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September 22, 2014 / 27 Elul, 5774
At a Glance

Posts Tagged ‘Yiddish Theater’

You Can’t Go Home: Digital Art By Shulamit Tibor

Wednesday, April 14th, 2004

Through the Curtain: Digital Art by Shulamit Tibor
Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion Museum
One West 4th Street, New York, NY 10012; (212) 824-2205
Mon.-Thurs. 9 a.m.-5 p.m.; Friday, 9 a.m.-3 p.m.; Selected Sundays
Free Admission: Until June 25, 2004


 

We all attempt to reap sustenance from the past. Our collective heritage acts as a foundation of cultural values necessary for us to build into the future. But what happens if we are cut off from that past? “Past the Shoah there is a black hole,” comments Shulamit Tibor, an Israeli artist whose new digital prints confront the memory of the Yiddish Theater in an attempt to
pierce the silence and reclaim that which is rightfully hers.

Tibor’s unusual images are constructed from scanned photographs of productions at the Yiddish Theater of Warsaw (1920′s), the Moscow Yiddish State Theater (1920′s), the Vilna Troupe (1920′s), and the Yiddishpiel Theater of Tel Aviv (1990′s). With this diverse source material, she has constructed a series of eighteen large and dramatic Lamda Prints in which the
images are edited, cut, pasted, manipulated and reconstructed to simultaneously represent a largely vanished Jewish theatrical world and our inaccessibility to it. She has worked on this project for the last two years, and the current exhibition at the Hebrew Union College Gallery, curated by Laura Kruger, represents a selection of the 45 artworks created.

After 25 years of painting a wide variety of subjects and styles, Tibor turned to the computer as a new means of expression, creating images that manipulated light and photographs in the creation of interior and exterior environments immediately recognizable and yet totally fabricated. Using the raw material of the Yiddish Theater, some of which is on display to provide a startling comparison, Tibor has again fabricated a totally remarkable world.

This constructed visual world represents for her the collective memory of the Yiddish Theater that was almost totally erased after the war. She remembers vividly her parents’ tales of the Yiddish Theater in Europe that slowly faded in an Israel that turned its back on the Eastern European past, a past that felt shameful and filled with tragedy. The Yiddish Theater in Israel in the late 1940′s and 1950′s was performed only in Hebrew, and Eastern European culture was generally shunned in the Israeli secular public schools where she was educated. She feels that her current work is “closing the circle” of memories lost to the next generation of youth and Sephardim.

Distance and longing are central to her vision in the image of The Dybbuk. A spectral female figure commands the center stage surrounded by a crowd that fills the middle ground. She is frozen in mid-step, a luminous outsider passing through the glum reality behind her. The figure is created digitally by cutting and transposing one figure over an existing image. The entire mysterious scene is further removed from the viewer by the transparent curtain that distorts our vision. S. Anksy’s great masterpiece of Yiddish Theater thus haunts us, invading our consciousness and disturbing our dreams as a dybbuk in search of a resting place.

Mirele Efros is also glimpsed behind a curtained image. Here also Tibor has rearranged the figures and, through the means of the partially transparent scrim, has manipulated the characters to her own ends. The relationship between the mother and her daughter-in-law (played by Ida Kaminska and her daughter Ruth Turgow) is strangely shifted as the daughter-in-law is emphasized by her centrality and light, even as the scrim obscures her face. This is echoed by the fact that each of the characters is partially obscured and immersed in their own thoughts. The psychological drama is thus vividly evoked as playing out on the other side of a visual barrier imposed by the artist. The viewer feels as trapped on this side of the scrim as the frozen characters on the other side.

Tibor breaks through this barrier in three singular images from Chomesh Songs. The material she uses is from the contemporary Yiddishpiel Theater in Tel Aviv in 1990. Each is a radically different image showcasing the artist’s skills. In one (40 x 20) a girl in a colorful costume is distantly glimpsed through a crack in a digital door. She and a black and white companion peer out at us as if we were on stage, expected to perform. The next image shatters a scene of four players with a vertical slicer as if the theatrical reality had been shredded to conceal its identity. Even though all the parts are properly arranged, the viewer must constantly reconstruct the image much in the same way that Yiddish Theater performed today feels like an oddly reconstructed vision of the past.

The past looms even more emphatically in the third image (40 x 30) of Chomesh Songs. Two costumed figures face us bravely in the midst of speaking or singing directly to the audience. In the context of the other exhibition prints, they are alarmingly direct, perhaps because looming behind them Tibor has placed their negative images, devoid of color and twice their size. This negative presence completely alters our understanding of the stage performance by suggesting that in the Yiddish Theater, each actor and each character casts a kind of negative shadow of performances and performers long gone. It is almost as if no matter how contemporary a performance may seem, the past with its glorious memories haunts the present day stage,
confusing and complicating what we witness.

