Jewish/Female Dramatists: Looking At Meshugas And Calling It “Family”

Female playwrights and screenwriters working with Jewish themes seem to be everywhere these days. Wendy Wasserstein, whose Sisters Rosenzweig has had a long Broadway run, is probably the most known of these. Then there’s Diane Samuels, 34, British playwright of Kindertransport; Yolande Zauberman, 36, French director and screenwriter of the Yiddish film Ivan & Abraham; Jenna Zark, 40, Minnesota playwright of two dramas collectively called A Body Of Water; and Sherry Glaser, from Queens, New York, playwright and solo actor in the long-running off-Broadway hit Family Secrets.

What all of these artists have in common is a shared interest in one theme: family. Not the pretty, homogenized versions of idealized family that tells lies to us from magazines, theme parks, even mail order catalogues (and make the gap between fiction and reality even more painful), but REAL families, Jewish families—in all their frustrating complexity.

“I question the whole idea of a normal family, ” says Sherry Glaser of Family Secrets. “/ don’t think there is such a thing. We’re all in a sort of trap to be that ‘normal’ way or act that ‘normal ‘ way. When in reality, we ‘re all struggling with how to just exist, how to survive, how to love. It’s a difficult challenge.”

Classic playwrights (look at Eugene O’ Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Samuel Beckett’s Endgame) have always known that real families never live up to the hype—that beneath the glittering idealizations there’s tarnish. The family in crisis has been, always, a veritable playground for artistic expression.

Enter Glaser, Samuels, Zauberman and Zark, framing the mercurial and heterogeneous nature of families in their own artistic visions. They tackle the fundamental questions of family structure, style and attitude, plundering families’ resident crises and joys to get a handle on what makes these time bombs that we call “family” tick. In the process, they stretch even further our understandings of kinship.

Many of these same issues surface in Yolande Zauberman’s delightful Yiddish film, Ivan & Abraham (in which few of the actors are Jews, and all are reciting lines in a language they do not understand). Ivan & Abraham is currently making the rounds at independent film forums and Jewish centers. (It is also, by the way, a wonderful tool for teaching about Jewish life in Eastern Europe.) Set in a pre-war Polish shtetl where relations between Christians and Jews are strained at best, Zauberman examines the unlikely friendship between two young boys: Abraham, a Jew, and Ivan, a Christian apprenticing with Abraham’s family.

Zauberman announces she’ll be posing “cultural divide” and “who is my family?” questions in the very first scene. Before the audience even sees two boys carelessly lounging in bed (Zauberman flirts with homoerotic imagery here although she goes nowhere with it), we hear the words: “Show me your dick”—getting to the heart of the difference between the boys (not coincidentally also the difference between male Gentiles and Jews): circumcision. But differences can be overcome, Zauberman is going to go on to argue—acculturation may even mean survival.

It turns out that little Abraham is a reluctant Jew—one who would rather jump on the backs of wild horses than pray. He’s a constant trial to his pious grandfather. When the grandfather vows to separate the two boys for good. Abraham rebels in the only way he knows how: He literally cuts his ties with his people by shearing off his earlocks and discarding his caftan in favor of one of Ivan’s sweaters. Dragging Ivan with him out of the shtetl, he turns his back on Jewish life in favor of adventures of his own making. It turns out to be a blessing after all: at the film’s end the shtetl and all its inhabitants are tragically destroyed in a pogrom.

Within the buddies-on-a-road-trip part of this movie, Zauberman also inserts a female coming-of-age story: Abraham’s sister, Rachel, defies her family’s wishes too, and runs off with Aaron, the young man she loves. Originally betrothed to another, her ties are more completely severed even than Abraham’s . . . for she allows her family to believe she’s had sex with Aaron (even when she hasn’t), so that she’ll be formally “repudiated.” Strong willed, Rachel slips the restrictive ties of her family and pursues her own objectives. Have sex with Aaron she does, finally, but only on her terms. It’s Rachel who initiates the seduction, and her frank sexuality symbolizes her strength.

