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Michael Wex’s attack on Wagner

wagnerThe following is an article Wex published in the Canadian Theatre Review, no. 103, Summer 2000 as an introduction to his play I Just Wanna Jewify: The Yiddish Revenge on Wagner, which premiered at Harbourfront Theatre, Toronto, in 1999.

Posted with the Permission of University of Toronto Press. www.utpjournals.com/ctr

It´s hard to Be a Jew: Culture Clash I

In the winter of 1998, I received an e-mail from Heiko Lehmann, the Berlin half of Golus Storytheatre Toronto-Berlin, in which he told me that the galleys of his translation of my novel, Shlepping the Exile, had just arrived from the publisher. Apparently, the publisher had some concerns about Lehmann´s accuracy and had hired a consultant to review the translation and make the necessary corrections. Lehmann was writing to tell me that the consultant (who was paid more to be consulted than Lehmann had been to do the translation) had decided that the jelly roll in "Jelly Roll Morton" was, at least in part, a plea for help from an uncomprehending Lehmann and had thus rushed into the breach and turned the composer of King Porter Stomp and "Originator of Jazz and Stomps, Victor Recording Artist, World´s Greatest Hot Tune Writer" into Himbeer-Roulade - God help us, Pigmeat Markham would have come out as Schweineschnitzel - Himbeer-Roulade, Raspberry Turnover Morton. Lehmann still refuses to tell me what she did with such recondite colloquialisms as "talk white, Ikey" and "riddle me jerk-offs."

Culture Clash II

On stage at Klezkamp, probably the single most influential Yiddish culture event in the world, I´m singing a country and western song about a yeshiva student whose wife has up and left him. The music for the chorus has been creatively borrowed from the old Kitty Wells hit, (It Wasn´t God Who Made) Honky Tonk Angels:

"As I sit here tonight in the bes-medresh,
My closest friend is the kupl on my head.
And I´ll sit here all night in the bes-medresh,
`Cause there ain´t no more couple in my bed."

The crowd at Klezkamp is overwhelmingly Jewish, sufficiently interested in Yiddish culture to spend a week immersed in it in a Catskills hotel. No one seemed to have any trouble understanding bes-medresh, which means a study hall or small synagogue, but the far more common term kupl (rhymes with the English for "twosome"), another word for yarmulke or skullcap, baffled so many in the audience -- not a few be-scullcapped males among them - that I was asked to "sing it again, but this time tell us who the couple on his head are."

Taking Yiddish Revenge in English

S´iz shver tsu zayn a yid, huh? It´s hard to be a Jew, especially when what you want is to be one on the stage without turning yourself into the usual earthily ironic, shoulder-shrugging sigh in pants who sounds like the wise but humble neighbour in any number of plays by Clifford Odets. Golus Storytheatre Toronto-Berlin, founded by Lehmann and me in 1995, was established as an alternative to the near-moribund contemporary Yiddish theatre, on the one hand, and to such more popular media-Jews as Fran Drescher, Woody Allen or Jackie Mason, none of whose shtick has much to do with actual Jewish culture, on the other. Our motto, insofar as we needed one for grant applications and the like, was "Yiddish in the world, the world in Yiddish." Though the shows themselves are in English or German - with the exception of Jewify, Golus´s entire repertoire exists in separate but equal English and German versions - the subject matter and ethos derive exclusively from Yiddish and the Yiddish-speaking world, neither of which bears much resemblance to the way it´s depicted in the more popular media.

Golus´s first show - golus, incidentally, means "exile" in Yiddish - was God in Paris "Yeah, that´s right, it´s me, Ezra Pound when he still had payes (sidelocks). Kalman Franzoys, Kalman Frenchman, the guy who translated Mein Kampf into Yiddish … If you can´t fuck the goyim, don´t even go out of the house."

The general North American response to this show was "Not in front of the goyim. You want to say that kind of stuff, do us all a favour and say it in Yiddish" - that way, not even the Jews would understand enough to be upset. Among the consequences of the Third Reich´s attempt to put Wagner´s racial ideas into practice is the fact that the number of fluent Yiddish speakers likely to enter a theatre today is so tiny that most of the Yiddish theatres and theatrical groups still in existence routinely replace the "harder" words in their scripts with more common equivalents or circumlocations, even when headphones are provided for simultaneous translation. Imagine Shakespeare, Death of a Salesman or Long Day´s Journey Into Night performed in Basic English and billed as the original - except that Yiddish theatre often goes farther, expanding and improving on even these ersatz originals by adding musical numbers adapted to the tastes of today.

