Mothertongue Theater Explores What It Means to be a Jew

What makes a Jew a Jew?” This question, pondered throughout the centuries by rabbis, secular Jews and Christians alike, is reiterated by the Mothertongue Feminist Theater Collective in “Jewish Women and Friends.” Although at the close of the script the question remains far from resolved, it is explored from a decidedly female perspective by members of the cast, most of whom are Jewish.

“One day,” begins one story, ” . . . a group of boys . .. started throwing stones at us and chased us inside the house, calling us dirty Jews. I was so bewildered and frightened. When my parents came home I asked them, because I didn’t know, ‘What is a Jew?'”

The non-Jew doesn’t have the answer either. “I was taught that Christ was a Jew . . . I was taught that the Jews were God’s chosen people . . . The only thing I wasn’t told was what makes a Jew a Jew.”

“Jewish Women and Friends” is one of over 30 performance pieces produced by this collective. Founded in 1976 by a group of San Francisco State University women, Mothertongue is one of the last surviving feminist theater collectives. There are no auditions or writing submissions required for membership in Mothertongue; a woman need only be a self-defined feminist to join.

The Mothertongue creative process is deliberately vague to allow each script its own natural process, but it goes something like this: someone at a monthly meeting suggests a topic, the newsletter then delivers this information, with a contact number, to the more then 70 members. A script meeting is organized, which in the beginning usually means a potluck dinner, to create a supportive friendly atmosphere. At the meeting, women share their experiences about the subject. Ten or 15 minutes is spent writing down any thoughts or memories triggered by the discussion, and the writing is then shared with the group.

In the next phase the script is organized and refined, performances are booked at cafes, colleges and bookstores and the script goes into rehearsal. Before the show goes on the road, the piece is performed for the entire collective in order to get their feedback and approval.

The loose structure, says Corky Wick, one of the original founding “tongues,” “lets people work at their own pace. Producing something highly polished isn’t what we’re after. This is Theater of the Sincere. We get quality through honesty and vulnerability.”

Corky Wick explains that for a long time Jewish women within the group had recognized a need “to focus on our culture, our humor, and our resistance to passing as non-Jewish.” When they did decide to work on a Jewish script, the group got bogged down with food. Every meeting turned into a sumptuous feast, the preparation and consumption of which distracted from focus on the actual script. Although a plethora of material was being produced, none of it was being organized into a cohesive whole. Thus, after an allout groaning-board Passover seder, the group placed a moratorium on potlucks and concentrated on preparing for performance.

The script covers a variety of aspects of Jewish women’s experience. There’s uncovering anti-Semitism: “We moved into another non-Jewish neighborhood only to be warned by my mom not to yell or make noise so our neighbors wouldn’t refer to us as ‘loud Jews’.” There’s praise for Jewish food: “The Bessarabian version of a Sunday brunch—schmalz herring, raw onions and baked potatoes.” There’s nostalgia for Jewish names: “No one has called me ‘Corinnesh’kl’ in a long, long time.” There are memories of bubbe meiseh: “Bubble told me these stories while cutting the onions or cleaning the bathtub—both good places for the tears to fall.” And, of course, there is the pain of the Holocaust: “Kovne, Vilne, Galicia, Nohilev, Minsk, Chernigov, Kiev, Bessarabian. These were the names of Eastern Europe before the Holocaust . . . Dovrish, Pesse, Estheril, Chaim, Schmiel, Faygeh, Naumi. These were the names of my ancestors. All are dead. Toit.”

As for what makes a Jew a Jew, Corky Wick says, “It’s the eternal question. I’d like to keep discussing it.”

To learn how to start a Mothertongue group in your community, send $8.00 for the Mothertongue Handbook to: Mothertongue Theater c/o The Women’s Building, 3543 18th Street, San Francisco, CA 94110.