Zauberman, then, through the dual stories of Abraham/Ivan and Rachel/Aaron, gives us the same theme twice: the anger and frustration children can feel when their objectives conflict with their elders’. And in a film where blood ties are shown as largely oppressive, a sense of family develops instead through the love granted by “outsiders.” Replacing his dictatorial grandfather, Abraham finds a father-figure in a man who respects his horsemanship. And when the boys return to the shtetl and discover its destruction, it is Ivan who comforts a hysterical Abraham, whispering that the two of them will always be together.

Zauberman also explores the dangers of clannishness, and the superstitions and ignorance inadvertently bred by enclaves simply by virtue of their isolation and insularity. Closed groups of this nature—both Jew and Gentile—don’t fare well in Zauberman’s movie. Transcending difference seems to be the only key, making connections outside the family. Only those who have bridged the cultural divide seem to survive—just look at who remains alive at film’s end.

Sex is the great stumbling block for the characters of White Days and Shooting Souls, the dual dramas by Jenna Zark recently presented at New York’s Circle Repertory under the title A Body of Water.

Mainstream New York reviewers almost unanimously praised this diptych for its bold female characters pushing at the boundaries of Orthodox Judaism in order to take control of their lives. This reviewer, however, disagrees. Zark could take a lesson from Zauberman about what constitutes a feminist heroine, for her two characters’ blinkered attitudes towards sexuality and autonomy ultimately compromise the integrity of these dramas.

White Days finds Sandy, the irreligious proprietor of a beauty salon, putting off her highly sexed Italian husband in bed. Is she having an affair? Nope. She’d simply like to initiate sex once in a while. So, without a word of explanation, Sandy begins to abstain from sex for the number of days during and after her period required by religious law, then sneaks off to the mikveh to ritually cleanse herself. Her puzzled husband is left wondering what went wrong.

And so is the audience. Zark presents the intimate mikveh ritual (oddly taking the place of open communication between husband and wife), and then wraps the whole experience in some sexy, mystical fantasy in which Sandy imagines she’s Bathsheba and her husband. King David.

The mikveh, then, taken out of context and grafted onto a secular marital problem, becomes a barrier that precludes Sandy from actively taking control of her own body and setting the tone of her own sexuality—rather than a tool that, without manipulation, facilitates her self-determination. Why learn to vocalize one’s own sexual desires when observant Judaism can be prescribed for having or not having sex?

Unwanted pregnancy is the subject of Shooting Souls, as a couple tries to fulfill the “one boy, one girl” mandate of Orthodox Judaism. With five sons already, the coup l e ‘ s life is being wrecked by this mandate. The protagonist, Devi, is no fool, though. She realizes she’s sinking fast beneath religious prescription. What she wants is a rabbinical sanction to allow her to abort this baby she’s now carrying, and permission to give up trying for the requisite girl. But when she approaches the rebbe, he obliquely refuses. “God gives us only what we can handle,” he tells her. (Conveniently, he has no children of his own.)

Devi then embarks on a mild rebellion: She eats pork. Afterwards she vows that if this next baby isn’t a girl, she will never try again. Suddenly her world rights itself, and everything feels okay.

Eating pork? Stopping after the next baby? Fragile rebellions. Margaret Sanger’s earliest work with birth control was done on the Lower East Side—many of her first clients were Orthodox Jews. As for abortion, this concept isn’t entirely unknown to religious Jews either.

Birth control isn’t the problem, though; the problem is Zark. Telling this story as a tragedy of religious fervor would be one thing; casting Devi as heroic is quite another. In truth, Devi comes off as merely foolish, needlessly punishing herself and endangering her family’s welfare. However, caught up in the mysticism, foreignness and family romance of ultra-Orthodoxy (Zark is not religious herself), Zark can’t help but miss the individual tragedies that befall some of its followers.

Diane Samuels’ Kindertransport. produced at Manhattan Theater Club this past spring, establishes family as the center of identity formation, suggesting that the start and finish of a Jewish child is the family in which she is raised. The story of a little girl who escaped Hitler’s Final Solution through the last-minute export of some 10,000 German children to foster families in Great Britain, Kindertransport is a tale of Jewish identity lost and subsequently found.

0-year-old Eva is sent to Great Britain and later adopted by the well-meaning British matron, Lil. Minus her parents’ influence, she slowly loses touch with her Jewish culture until she eventually takes on a new name—Evelyn—gets baptized, and is fully acculturated into her new country.