So the whole idea of mocking Wagner in Yiddish more than half a century after the end of World War II is already an instance of what is referred to in Yiddish as "laughing with worms", or "laughing with lizards" - the sort of laughter provoked by disaster. A gentile might whistle in the dark; Yiddish speakers seem to prefer the irony of wisecracks in an empty room. Just about the only difference between telling jokes about Wagner in Yiddish and resurrecting Etruscan in order to make nasty remarks about the Latins is that Yiddish has not been completely forgotten and, as such, is often forced to comply with the expactations of those who think they know the language and who enjoy the sort of Yiddish theatre described above.

Since doing the show in Yiddish would be both impractical and unfundable, Yiddish had somehow to be worked into it as a character; hence the narrator´s father, an orthodox Jew who cultivates an interest in Wagner dem oybershtn aftselakhis, just to get God´s goat. Nearly all the actual Yiddish in I Just Wanna Jewify appears in songs: a Yiddish theatre hit, Mayn Shteytele Belz, still well-known enough to be familiar even to people who can´t understand the lyrics; parodies of Goethe´s Gretchen am Spinnrade (to the tune of Hound Dog) and Schubert´s Die Forelle, likely to be recognized as such by an audience attending a show about Wagner; and a song by Lehmann and me about the vacuum in which most contemporary Yiddish performance must necessarily take place, into the middle of which a translation has been interpolated. Our problem was fundamentally that of putting Mein Kampf into Yiddish, except that Kalman Franzoys, had he only existed, would at least have had a potential audience.

Living our own jokes seems, however, to be the Golus way. I Just Wanna Jewify (the title is a calque on an old Parliament song called I Just Wanna Testify) was suggested by a line in an ealier Golus production, Sex in Yiddish. A series of five English-language monologues in which nobody ever has sex, Sex in Yiddish deals in part with the efforts of his protagonist, a barely pubescent Hasidic boy living in a small town in southern Alberta in 1957, to turn himself into a beatnik:

"I bopped my prayer book on the off-beat by Passover of my junior year in high school, intoned my Torah with the fifth all flatted every Monday, Tuesday and Oo-bop-a-shabbes - it was meshiekhs tsaytn, the messianic era, for us high school shmoes, the world was going beatnik and nobody cared if you were good in gym. Nine times through On the Road and I still didn´t get it - if Christians getting drunk was the wave of the future, then the Yiddish papers were hip, as hep to the shlep as they come. But I wasn´t going to argue with success: compared to a plain old yarmulke, my new black beret was the bendin´, solid-sendin´, the all offendin´, nisht-far-ka-yidn-gedakht [it-shouldn´t-happen-to-a-Jew] livin´ end. I swung my tsitsis [ritual fringes], flipped my little bo-payes [sidelocks] into Beat Generation sideburns, while scatting my daily page of Talmud to A Night in Tunesia. I was makin´ my mommy meshuge."

The protagonist manages to acquire a nice Jewish girlfriend from a less religious, more assimilated family:

"We used to live for the weekends, when her parents went to Calgary for cultural pursuits. They were in Calgary and we were in her basement, just the two of us and her father´s Dylan Thomas records. I wouldn´t turn out the light or touch the record player - God, it was a sin already to listen shabbes [on the Sabbath] - but I knew I was just as guilty as she was. She´d, uh, take off her blouse if I let her wear my yarmulke. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, quid pro quo or something out of nothing, I don´t know. All I know is we were in each others arms, her breasts cupped under my hands, my payes a-twirl in her fingers, arguing about whether my father had killed Dylan Thomas in his goddammed Brooks Brothers prayer shawl.

O God, whose existence I used to question while praying three times a day, O God, the way the Cheez Whiz used to cleave to her braces - she had to brush her teeth if she wanted a kiss. Beatnik or no beatnik, treyf [non-kosher] was still treyf, and I wasn´t going into that mouth until she´s hauled out the Listerine and made with the shvenk, ´cause everything that lived was holy, but some of it still wasn´t kosher.

