Shanie Levin brought Sholem Aleichem’s stories to life with Al Stein. (photo by Binny Goldman)
Tell me a story, please…. Which one of us has not made this request of a mother, a father, a zayda or bubbie?
On Oct. 30, almost 70 people gathered at the Peretz Centre for Secular Jewish Culture, where they were welcomed by Peretz president Gene Homel, who shared some of the activities that the centre hosts, including the Sholem Aleichem speaker series (SASS, or “SASSY,” as they call it). The Tuesday night event was held by Jewish Seniors Alliance of Greater Vancouver in partnership with SASSY.
Gyda Chud of both JSA and Peretz introduced the first session of this year’s JSA Elders Empowering Elders series, which focused on storytelling.
The audience sat enraptured, traveling back to their kinder yorn, childhood years, as they listened to Myrna Rabinowitz. She sang several Yiddish songs. Among her original compositions was one that she had composed for the birth of her grandson.
From stories told in song, to those spoken, Shanie Levin and Al Stein read stories that came alive with their interpretations of the text and their excellent delivery. Enhanced by the clever use of minimal but appropriate costuming, and done with humor, the characters and the way of life of Shayneh Shayndel and Menachem Mendel became real to those listening, as did the ongoing dilemma that they each faced. As Sholem Aleichem once famously stated, “You can take the Jew out of the shtetl but you cannot take the shtetl out of the Jew.”
In thanking the performers, Chud quoted Stein, who had said in his preface to reading his first story: “In keeping with the Narodnik movement (Power to the People), the young Russian intelligentsia at the time and not the elite, Sholem Rabinovitch chose the name Sholem Aleichem, the common Jewish greeting, as his pen name, ‘Peace be unto you.’” Chud commented on the fact that Power to the People motivated Sholem Rabinovitch to change his name, and that the theme of JSA’s Empowerment series is “Elders Empowering Elders.”
Ken Levitt, one of JSA’s vice-presidents, rose to the occasion by thanking the performers partly in Yiddish, having researched the phrasing on the internet. He explained that he hadn’t grown up in a Yiddish-speaking household, although Yiddish had been used as a secret language between his parents. His valiant effort endeared Levitt to all the Yiddish-speakers in the audience.
The session ended with eppes zees mit a Yiddish taam, something sweet with a Jewish taste, accompanied by hot drinks. To quote one of the characters in the story that Levin read: “If you have a piece of bread, take your eyes off the cake!”
Volunteers of both JSA and SASSY helped make the event a success, as did JSA staff Karon Shear and Rita Propp.
Es eez given a mechayeh, it was a pleasure and an oisgetzaichent, outstanding and enriching time together.
Jacob Dinezon (1856-1919) was a Yiddish novelist and short-story writer, as famous during his lifetime as were his contemporaries, the three pillars of late-19th- and early-20th-century Yiddish literature, Mendele Mocher Sforim, Y.L. Peretz and Sholem Aleichem. All of these masters knew and were impressed with Dinezon’s work.
During his period of literary activity in the latter half of the 19th century, Dinezon at times even outshadowed the three founding fathers because his books touched thousands of readers and were more widely sold. In fact, one of his novels sold more than 200,000 copies, an unheard of success in Yiddish literature. Dinezon achieved fame at the age of 20 with the publication of his first novel and remained famous until the day he died. He was so well known and beloved that every major figure of Yiddish literature came to his funeral in 1919.
Even encyclopedias in English recognized him. The early 20th-century Jewish Encyclopedia lists Dinezon as an important Yiddish writer (like other classical Yiddish writers, he also established a reputation as a Hebrew author), praise that is echoed in the contemporary Encyclopedia Judaica.
Sometimes mazel plays a role in literary fame but, in Dinezon’s case, it seemed to express itself in income and not in posthumous regard. And now that the worldwide Yiddish-reading community is vanishing, a writer’s lot can be determined by translation, which can bring fame, and to discovery, which in turn can prompt translation. If a writer doesn’t find his translator/editor in another language, he suffers the misfortune of neglect, which is what happened with Dinezon. If you ask any knowledgeable reader familiar with Aleichem and other famous Yiddish writers if he has ever heard of Dinezon, the answer would probably be no.
Until now, we have not had any work by Dinezon in English. But this lacuna has been successfully filled with the wonderful book of 11 Dinezon stories, beautifully translated by Tina Lunson and edited by Scott Davis, who has also provided an illuminating introduction: Memories and Scenes: Shtetl, Childhood, Writers (Jewish Storyteller Press, 2014).
Dinezon was a social realist, accurately depicting small-town (shtetl) Jewish life. With a cinematic eye, he zeroes in on his characters, deftly telling fascinating stories while at the same time giving an accurate portrait of the mores, attitudes, speech and foibles of the men, women and children whom he depicts.
Like Dickens, Denizon wrote about the downtrodden and about poorly treated students in Hebrew schools with such realism that he actually brought about reforms. A cross section of Jewish society in Poland lives in his pages: the young and old, Chassidim and enlightened Jews, simple workingmen and rich householders. Every single one of his stories breathes with life and verisimilitude.
In this book of 11 stories, a collection published after Dinezon’s death in 1919, we have finely crafted tales – so in keeping with Jewish short-story writing at the turn of the 20th century – that recall vividly portrayed shtetl characters from Dinezon’s childhood years and memories of such literary figures as Mendele Mocher Sforim (Mendele the Bookseller, aka Sholem Abramovich), Peretz, and the playwright Avrom Goldfaden.
Dinezon also played an important historical role in the development of Yiddish as a literary language. In fact, he mentored, advised and befriended almost every major Jewish writer of his day. The list reads like a who’s who of late-19th- and early-20th-century modern Yiddish literature, including the writers mentioned above, as well as S. Ansky, David Frishman, Shimon Frug, Sholem Asch, David Pinski and Abraham Reisen.
In one of the superb stories, Mayer Yeke, we see how a boy’s great fear of the shtetl’s most righteous Jew, Mayer Yeke, turns to love and respect after he witnesses Mayer’s mitzvah assisting the town drunk. Sholem Yoyne Flask depicts a mild-mannered tailor transformed by the liquor in his flask into a fiery defender of the town’s poor folk – then something happens when a surprising discovery is made about his flask. With Motl Farber, Purimshpieler, we are introduced to a housepainter who languishes during the winter when he cannot work, but at Purim, he becomes the leader of a band of Purim players. When the troupe is arrested by the new Russian police chief, an unlikely “Esther” comes to their rescue.
A story that achieves the psychological depth of a Dostoevsky tale is Yosl Algebrenik and His Student. It tells the story of Yosl, an outstanding Talmud scholar, a genius some said, destined to become a great rabbi, who has a passion for mathematics. At age 30, for reasons no one remembers, he tosses away the Talmud and its commentaries for the study of algebra and algebraic logic. From then on, he spends all his time studying algebra, except for the few hours a week he devotes to tutoring children to eke out a living.
Another moving and profound story is called Borekh, after the name of the hero, a poor orphan living in the yeshivah. He doesn’t do well in talmudic studies but he has a talent for woodcarving, making dreidls, Purim groggers and toy animals for the children of the town. One day, he decides to leave the yeshivah and start anew, with hopes of making a great holy ark, “one that people have never seen before.” When he achieves that, he will send it to his friend in the yeshivah, who he knows will become a great scholar. He leaves without saying goodbye.
Some of Dinezon’s autobiographical sketches are as engaging as his fiction. In My First Work, he relates the childhood experience of reading his first Yiddish novel, a Jewish version of Robinson Crusoe. He is so taken by the book, he writes his own adventure story. In Sholem Yankev Abramovich, Dinezon tells how his debut novel, The Dark Young Man, was published and how he acquired his first copy in Moscow. At the same time, he learns that the Yiddish writer Mendele Mocher Sforim and the Hebrew author Sholem Abramovich are actually the same person.
It is not often that we are privileged to make a literary discovery of our own. With this book by Dinezon, the first in English, we happily encounter a master writer who deserves to be ranked with the great Yiddish writers whom he befriended and who admired him.
Curt Leviant’s most recent book is the short story collection Zix Zexy Ztories.
Since last year’s Chutzpah! Festival, the Jewish Independent has been waiting to see Noah Drew’s Tiny Music. The read-through in 2013 was a unique experience of a work-in-progress, and it will be fun to compare that “teaser” with the production that takes to the Rothstein Theatre stage later this month as part of this year’s Chutzpah!
