our Class, written by Polish playwright Tadeusz Stobodzianek (translated by Ryan Craig) and directed by the Wilma’s Artistic Director Blanka Zizka.   Based on true events in the Polish village of Jedwabne and inspired in part by Princeton History Professor Jan T. Gross’ controversial book Neighbors, Our Class chronicles the lives of ten classmates from their childhood in the 1920s to the beginning of the new millennium.   While it is difficult not to be moved by the tragic subject matter, the play’s overwrought writing, full of sensational and clichéd plotting, does not, finally, succeed in translating the events that happened in Poland into an artful, engaging evening of theatre.  

More after the jump.
On the sparse set, designed by Marsha Ginsberg, you witness the haunting barn inside which 1600 Jews were murdered, burned to death not by the Germans, but by their fellow Polish citizens.   Slobokzianek’s play raises important questions: how can neighbors be moved to murder neighbors, and how does one survive the aftermath of such atrocities?  How do individuals and societies lives with or bury the memory of such deeds?   Unfortunately, the story itself is not told in a compelling, original manner but too often falls into clichéd writing.  For instance, at the opening of Act 2, Wladek, a Pole who must clean up the burned Jewish bodies describes how the bodies were chopped up: “It was horrific.  It made me wretch. I threw up.”   This kind of writing does not add anything to either our understanding of the events nor, more importantly to the character’s development.  

The characters remain wooden and empty vessels – types — who are not fleshed out human beings who one grows to care about.   Torture and brutality and murder and rape – we are well aware of the atrocities of crimes committed by Stalinists and Fascists; good theatre is powerful because it tells us a compelling story with particular details in an engaging way.  Unfortunately, by the time the fourth rape is graphically enacted on the stage I am repelled not by rape, but by the sensationalistic, unaesthetic depiction of actors on a stage.  This could be any rape anywhere and loses its power to move us.   Rather than making the murder that happened in this barn more real, more intimate, more personal, this piling on of characters and rapes effectively dulls us to the events.  It becomes an all too familiar and general tale of life gone very bad for a young group of class mates.  

Are these class mates – Catholic and Jewish, men and women —  the victims of historical circumstances or did they make choices? Unfortunately the play only hints at such questions but its focus seems to want to make us as uncomfortable as possible.   At the performance I attended a group of women left during the intermission.   I had the opportunity to talk with them and the director briefly.  Ms. Zizka, the director, explained that the play does not provide easy answers.   It depicts Jews who sympathized with Stalin as well as local Poles as being responsible for the crimes that occurred.   She said “The characters’ individual memories are subjective and even contradictory.  I admire Tadeusz Slobodzianek’s resolve to ground the play in moral rather than ideological concerns and to leave it to the audience to create their own picture, their own understanding of the events from this choir of disparate voices.”   The audience members with whom I spoke thought the play to be “too much.”  When pressed to state too much of what – they effectively said that the writing was not engaging, that the story was not told in an original manner.   “The characters are not individual, it’s not that the subject matter that is difficult, for I’ve seen many depictions of the Holocaust, but that the writing did not engage me.”  

Despite all of this, the acting is strong, with excellent performances by Kate Czajkowki, who plays Rachelka, a Jewish woman who converts to Catholicism; Michael Rubenfeld, who plays Abram, a Jewish member of the young Polish class who emigrates to America and becomes a rabbi; Ed Swidey who plays Wladek, gives a striking performance.  

In the end Our Class becomes a soggy tale with too much talk of vodka, beatings, hookers and broken fingers, and too little character development to make the play engaging which is a shame as the subject is an excellent one for dramatic adaptation.   Do we really need to know that “eels had eaten off his face.”  In the end, while I admire Our Class’ political and moral engagement with historical material, (for anti-Semitic vandals recently defaced a Polish monument that commemorated where the Polish Jews were killed, writing “they were flammable” and a swastika on the memorial) it fails to make it new, to give new expression to the Shoah.  This does not mean we shouldn’t see the play, and discuss it amongst ourselves — Jews, Poles, Catholics, priests and rabbis.    

After almost three hours of theater, I am left with a lot of chatter — song, dance, and a deluge of words in Our Class, but not what the quiet gravitas that great art may give us by knowing what to leave out.  I wish Our Class had left more restrained silences, more brokenness in its telling of the story of this Polish village.   The German poet Paul Celan’s ambiguous, often sparse poems, in their quiet, mystical restraint, are humble meditations about the Shoah:  “Count the almonds/count what was bitter and kept you awake/ count me in.”  
*  
On Tuesday, November 1st: “America as Haven,”  A program of The Wilma Theatre and the National Museum of American Jewish History.  This program will examine the idea and reality of this country as a place where immigrants can find a new life.  Director Blank Zizka, who was born in the former Czechoslovakia, will discuss her own experience alongside others with expertise of 20th Century immigration.  Actor Michael Rubenfeld from the production of Our Class, will read letters from the Museum’s collection written across continents between immigrants and their families.  Complimentary reception follows the discussion..   Held at the National Museum of American Jewish History, 101 S. Independence Mall East.

