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Berlin, Jerusalem and the Moon

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BERLIN, JERUSALEM AND THE MOON

A Traveling Jewish Theatre

at Wisdom Bridge Theatre

There's a distinctly haymishe, homey, quality to Berlin, Jerusalem and the Moon. Not matzo ball soup haymishe. More like City College of New York haymishe. Irving Howe and Grace Paley, Nat Hentoff and Jules Feiffer haymishe. The haymishe of the literate Jewish leftist. It's the sort of show you might expect to see written by a committee of Jewish Village Voice staffers, under the chairmanship of Mort Sahl.

Just look at the list of characters. Two are historical figures out of the tradition of radical Jewish intellectualism: the paradoxically mystical Marxist thinker, Walter Benjamin, and his fellow German, expressionist poet Else Lasker-Schuler. Then there's Edie—a middle-aged, middle-class, hip Jewish feminist New Yorker not unlike TV's Maude; and Izzie the K—a cross between Kafka and Lenny Bruce. Even Jacob the patriarch puts in an appearance.

All these folks are absorbed in great and painful conflicts over their identities—a typically leftist/Jewish pastime, since leftist Jews are typically on the outs: too cosmopolitan for their religious tradition and too sectarian for their political environment. Edie can't reconcile her feminism with a tradition that says that as a woman she doesn't qualify to say kaddish, the memorial prayer, on behalf of her own beloved dead. Izzie makes bitter jokes about the assimilative seductions of the United States and his own love-hate relationship with Israel.

For Benjamin and Lasker-Schuler, the conflicts are potentially mortal. Utterly at home in the culture and language of Goethe and Hegel, Mozart and Marx, they're made instant aliens by Hitler's rise to power in the early 30s.

Lasker-Schuler doesn't need to be told more than once: a beating from Nazi street thugs sends her first to Zurich and then to Jerusalem. But Benjamin's disengagement is more prolonged—and much less successful. He offers us a chalk talk on the possibilities open to him, eliminating "Berlin," "Marxism," and "Homeland," and finally lighting on what he considers to be the only genuine alternative, which is to "describe impossibility." This, of course, is precisely what Jewish thinkers, mystics, and plain folk have done for centuries. And yet—oddly enough for a Jewish Marxist—Benjamin can't sustain the contradiction. Frustrated in his belated attempt to reach the United States, he ends up committing suicide.

Around and over all these struggles—serving as a sort of metaphorical bookend, enclosing them—is the story of Jacob and how he wrestled with a mysterious "man" all night, prevailing at sunrise, and therefore obtaining a new name: Israel, which means "he that strives with God."

Berlin tells this story with a crucial change of emphasis. Where the Genesis Jacob fights aggressively, dominates his opponent, and demands his new name as a kind of ransom before he'll let that opponent go, the Berlin Jacob struggles only to be free of his assailant and assumes his Israel identity only after he's been overpowered. Conflated with the hapless Benjamin, this Jacob discovers his Judaism by running away from it.

And even then he's not exactly reconciled to it. It descends upon him in the form of a mask he can't help but wear. He's gonna be Jewish whether he likes it or not.

This is all very familiar to Jews of a certain age and politics. The New Left-and-older crowd spent a lot of time from the late 40s to the mid-70s agonizing over their ethnic and intellectual loyalties. Or trying to evade them. Batted back and forth between internationalist attitudes and Holocaust realities, between Zionist sympathies and Palestinian suffering, between Marxist science and Yiddishe tahm, they couldn't help but see their Jewishness as a kind of dark stalker—an obsessed detective, like Javert in Les miserables, who knows the truth about their past and won't stop tracking them down.

To these Jews, Berlin's conflicts, and its image of an identity that won't be denied, would've been devastatingly appropriate. But there's been a lot of thinking, talking, writing, and debating over the last decade or so. Authors like Cynthia Ozick and organizations like the New Jewish Agenda have rediscovered the profundity and validity of Jewish humanism. They assume the compatibility of progressive politics with a strong Jewish identity. Venerable figures like Hentoff and Howe assume it.

The issue, in short, is settled. The big question for Jewish leftists isn't which element to give up—their Jewishness or their leftism—but how best to expound the connection between them. What are the particular features of a Jewish feminism? How does a democratic Jew respond to Shamir and the Palestinian uprising?

In this context, Berlin comes off feeling like nothing so much as nostalgia. Pleasantly unpleasant. A haymishe but thoroughly regressive look at dilemmas past. Sure, Izzie's riff describing his stomach-churning angst over Israel is tragically apt. But practically everything else, including the show's basic intellectual stance, suggests a visit to somebody's old consciousness-raising group.

Still, if I was going to visit somebody's old consciousness-raising group, this would be the one, brought to Chicago by the San Francisco-based trio known as A Traveling Jewish Theatre. With her oddly naive style, at once intimate and declamatory, Naomi Newman conveys all the emotion but little of the sophistication I'd expect from an avant-gardist like Lasker-Schuler. But she and Albert Louis Greenberg have perfected a singing style—a sort of neuroticized warble—that captures both the show's Judeo-European ethnicity and its intense commitment to ambivalence. Greenberg's moves as Izzie establish a perfect corollary to this style. I greatly admire his frenetic, explicitly uncool presence.

Which makes a nice foil for Corey Fischer's more cogitative manner. Long-faced and hulking, Fischer surprised me with his grace as Benjamin/Jacob. It's Fischer who creates two of the most exquisite moments in the show: first, when he manipulates a puppet of his own making in telling the tale of Benjamin's final hours; and then, when he performs his dance of identity with the mask of Israel—that mask also, by the way, of his own making. Politically appropriate or not, Fischer's final dance is exquisite.

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