Shimale’s Dream brings us to the very edge of pathos by placing the lead character, seen in what must be heartfelt song, between two stately columns. This formal frame, coolly lit in the foreground with a bluish light, isolates, flattens and emotionally crushes the performance we glimpse. The artist has made us painfully aware of two distinct worlds that may never coincide.
Today’s theater, represented by the realistically lit columns, is seen as pristine and empty. Seen behind the contemporary reality is an emotional performance that we know would move us to tears, if we could only reach it.

Shulamit Tibor’s remarkable prints explore the complexities of the contemporary audience’s relationship with the Yiddish Theater. Fueled by childhood memories of that which was already out of reach, Tibor’s longing to connect with the Yiddish Theater is the engine of her creativity. For us, the curtain may never be fully opened. Indeed, no matter how much we may try, it seems you can’t go home anymore.


Richard McBee is a painter of Torah subject matter and writer on Jewish Art. Please feel free to contact him with comments at www.richardmcbee.com.

Akeydes Yitskhok – Goldfaden’s Masterpiece Revived

Wednesday, February 4th, 2004

Akeydes Yitskhok by Abraham Goldfaden -
Folksbiene Yiddish Theater. 45 East 33red Street, New
York, N.Y. 10016. (212) 213-2120.
www.folksbiene.org  


 

 

It could have been a travesty. Indeed, think of a musical of Akeydes Yitskhok, frivolous singing and play-acting the most awesome and sacred drama in the Torah! And yet the genius of Abraham Goldfaden in collaboration with the Folksbiene Yiddish Theater achieved an unmitigated triumph of Biblical insight and creativity worthy of the best yeshiva. On November 25, 2003 a staged reading in Yiddish with English supertitles of this masterpiece under the musical direction of Zalman Mlotek was performed at the Jewish Community Center in Manhattan to a standing room only audience. That night great drama and riveting theater blossomed from the Torah and Midrashim.

Abraham Goldfaden (1840-1908), Yiddish poet, composer and revered founder of the Yiddish Theater, created Akeydes Yitskhok in 1897 as a Biblical operetta. As strange as it might seem to produce a musical about what is one of the most momentous narrative in the
Torah, it is a vibrant example of the daring creativity of the Yiddish Theater in its youth.

The musical respectfully approaches the text as any Torah student would, delving into midrashim and commentaries as it attempts to understand the sparse narrative. As a result, it moves simultaneously in opposite directions. First it fleshes out the Biblical narrative of only 19 verses into a rich exploration the life of Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Ishmael and Eliezer. And as it
is accomplishing that task, it opens a panoramic view of the whole Torah, glancing back to “Zeideh Noah” even as it anticipates the Temple offerings. The familiar tenth trial of Abraham is recast into drama filled with surprises, Divine interjections and heart wrenching questioning that reveals the Yiddish Theater as a complex and revolutionary medium of Jewish artistic expression.

Mark Altman directed this production and oversees the staged reading series, Hidden Treasures. He sees Goldfaden’s Akeydes Yitskhok as probing the question of “What does it mean to serve G-d?” And true to Goldfaden’s mission in his latter years to bring serious
drama to a Yiddish speaking audience, he proceeds to explore the thorny issues that lie at the center of the narrative. How and why did Abraham so easily accept G-d’s command and where was Sarah during this momentous event? The entire production brilliantly revolves around these questions.

The prelude sweetly opens with Isaac’s guardian angel (gloriously sung by Arianne Slack) praising the old couple; “Happy are they with their baby… Oy, a child is the world!” The stage of human emotions is set upon which the Biblical drama will unfold.

A dialogue ensues between Abraham (played by David Rogow) and his servant Eliezer (Tzahi Moskowitz) questioning how he can possibly repay the Master of the Universe for all the bounty that He has bestowed upon him. All his sacrifices, all his faith and actions seem puny
next to the greatness of G-d’s generosity and kindness.

G-d commands Abraham to offer his son, who is “dearer than all my possessions, nay, my entire life … my son!” Eliezer challenges him, first echoing Abraham’s midrashic questions and G-d’s answers: “Which son ?”… “the one you love,” “ah…Yitskhok!” The ultimate responsibility is now shared by Abraham as Goldfaden removes G-d’s voice from the narrative and finds it in angelic and human mouths, to make the drama even more achingly human and passionately real. Eliezer protests but Abraham argues, “My G-d ordered me! – Whom do I listen to, whom? He gave him to me, He can take him back…”

They argue, Eliezer pleading, “…you are pious, you love your G-d - but do not further forget, that Yitskhok is your son, and you are his father….” The second sacrifice is ready: it will be his mother!” At this dramatic moment Sarah (brought to life by the incomparable Mina Bern) enters as Isaac’s bar mitzva feast begins.

Goldfaden’s libretto (he wrote the music as well) reflects his penchant to empower women in the Biblical narratives, fleshing out their voices, concerns and passions much as the Midrash frequently does. Here, where Sarah is tragically silent (especially considering that the episode results in her death). Goldfaden gives her a real voice, touching on the Jewish heart and soul by concentrating on the relationship between mother and son.