Yisgadal ve-yiskadash, I was getting to sit shiva for at least half my virginity, when a freak snowstorm kept Sabina´s parents from the Calgary Peretz School´s annual Music Is Music event: highlights from the Ring-cycle in Yiddish, just to show how big we could be."

Impelled in equal parts by a cable-cast of Anthony Robbins, an overnight train trip from Budapest to Zurich, a letter from the non-Jewish director of a German klezmer festival accusing me of anti-Semitism and a couple of looming deadlines, Lehmann and I decided to try to put some money where our mouths had been and make Wagner´s complaints about "the be-jewing of modern art" into palpable, if rather tardy, reality. By means of music, storytelling, theatrical dialogue, sight-gags, puppetry and instruction in the nature and ethos of Yiddish, Jewify proceeds from the assumption that the major characters of Wagner´s operas, especially the Ring cycle, are all orthodox Jews, and that the pristine Deutschtum which Wagner sought to rekindle was in fact Ashkenazic Judaism, as evidenced by the kinship between Yiddish and German. Wagner´s oeuvre is dissected and then recast in terms of its absolute negation, Judaism, particularly those forms of Judaism influenced by Yiddish (which Wagner himself, in his Judaism in Music, takes as the virtual negation of German). More than a simple attack on a man who is no longer around to defend himself, Jewify is an examination of the effects of nationalism and ethnic essentialism on art, as well as some of the consequences of Wagner´s almost incalculable influence on twentieth century art and artistic self-presentation.

The Production

I had received $1,500 from the Laidlaw Foundation to write the show; the Ashkenaz Festival, which had agreed to put the show up, was prepared to offer us a budget (including salaries) of only $2,750, which was also supposed to cover Lehmann´s airfare from Germany. We needed a tenor and a soprano, a pianist and a director who could make these budgetary fetters look like an artistic choice. But luck was on Golus´s side. My first choice of director, Jennifer Romaine of New York´s Great Small Works, was hired as artist-in-residence by Ashkenaz, which would thus be looking after her salary and expenses. Romaine, who I met at Klezkamp in 1987, had worked with Bread and Puppet Theater and, in company with the rest of Great Small Works, had recently won an Obie. GSW´s most recent production, The Memoirs of Glückl of Hameln, in which I had some minor involvement, struck me as the best attempt I´d seen to walk around the whole Yiddish theatre problem described above.

The whole look of Jewify, something between Comsomol and comic book, derives from Romaine´s ideas. The father/rabbi puppet, for instance: a tailor´s dummy with a detachable head and moveable arms, it stood upright in a grocery cart in which it was wheeled around the stage. The costumes and props, by Toronto´s Shadowlands, included Viking helmets and breastplates, an Elvis-pompadour headpiece, prayer shawls and phylacteries. Romaine herself designed the water shikses and also provided the whole production with an effective and quite unique vocabulary of gesture.

The tenor, David Wall, was likewise my first choice. Lead singer of the Flying Bulgar Klezmer Band, Wall had previously been with a member of the Bourbon Tabernacle Choir. He had studied Yiddish, was taking cantorial classes and had appeared as the King - Ahasverus with the clothes and voice of Elvis - in a Purim play I had written for Shadowlands in 1998. Wall, in turn, recommended Denise Williams, who had also some experience in Yiddish, as the soprano. She is a lyric soprano who describes her range as being the same as Kathleen Battle´s. When I found out that Williams is black, I knew that God was on our side.

Under-promoted, unreviewed, I Just Wanna Jewify was nevertheless a big enough hit at Ashkenaz that one show was delayed a full twenty minutes while Harbourfront security tried to quell the fight that had apparently broken out over who was to get the last few tickets. But it still isn´t easy to be a Jew. As Denise Williams launched into Verdi´s Caro Nome at the first performance, the piano was suddenly overpowered by a loud and rather tinny rendition of Stars and Stripes Forever. The pianist had not only brought his cell-phone on stage, but made point of not turning it off. It isn´t easy to be a Jew, and this festival wasn´t going to last forever.

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