Sunday, June 14, 2009

A Movie, A Book, A Play

This morning I attended a terrific literature class in which we watched a film by Amir Goren called "66 Was a Good Year for Tourism" and discussed snippets from a novel by Yitzchak Goren that tells a counternarrative to Israeli European-ness by portraying the lives of a family of Sephardic Jews one summer in Alexandria as remembered by a man who now lives in Israel. Our conversation centered around building identity in multiple places, the meaning of nostalgia, and as per the theme of the course itself, on masculinity as defined by these texts. Anyway, I very much enjoyed the Goren texts and encourage you to check them out if you have a chance.
I skipped the rest of my classes because my friend Nicole and her amiable husband Joe were in town and wanted to meet me for lunch. Together with Nicole and Joe I enjoyed the pleasant if a bit overwhelming summer sun as we strolled to the shuk to buy bread, hummus, vegetables, and halva, and then went back to my apartment to eat our plentiful lunch. It was such a pleasure to see both of them, and I am very much looking forward to spending time with them in New York. It's very exciting to feel that good friendships can be picked up again after so long - the conversation came easily and comfortably, and I think we all had a lovely time.
After an afternoon of Hebrew homework (most of it should have been completed long ago, but I keep putting it off), and reading a book I'm very much enjoying, I went to see a performance of the drama club at Har El synagogue. As I suspected, the performance reminded me a bit of the plays that my grandfather used to participate in with his retirement community, only this was in a less comfortable performance space, was ostensibly a more serious play, and was of course in a language that I don't know very well...
The play was called Dreyfus, by Jean-Claude Grumber. I think it was originally written in French and then translted into Hebrew, but as the characters are in 1930's Vilna I suppose they are meant to be speaking in Hebrew (and the non-Jews in Polish?) so language was a bit confusing.
The premise of the show is that a group of amateur actors in Vilna stage a play about Dreyfus, and the actors don't find the theme relevant to their own situation. It is a comedy, in part, as they perform poorly and a frustrated director corrects their follies, but it is also a tragedy as the actors do not heed the warning inherrent in the Dreyfus story, claiming that nothing of the sort could happen in Poland. They stress the differences between Eastern and Western Jews, don't relate to the notion of Zionism, etc. In the end, two anti-Semitic non-Jews enter the playhouse and start harassing an actor, threatening to cut of his beard, etc. The actors gather their courage and, brandishing fake swords from their costumes, they get rid of the agressors. Ultimately, though, they don dark coats, carry suitcases, the lights grow dim, and serious faced they stand together while the sound of a train echoes in the performance space.
I don't know what I think of this play. It was replete with silly and hysterical women, and with notions of Polish Jews being naive and comic. At one point an actor suggests that the Dreyfus play would be better with some catchy music, and she starts humming "If I Were a Rich Man" a gross anachronism and a symbol for the way that Jews today resort to pop culture to invoke a sense of history... But on the other hand, it was a play that mixed the seriousness of the history (if mitigated by the anti-Semites speaking Hebrew and not acting very violently) with the humanity and humor of everyday life in what is perhaps a more genuine representation of the past than one that looks at the whole long history of East European Jewry as inevitably and bleakly leading to destruction, a sad and downtrodden people without resilience of spirit or the will to creat and enjoy beauty and life.
I slipped out of the synagogue as fast as could be possible when most people in the sanctuary were walking very slowly with canes and we were all heading to the same exit. When I got to my apartment I knocked on the neighbors' door to invite them to have dinner with me Tuesday night - I keep meaning to do something with them before I leave but forgetting, so I'm very proud of myself for setting a date. They made me promise I wouldn't go to too much trouble to cook for them, so I'll have to think about what to make. Suggestions?

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