Goldfaden’s career was spent modernizing Jewish music and entertainment for the Yiddish speaking masses. He was born in the Ukraine and had a thorough Hebrew education in addition to Russian, German and secular subjects. He studied in the rabbinical seminary at
Zhitomir (a government supervised yeshiva) and quickly came under the influence of the leaders of the Haskalah movement in the 1860′s. As he composed Yiddish poems and songs for badhanim and folksingers, he conceived of the notion of a Yiddish Theater that would
combine song, drama and theater for the Jewish masses.

After the first performances in 1876, the idea flourished throughout Russia until the Czarist government, fearing the revolutionary new medium, banned performances in Yiddish in 1883. This of course simply caused the new art form to spread throughout the world, establishing outposts in Paris, London and New York. Light comedies such as Shmendrik (1877) were typical of his early work, until the worsening conditions of Russian Jewry caused him to concentrate on more serious dramas. The famous operetta Shulamis (1880) was a transition to more overtly political works that praised heroism and sacrifice like Bar Kochba in 1887. Goldfaden was a follower of the Hovevei Zion movement and wrote his last play Ben Ami (1907) in reaction to Herzl’s death. In light of this history, one can see how Goldfaden uses Akeydes Yitskhok to enter into the dialogue that surely consumed his audience in 1897. What does G-d want of His people, as we continue to face calamity after calamity? Will He stop the sacrifice of Jews this time also?

After Yishmoel (played as a fool by Mark Altman) is introduced as a farcical but evil brother, Yitskhok (sensitively performed by Meena Lifshe Viswanath) sings at his bar mitzva the haunting and expansive song, “Zeideh Noah, have compassion…” The ballad invites pair after pair of animals into the safely of the Ark, each revealing their G-d-given purpose in creation.
The lion’s children will spare Daniel, the ravens will feed Elijah the Prophet, the ox will atone for our sins on the altar, and the red heifer will purify; each has a role to play just as Yitskhok does now.

As father and son make ready to leave, Sarah questions, worries and finally forbids. Why does Abraham need to take Yitskhok to study far away? She will miss him even for a short while as she holds him a few moments more. Abraham insists and Sarah rebels; “Ha! Now I am not called Sarah – now I am not your wife, now I am Yitskhok’s mother – my soul, my blood, my body… Forgive me G-d, that I oppose Your will, You alone make me tremble…” The full force of a mother’s anguish overflows the stage as she sings a tender lullaby to her beloved son; “The good G-d is your guardian, sleep, sleep well.” And then suddenly father
and son are gone. She panics and lapses into a dream, a terrible dream in which her son is offered as a sacrifice… “my child is now being killed…” We gasp in horror with the terrified 90-year-old mother as the chorus prays to G-d that angels should protect him on the journey.

Goldfaden has drawn us into the very heart of the narrative, finding the meaning of Abraham’s sacrifice in Sarah’s anguish. Just as the piyutim on Rosh Hashanah summon Sarah’s cries over Isaac’s ashes, the audience, today or a hundred years earlier, religious or secular, is deeply moved by the confrontation with the tragedies of Jewish history.

The second act allows us to eavesdrop on Abraham and Yitskhok on the way to Mount Moriah. Yitskhok yearns to serve G-d even as he worries about his mother. In a compassionate aside, Yishmoel sings an earnest song to the donkey, his only friend, as Goldfaden finds resonant meaning in the “other” son who was sent away.

The fateful ending reveals a dialogue between father and son, each bravely determined to do G-d’s will even as Yitskhok demands “Woe is me…, woe is me, it is bitter, what will my dear mother do now… What will become of her…” Abraham, faced with the terrible moment, hesitates and questions, “Father. I am his father - no? Why am I getting scared… and this is my child… no, why am I frozen… this knife has two edges… one for the child, one for the father… I am now ready!” And, of course, the angel intercedes and all rejoice as the curtain descends.

The Folksbiene Yiddish Theater, following in Abraham Goldfaden’s footsteps, continues to explore the vast spectrum of Yiddish drama, especially in productions of the Reading Series like this one. Here in a more modest format productions can experiment with creative works that may not be able to fill the house as popular Yiddish entertainment.

In the spring, they plan to present two works in commemoration of the Kishinev Pogrom: Di Familye Tzvi by David Pinski and Moshkele Khazer by I.D. Berkowitz. Each work unblinkingly examines the Russian Jewish world of 1903 challenged with troubling communal
divisions, deadly external threats and determined national hopes. Somehow it is not surprising that this vibrant Jewish art form still has much to teach us today.

I gratefully acknowledge the Encyclopedia Judaica for biographical material on Goldfaden.


Richard McBee is a painter of Torah subject matter and writer on Jewish Art. Please feel free to email him with comments at rmcbee@nyc.rr.com

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/sections/akeydes-yitskhok-goldfadens-masterpiece-revived/2004/02/04/

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