In Evelyn’s mind, being Jewish becomes something Other; something to be afraid of. When her biological mother, an Auschwitz survivor, comes to fetch her to emigrate to America, Eva/Evelyn refuses, saying, “I have a family here.”

Breaking with her German/Jewish past (represented by some letters, official papers, a German fairy tale book, a Haggadah), Eva/Evelyn buries all of it deep in her attic. But the past continues to haunt her in the shape of a mysterious Pied Piper-like character from the fairy tale book, lurking in the shadows (the edges of her consciousness), reminding her of who she really is.

It takes Eva/Evelyn’s own daughter. Faith, just coming of age herself, to bring these issues to the surface once more. Questions of self, family and country collide, and the underpinnings of both mother’s and daughter’s identities topple.

Still, the audience is led to understand that Faith will find her way back. When Eva/Evelyn finally hands her daughter the German storybook and the Haggadah from the attic—symbolic links to her past—Faith eagerly scoops them up. “I’m going to find out everything,” she vows.

Beyond conveying how the Holocaust shattered the lives even of those who escaped concentration camps, Kindertransport shelters a modern commentary on the essence of family. How is family determined—by the providers of sperm and egg, or by the providers of necessities after birth? It’s a pertinent discussion for today’s audiences when surrogate motherhood is on the rise; when a child switched with another at birth chooses the father she knows rather than her own blood relatives; when reproductive technology can now harvest eggs from a variety of sources—mothers, sisters, even female fetuses (who essentially create their own grandchildren or siblings)—for fertilization in another’s womb.

Although on the one hand the playwright accuses Eva/Evelyn of slithering out of her Jewish identity like a snake shedding its skin, she also, more provocatively, poses the kinds of questions that go to the very crux of one’s identity, making room for a broad interpretation of kin. When Eva/Evelyn rails at her adopted mother for aiding her dissociation from her past, Lil sharply counters with, “I was with you and I put up with you and I stuck by you. That’s what mothering is all about. Being there when it counts.”

A challenging look at yet another conundrum posed by tragedies like the Holocaust: What is a “saved” child? Is there a generation down the line in which DNA, roots and nurture are finally reconcilable?

Perhaps nowhere is the frustrated schism between real families and idealized ones better dramatized than in Sherry Glaser’s phenomenally funny solo show. Family Secrets, playing as a long run at New York’s Westside Theater.

Woven of five distinct monologues, each from a different character’s point of view. Family Secrets is a rich, bittersweet tapestry of suburban Jewish family life that explores the many subtexts—psychosis, homophobia, aging, bulimia, date rape, intermarriage—lurking deep beneath this middle-class family’s seemingly happy exterior.

The first monologue belongs to the father figure, Mort, the Bronx-born accountant so satisfied with his humdrum life, he can’t imagine why anyone would want anything different. And, of course, “different” is what he gets. And the conflicts fly.

There’s his “baby” daughter, a heavy metal fanatic with a serious case of bulimia, who’s so hungry to be recognized by the “in” crowd that she lets herself be date-raped by the drunken boy of her dreams. There’s the other daughter, Fern, the New Age convert who changes her name to Kahari, flirts with lesbianism and has a baby with a Latino “trans-channeler.”

There’s Mort’s wife, Bev, who suffers a nervous breakdown trying to be the perfect wife and mother, but who ultimately has the last laugh, for she rights herself and goes to law school. And, lastly, there’s Rose, the offbeat bubbe whose exegesis on the origins of “Hava Negila” (the lady of the house greeting guests with a plate of “negilas” …. Have one, please) is just too precious.

As hilarious and seamlessly constructed as every character is, each monologue manages to rip the family fabric a little more, until it lies, in the end, in tatters about the stage. Nothing is as it “should be”—which is exactly as it really is.

Wonderfully wacky, there’s a reason bubbe Rose’s incarnation comes last in Glaser’s play. The least angst-ridden of all the family members, along with incontinence, Flatulence, and the rediscovery of romance in the twilight of her life, Rose offers hope for a greater understanding of family intricacies. To her, EVERYBODY is mishpocheh and should come for Pesach.

“If we didn’t have family,” Rose tells the audience at the end, “we’d all be strangers. That’s family—no matter what you do, you can’t get rid of them.”

Norine Dworkin is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn