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Yiddish Theatre

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The challenge of presenting Mordechai Gebirtig in Cracow
By Monika A. Murzyn

Monika A. Murzyn  PhD; economist, leisure and heritage management specialist. She is an associate professor in the Urban Development Department at the Cracow University of Economics, and works in the Research Institute of European Heritage at the International Cultural Centre. She specializes in issues related to heritage protection and interpretation as well as urban regeneration of historic cities with special regard paid to the heritage of Central Europe. Author of over 20 articles on the subject as well as the newly published monograph Kazimierz. The Central European experience of urban regeneration. e-mail : murzynm@mck.krakow.pl  

The Jewish Culture Festival in Cracow is the biggest event of that type in Europe held since 1988, at first every two years, since 1992 annually. It is one of the most important cultural festivals in Poland and a flagship event of Krakow’s artistic summer combining entertainment with important educational and cultural goals, namely bringing back the memory of Cracow and Central European Jews, teaching about history, traditions and rituals, but also presenting contemporary achievements and creations of Jewish culture through the work of artists from all over the world. The 9-day long festival is a significant organisational and artistic endeavour, in 2006 offering to the participants as many as 21 concerts, 5 theatre performances, 13 different types of workshops, 21 lectures and meetings, 13 film screenings and numerous study tours of Jewish monuments and sights in Cracow and southern Poland. The Festival has also been crucial in terms of its contribution to the wider process of bringing back to life the memory of Cracow Jews and reviving the once neglected and forgotten quarter of Kazimierz in Cracow – Kazimierz understood as a place of unique cultural and historical qualities, coexistence of cultures and richness of meanings. Such an accumulation of a great number of cultural events related to Jewish people happens once a year but, presently in Kazimierz different cultural endeavours inspired by Jewish culture are presented here all year through exhibitions, concerts, conferences, workshops, lectures and other educational activities run by many institutions in the quarter. From that angle the Festival was in early 1990s the harbinger of good news for Kazimierz while presently, in a sense, it crowns the artistic season of each year in the district now called by some Cracow’s Soho.

Mordechai Gebirtig – a simple carpenter and a great Jewish poet, a bard whose songs both the cheerful and witty and the sorrowful and sad ones are masterpieces of Yiddish poetry. Nowhere could the Yehoshua Sobol’s play “Gebirtig” performed by Yiddishspiel Theatre fit better into the programme of a Jewish Culture Festival than in Cracow. The bard lived in this city all his life. Since birth an inhabitant of the Jewish-Catholic district of Kazimierz, in 1940 forced by the Nazis to move out of his home to the peripheral quarter of Lagiewniki, then in 1942 as all other Cracow Jews shut in the ghetto in Podgórze district barely few hundred metres from his home in Kazimierz on the opposite bank of Vistula river.

Being a Cracovian fascinated by the rich heritage of Cracow’s Jews, understandably, I awaited the play with much interest, hoping that it will somehow combine the aim to introduce the audience to Gebirtig’s songs with showing the flavour of his beloved place of abode and the milieu in which he created and lived. The director Izhak Shauli and other authors of the spectacle surely succeeded in fulfilling the first aim. The selection of songs presented in the play reflects very well different subjects the bard wrote about, his interests and life experiences, recalling the images of the Jewish quarter bustling with activity, peopled by diverse personages, his fascination with every day life and problems of poorer social strata within the Jewish community (e.g. families with many daughters to find husbands for, prostitutes, workers and tailors). The actors fit very well into the roles they play, especially the gentlemen portraying Velvl and Berl – the characters who lead us through the world of Gebritig’s poetry. The two of them further remind of the pre-war traditions of Polish artistic cabaret presenters combining witty remarks with deeper reflections .

The well designed back drop in wonderful shades of sepia (work of Yhossi Ben-Ari) further aided to the evoking of the atmosphere of bygone days, narrow lanes and streets of a typical Central and Eastern European Jewish quarter. Putting up a banner with the Hebrew and Polish subtitles shown above the stage was also a great idea making it possible for the audience not only to hear Yiddish spoken and sung, but at the same time to understand the lyrics.

Recreating on stage the ambience and the atmosphere of Gebirtig’s city seemed to be much harder to arrive at. In that sense, although well presented and shown with much engagement of the actors, the play is about the selection Gebritig’s songs but not about Gebirtig himself. Even when one of the best known songs of Gebirtig Blajb gezunt mir, Kroke (Farewell, Cracow) was sang, the way it was presented did not really convey the impression that here and now it is more true and relevant than had it been sang in any other place in the world. Moreover, watching the play, I could not escape from some wider, rather sad reflections. It was a very good performance, the characters were most charming, could evoke laughter or pit or sorrow but most of all reminded everyone that Yiddish is a language and a culture of a lost world – fully meaningful only if presented in a nostalgic form understandable mainly to the older generations. As when watching the operettas of Imre Kálmán and Ferenc Lehár – though of course not as trivial and much richer in terms of symbolic meaning – a younger theatre goer somehow knows that what he or she sees is nothing more but a picturesque, stereotypical representation of the distant past.

Presenting and making Gebirtig meaningful to younger generations of Jews and non-Jews alike (save the unquestionable emotional power of a few songs –symbols such as Unzer shtetl brent – Our Shtetl is burning) thus presents a great challenge. I doubt whether without an in-depth lecture or at least an educational meeting before the play organised for young people especially to explain to them the particularities of the unique milieu in which Gebirtig created his songs and his links and involvement in the artistic life of the pre-war Jewish community in Cracow, the younger audience could easily get into the mood the authors of the spectacle wished to create nor would it understand it as something reaching beyond simple folkloristic recollections of Jewish life in Central Europe and the tragedy of the Shoah. The average age of the audience who gathered in Bagatela Theatre in Cracow on the night of July the 3rd seemed to confirm my observations as it stood in sharp contrast to other events of the Jewish Festival of Culture, literally swarming with young people of all nationalities.

(2242 A)

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  • The Israeli Yiddishpiel Theater

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  • Monika A. Murzyn

    Mordechai Gebirtig (1877-1942 )

    Jacob Bodo and Gadi Yagil as Velvel and Berl leading the audience through the world of Mordechai Gebirtig

    The diverse personages present in Gebirtig’s songs performed by actors of Yiddishpiel Theatre

    Door of Gebirtig's home in Krakow

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