“This play has actually been slow-cooking for almost 10 years,” Drew told the Independent in an e-mail interview. “In 2004, the fabulous actor/writer Josh Epstein approached me about writing and composing a musical together. We jammed on ideas, and decided to adapt a short story by Sholem Aleichem called The Fiddle, which I’d been very fond of growing up. At my grandparents’ house, I used to listen to a record of the great Howard Da Silva reading Aleichem’s stories accompanied by a klezmer band, and The Fiddle was one of my favorites: a dark fable in which a boy who’s obsessed with music is forbidden to have anything to do with it, but can’t help himself, to his family’s ruin. Josh and I wrote a few songs and scenes about a boy in the Old Country who was born with unusually large and dexterous hands – a violin prodigy. Some of the material was great, but then, life happened – Josh booked a big show in Toronto and moved there, and shortly afterwards I got a full scholarship to do my MFA in acting at Temple University in Philadelphia, and also moved east. Every once in awhile, Josh and I would connect and talk about working on the show, but it never quite happened.
“Then, in 2010, I was visiting my friend Sarah Shugarman (a wonderful musician in Toronto) and ended up unearthing one of the songs I’d written for the Fiddle project. When I read her the lyrics, she was effusive in her praise and excitement, and encouraged me to reopen the piece. We talked about co-composing, but in the end the scheduling and geography didn’t cooperate (I had completed my degree and moved back to Vancouver by this point) so I decided to push forward with the project alone.”
At the heart of Tiny Music is Ezra, described in the Chutzpah! program as “an autistic man with an auditory-processing disorder that heightens his experience of the sounds around him.” About the writing of such a character, Drew explained that, around the time he re-committed himself to the play, he was “spending a fair amount of time with two members of my family – one adult and one child – who are on the autism spectrum. I also had a private acting student who was autistic. I noticed that all three of these individuals had certain challenges, particularities and special abilities when it came to focusing, and that all three seemed to have a very strong relationship to music. Music has always been incredibly important in my life also, and I was finding nice connections with my autistic family members through listening to and/or playing music together. I conceived of a contemporary version of the Sholem Aleichem story with an autistic man who hears in an extraordinary way at the play’s centre.”
Drew said he wrote a handful of songs and a first draft. “A two-day script workshop in Montreal in January 2013 led me to a second draft of the script, which was presented as a reading in the 2013 Chutzpah! Festival,” he said. “That reading was a bit of a whirlwind – we had only the one day to rehearse – but it was a good opportunity to see how the story was working (and where it wasn’t) and to hear a few of the songs with piano and voice. I learned from that reading that some aspects of the characters and story were really working, but others were a bit superficial and/or clunky.
“I went back into the writing process and, in October 2013, the show’s director/dramaturg Jamie Nesbitt and musical director Yawen Wang came out to Montreal to join me, sound designer Joe Browne and eight Concordia theatre and music students for a six-day workshop of the piece. That was a fantastic process! In addition to further developing the script and story, we got to explore the most important question of the piece stylistically: how can we make the songs, story, instrumental music and sound design all work together as a cohesive whole? We did some wonderful experiments, played around with ways of combining the elements and made discoveries such as: in this show, sometimes a sound cue or instrumental moment could actually replace dialogue. The script, music and sound all moved forward a couple of drafts. The characters were becoming more three-dimensional. The music was becoming more contemporary (‘less Sondheim and more Bjork’). The unique world of the show was coming into focus.”
Rethinking the storytelling
At this point, however, Drew and Nesbitt – co-founders of Jump Current, the producer of Tiny Music – noticed a “significant problem with the script.”
“Although the show is experienced from the perspective of an autistic individual, the storytelling mode was still quite ‘neurotypical,’” explained Drew. “Ezra had monologues in which he explained his situation and point of view to the audience in a very linear, chronological way. But the more I read and spoke to people about the range of autistic experiences, the more I realized that this linear way of speaking and thinking didn’t feel right. At Jamie’s urging, I took the script apart, and re-imagined it as a world in which time and memory are at times fluid, fragmented and unpredictable. Now, in the language, sound, music and staging, we are finding rhythms, patterns and textures that feel more true to who Ezra is. Rather than just describing and showing the story of this unique individual, we are figuring out how to invite the audience to share his visceral experience.”
This is what makes Tiny Music not just a regular, run-of-the-mill musical.