Our Class: October 21 – November 13, 2011
Where: The Wilma Theatre   265 South Broad Street   Philadelphia, PA 19107
Tickets: range from $39 to $66, available at the Wilma Box office 215 546 7824, visiting www.wilmatheater.org or at the theater.

   

A Soul is Like a Play: New Jerusalem at the Lantern Theatre

  • All we get is the poetry of a Jewish fruit peddler and a heap of vanishing figs.  — Baruch Spinoza
  • You will be greater than all of us, but not as a Jew. — Rabbi Mortera


Reminiscent of intellectual dramas like Copenhagen, New Jerusalem: The Interrogation of Baruch de Spinoza at Talmud Torah Congregation: Amsterdam, July 27, 1656 is an ambitious new drama by David Ives, known for his evenings of one act comedies called All in the Timing and Time Flies.  Playing through November 6th at the Lantern Theater Company, this heady play directed by Lantern’s Artistic Director Charles McMahon is based on true events in the life of the philosopher Baruch de Spinoza.  This recent off-Broadway hit challenges traditional political and religious thinking with passion and wit.  

The production’s action takes place in the Amsterdam synagogue where the 23 year old stands trial for his revolutionary thoughts about God, nature and human life.  Sam Henderson’s Spinoza, donning a black leather bomber jacket, (costumes beautifully designed by Maggie Baker with lighting by Shon Causer) is arrogant but humble, witty and rakish.   The favorite son of the rabbi’s heir apparent, (played by David Bardeen) Spinoza refuses to remain silent about his revolutionary thoughts, and is accused by political leader and Calvinist Abraham van Valkenburgh ( played by Seth Reichgott) of heresy.   The audience becomes part of this trial as we witness Spinoza refuse to silence his radical beliefs, denying the divine origin of the Torah which sits in the Ark of the Covenant, that provides the effective and sparsely designed backdrop for the action (designed by Nick Embree).

More after the jump.
Accused of atheism, Spinoza protests, “I know a few things about God no one else does.”    Accused of loving a Christian woman, Clara van den Eden (played beautifully by Mary Tuomanen) Spinoza insists she tell the truth when she is questioned, for her “essence will not allow her to lie.”  His petty and vengeful half-sister Rebekah de Spinoza, (played by Kittson O’Neill) who early in the play betrays her brother, marks one of the weaker plot points as later in the play she professes great loyalty.  Her kvetching (from the audience where she glares at her accused brother on trial to be excommunicated) while intended to provide some comic relief, strikes one of the few false notes of the evening.  

The most convincing and moving relationship we witness is that between the Head Rabbi of Amsterdam, Mortera, and Spinoza, whom he considers like a grandson.    While Spinoza is intoxicated “by God and mathematics”, the rabbi must think about the community of faithful Jews whose religious freedom is being threatened.   Will the Rabbi remain faithful to his most gifted student or will he turn his back on him for the sake of the Jewish community’s survival?  

Ives manages to write an engaging courtroom drama full of complex philosophical ideas from Descartes’ dualism to the Mishneh Torah.   If questions like: is there immortality, is there a God, what are the moral implications of a world without God, interest you — you will spend two riveting hours at the Lantern Theater Company.   Remember, when Albert Einstein was asked about his belief in God, he responded, “I believe in Spinoza’s God.”   To find out what he means by this go see New Jerusalem at the Lantern Theater Company.

On Saturday, October 22nd at 2 pm there will be a Panel Discussion on the Lantern Main Stage called Out of Order! Courtrooms as Theatre, Courtrooms in Theatre featuring Vince Regan, Assistant Chief District Attorney of Philadelphia, Philadelphia playwright Bruce Graham.  

New Jerusalem runs through November 6th.

  • Lantern Theater Company at St. Stephen’s Theater
  • 10th and Ludlow Streets, Philadelphia, PA 19107
  • Adults: $20 – $36, Students: $10 – $26, $10 student rush tickets available 10 minutes before curtain with valid ID; cash only. Special discounts are available for seniors and groups of 10 or more.
  • Phone: (215) 829-0395