Jun 16, 2022
In July 2021, I attended the BorderLight Fringe Festival in my hometown of Cleveland, Ohio. The festival, primarily virtual in 2021, featured international performances presented from countries ranging from Italy to India, productions featuring feminist puppetry, site-specific works like a self-paced audio journey through a Cleveland cemetery, and to my utmost delight — Yiddish theatre! Nestled amongst the various virtual productions featured in the festival was a new play created and directed by New Orleans-based artist Rachel Lee entitled Di Yiddishe Vayb (“The Jewish Wife”).
Lee’s Di Yiddishe Vayb weaves together classic Chelm stories, the famous Yiddish folktales about the antics of the extraordinarily hapless residents of a fictional shtetl, with a playlet from Bertolt Brecht’s 1938 play Fear and Misery of the Third Reich (also known as The Private Life of the Master Race) entitled “The Jewish Wife.” Fear and Misery of the Third Reich dramatizes, over a series of playlets, how the early years of Hitler’s rise to power crept into and affected the interpersonal lives of ordinary people in Germany. In the playlet “The Jewish Wife” we are introduced to Judith Keith, a German Jewish housewife in Frankfurt in 1935 who is married to a gentile surgeon, Fritz. Throughout the playlet we see Judith make several phone calls while packing, letting various people in her life know that she will be going away on a brief trip to Amsterdam. With each subsequent phone call the audience slowly gains an understanding that this trip will not be brief. The scene ends when, after rehearsing the speech she will say to her husband before she leaves, she tells him too that she will be leaving only for a brief amount of time and, understanding what is left unsaid, he hands her the fur coat that she won’t need until the winter. This well-known playlet has often been produced on its own apart from the rest of Fear and Misery, so I was intrigued to see how Lee would adapt this play and combine it with the Chelm material so seemingly in contrast to the story. With her use of Fear and Misery, Lee joins a literary-theatrical lineage that includes notable playwrights Tony Kushner (Angels in America) and Jeremy O. Harris (Slave Play), both of whom used Brecht’s play as inspiration.
As you virtually enter the site-specific production of Di Yiddishe Vayb you find yourself in the middle of a quaint, grassy park in New Orleans and are introduced to the actress helming the one-woman show, Hannah Pepper, playing a violin accompanied by the offstage clarinetist Byron Asher. The pair go on to play three songs, closing with the familiar Jacob Jacobs and Sholom Secunda’s “Bay Mir Bistu Sheyn.” The show employs modest but successful set design for the site-specific location. The spot chosen in the park for the performance lies in front of a stately tree whose branches stretch out elegantly horizontal across the stage, serving as a grounding backdrop. The stage, just like the story itself, is bifurcated into two distinct sections. On stage right, the audience is immersed in the world of the New Orleans park and the branches of the spectacular tree which serve as the setting for a park in Amsterdam, Netherlands. On top of some of the branches of the tree lie pieces of clothing, appearing as if they were hung out to dry in the open air. On stage left lies a table with an open suitcase on top with clothes strewn about next to a single picture frame holding a photograph of Fritz. This serves as the setting for Frankfurt, Germany in 1935. Rather than fighting against the COVID-19 necessity to have the performance in an outdoor space, Lee embraced the opportunity to meaningfully stage the play in the park: after “Bay Mir Bistu Sheyn” comes to a close, she has Pepper as Judith Keith break the fourth wall to introduce herself and invite the audience to stay with her in the park in Amsterdam for a story or two that her grandmother used to tell her, Chelm stories.
After a charming retelling of a Chelm story, Judith is interrupted by the first of several sounds of a clarinet droning. The sound draws her out of the world of the park in Amsterdam and into Frankfurt in 1935 as she packs to leave. Judith then makes the first of her series of phone calls to friends and acquaintances, letting them know she will be going on a brief trip. The play continues in this fashion with the clarinet pushing and pulling her back and forth between both cities as she oscillates between her retellings of Chelm stories and her preparations to flee Germany. Often the clarinet sounds that pull her to Frankfurt imitate a phone ringing. This clarinet motif serves as a clever device to move Judith and the audience through the story.
Part of the success of Brecht’s playlet “The Jewish Wife” lies in the gradual storytelling it employs, which reveals only bits and pieces of Judith and Fritz’s situation in Frankfurt without the full context. The audience understands that something is wrong, but is not given the entire story until the end of the scene. By breaking up “The Jewish Wife” with Chelm stories, Lee amplifies the power of the story by further engaging and prolonging the audience’s curiosity. Additionally, the structure of the piece reflects the ephemeral quality of memory, the way it comes to the forefront of our minds and then recedes or is pushed away. As Judith tries to recreate a new world and home for herself in Amsterdam, she can’t help but be pulled out of the current moment and back in time, which Pepper navigates in her performance with grace and skill.
Although scarce, the Yiddish in the story was employed as a powerful element within the production. The moment with the most Yiddish in it occurs at the end of the play, in the retelling of the final Chelm story during a conversation between the Chelmite husband and wife. While Pepper performs the husband speaking to his wife in English, she acts as the wife responding to the husband only in Yiddish. In the park, there were no supertitles translating this Yiddish even though it constituted a substantive amount of lines in the language. The subtitles in the online performance showed simply a transliteration of the Yiddish. I thought that this was an extremely powerful choice on Lee’s part to employ untranslated Yiddish as part of the production.With the inclusion of untranslated Yiddish in a production about loss and memory, the language moves from an instrument of communication to something more in the post-vernacular realm. This post-vernacular Yiddish tugs at something deeper and emotional for audience members as they themselves perhaps long to understand what is being said. And for members of the audience who might not understand Yiddish but whose ancestors spoke the language, this loss of Yiddish as vernacular — situated as it is in a story about the condition of diaspora and the losses that come with it — may further deepen their connection to the play as they think about their own families.
At first, the juxtaposition of Chelm stories with a playlet about the dawning khurbn seemed odd, certainly jarring. To pair one of Yiddish culture’s most humorous traditions with one of its gravest historical moments is a bold choice indeed. But for Lee, it is an effective one: the Chelm stories add to the dramatic tension of “The Jewish Wife,” with the two elements throwing one another into sharper relief. With this combination — made even starker by the dramatic aesthetics of the split setting — the near-destruction of Yiddish civilization renders its lighthearted folk culture more poignant, and vice versa, as the vibrancy of this culture raises the stakes of the impending destruction.