A sound design musical
“I call Tiny Music a ‘sound design musical’ because I want the audience to spend 90 minutes really hearing through Ezra’s ears,” explained Drew. “For Ezra, tiny details of the sonic environment that might go unnoticed by most people are very vivid. Sometimes, these details might mesmerize him. At other moments, they might overwhelm him. And sometimes, he hears the patterns in things so vividly that mundane sounds coalesce and occur for him as music. So, the songs in Tiny Music don’t just happen because, hey, it’s a musical. Instead, we only have songs because either (a) it makes sense that another character would actually be singing to Ezra in a certain situation, or (b) Ezra’s internal experience of certain sound patterns ends up transforming non-musical sounds into a kind of song. And, there are many times in the show – even some pieces I’ve called a ‘number’ – when nobody actually sings. Instead, it’s more like the environment itself that sings … all the sounds on all the floors of the building he’s in combine to make a kind of ‘sound design song,’ or a the voice of a person who is just speaking warps and distorts in Ezra’s perception, becoming rhythmic and harmonic. Every sound can be a kind of music if you really listen.”
The producers: Jump Current
Tiny Music is but one of several projects that Jump Current is currently producing, despite its relatively recent appearance on the theatre scene. “Very close friends who have led kind of parallel lives for awhile now,” Drew and Nesbitt started the company last spring. Of the reasons for the collaboration, Drew said, “We’re both fairly well known in Canada as theatre designers (he for video projections and I for sound), but we both consider ourselves to be theatre artists in a much broader way than only design. In fact, we both are suspicious of the way that sometimes design tricks and flash can get in the way of real, organic moments of storytelling in the theatre. (Also, as it happens, Jamie and I are both married to yoga teachers who used to work as actors, who are now studying to be expressive arts therapists – go figure.)
“In 2012, Jamie got very involved in working on Tiny Music, and I started working as a dramaturg on a play he’s writing called Salamandra (which is based on the true story of his inheriting a 150-bedroom castle in Poland from his great-uncle, Poland’s former minister of war, and his great-aunt, a former Polish movie star). Because we were doing these two projects together, and because our views about theatre, politics and life are so aligned, we decided to start a company together.
“In addition to creating and producing works of theatre and media-based performance,” he continued, “Jump Current’s mission is to research, develop and champion uses of design and technology that illuminate live human-to-human connection, and counteract people’s sense of alienation from one another. We believe deeply that, although, of course, it’s true that we live in an age when technology can really separate people from direct, organic connection, there are ways that it can also facilitate a shared experience of wonder that can really unite people.”
Another project that Drew and Nesbitt are developing is The Riot Ballet, “which explores themes of crowd psychology, identity and protest – both peaceful and violent,” said Drew. “We recently participated in a two-week development process in Barcelona, which led to some really exciting material and ideas. The team is amazing – this project brings us together with fantastic theatre companies from Spain, Colombia, the U.S., and a dance company from Toronto. We’re aiming for a late 2015 or early 2016 première in the U.S., then dates in Canada and Europe.”
All of this is in addition to Drew being a tenure-track faculty member in the theatre department of Montreal’s Concordia University, his continued freelancing in sound design and his voice teaching work. One of his sound design projects, he told the Independent, is for Horseshoes and Hand Grenades’ production of This Stays in the Room, which will be performed at Gallery Gachet in Vancouver March 19-30.
About his full schedule, Drew said, “I feel very grateful that my years as a full-time freelancer and the demanding process of doing an MFA really helped me develop good time-management skills! But, when it’s all amazing, a busy life is a pleasure. Sometimes, when things get a little too intense, my wife and I look at each other and say, ‘At least it’s not boring!’ We’re usually smiling.”
Tiny Music takes place Feb. 25 and 26, 8 p.m., at the Norman and Annette Rothstein Theatre. It stars Anton Lipovetsky, Susinn McFarlen, Caitriona Murphy and Bob Bossin, with musicians Yawen Wang (piano and accordion), Joe Browne (live electronics), Caitriona Murphy (violin), Mike Braverman (clarinet), Jodi Proznick (bass) and Jason Overy (drums). There is a post-performance talk-back on Feb. 25. For tickets, visit chutzpahfestival.com, call 604-257-5145 or 604-684-2787, or drop in to the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver.