On the Arts

Loss and hope in fractured families

In “A Shayna Maidel,” Barbara Lebow’s long-running off-Broadway hit, the audience spends the evening with the Weisses — a Polish-Jewish family that has been scissored, like a mourner’s ribbon, into two.

The father and one daughter, four-year-old Raizel, have made it to America; but the mother and the older daughter, Lucia, remain in Poland — the mother to die eventually at Auschwitz along with Lucia’s infant daughter, Sprinze. [Sprinze means hope.]

Years pass and Raizel Weiss (now Rose White) is a leggy city woman with shoulder pads in her dresses and the Andrews sisters on her radio. She has forgotten that she ever had a mother or a sister, “protected,” as she has been over the years, by her silent father who answered none of the child’s questions about the past. Over time Rose has forgotten even the questions.

The play opens; it is 1946. Lucia is about to be re-united with her father and shvester (sister) in New York City, and the task ahead of them is overwhelming: to try to pinch themselves into feeling like a family again. In one painful step towards familial healing, Rose actually draws numbers, as if carving, on her left arm. • • •

“Every family has fractures, even if they are just the ordinary ones of growing up and leaving home,” says Barbara Lebow, the playwright of “A Shayna Maidel.” However, Jewish families, like American Blacks, have vast histories of dislocations and of losses. ” Fear of loss is built-into these families.”

Lebow is particularly interested in the subjective “what if” quality of Jewish families: What if Bubby hadn’t come over from Europe? What if Uncle Velvel hadn’t kicked his brother out of the shoe business in Warsaw? What if grandpa hadn’t been in college in Vilna when the war broke out?

“On some level,” says Lebow, “we all have these haunting fantasies of what our lives would have looked like with different dislocations or with other brushes with destiny. In this sense, Rose and Lucia are like shadow-selves, two halves of the same person. Of course, these stories speak to my own fears and terrors — that one day I will wake up and everything will be gone.”

The father in “A Shayna Maidel,” named Mordechai Weiss, is “the autocratic old Jewish patriarch who reins in his emotions,” says Lebow. “He knows all the answers. He has no doubts. Mordechai learns his first cultural lesson early – at birth. In a flashback to Mordechai’s mother in labor, the Cossacks bang at the door while Mordechai soundlessly exits the womb. “Itzik, look!” Mordechai’s mother boasts in whispers to her husband. “He already knows to be quiet!”

Mordechai grows up to be tyrannical, the kind of man who commands that his daughter Rose, not himself, will take Lucia, the survivor, into her apartment, who announces that dinner will be eaten out (“pot roast at Fine & Shapiro”) regardless of the fact that Rose has already prepared a pot roast dinner at home. “What does this young daughter learn?” asks Lebow. “She learns indirection, how to placate, while Mordechai has already learned that the best way to deal with pain is to keep secrets, the best way to deal with loss is never to talk about it. Rose grows up with this hermetic seal over her past, so that she doesn’t even know that a large part of herself is simply missing. Only towards the end of the play does Rose begin to open up to this loss.” This occurs in an extraordinary scene in which Rose curls up on the bed, intoning “Mamamamamama-mama” over and over again in an intense rhythmic chant, while crying children’s voices offstage merge with hers into a sad lullabye which then becomes embracing, and finally joyful. It is a scene of catharsis, even redemption.

“The title of the play, “A Shayna Maidel,” doesn’t mean just a pretty girl,” continues Lebow. “When my grandmother used to pinch my cheek and call me a shayna maidel (pretty girl), it meant, ‘I love you. You carry the seeds for the future. You ARE the future.’ I was her insurance against loss.”

Lebow has explored similar terrain in plays which are of Black, not Jewish, content. In her play “Cyparis,” about a Black man from Martinique who is the only survivor of the eruption of Mount Pelee in 1902, Lebow says she “researched the social conditions at that time in Martinique, and it turns out that many of the 30,000 people who were killed in the eruption could have been saved if the government had tried to evacuate them, if the roads had not been closed off, if there hadn’t been such racism… It all feels familiar.”

” ‘Cyparis’ has a more devastating ending than A Shayna Maidel,'” adds the playwright. “It ends without hope, whereas A Shayna Maidel’ ends with hope. This is because — I suppose that in this culture, at least the Jewish family has had more access to healing and to hope than have Blacks.”

Lebow continues: “Cyparis has a big conch shell that fishermen use to signal each other. It was his father’s. In one scene Cyparis says to his father, ‘I’m calling you. Why don’t you hear me?’ And his father answers, ‘When it is time, I will hear you.’ And Cyparis says, ‘So many other people have conch shells, how will you know mine?’ And his father answers: ‘How a Mama know, from basket fill’ with hungry babies which one cry be she one baby?’ (How does a mother know, with a basket full of hungry babies, which one is hers?)

“So at the end of the play, Cyparis is in the circus (in real life, Cyparis ended up as a freak in the Barnum & Bailey Circus; his body badly scarred by burns) and the spieler says, ‘He will now show you how he called for help,’ and Cyparis toots on his conch shell very mechanically, as a display. Then all of a sudden, he just wails through the conch and falls to his knees and cries for his father. And that’s how the play ends. Cyparis envies all who have died, because that is where his life and his family is, and he can’t get there. He’s lost.”

In another scene in “Cyparis,” Lebow explicitly paints that ‘shadow-self that is implied in the divergent destinies of Rose and Lucia in “A Shayna Maidel.” On a beach in Martinique, Cyparis holds his little son on his shoulders and says, “Edoard, what do you see up there on my shoulders?” Edoard answers, “I can see way across the ocean.” Cyparis then asks him, “What do you see across the ocean?” and the child answers, “I see another boy sitting on his papa’s shoulders, and he’s waving to me.”

“When I first read ‘Shayna Maidel’ to someone,” comments Lebow, “I read this scene that is a fantasy — where Mama and Rose embrace. This scene could never be, of course, because Mama dies in a concentration camp, and Rose is in New York. I started to weep, just reading the stage directions. It was so painful to me — recognizing what cannot be.

“One of the most powerful, affecting letters I have received as a result of A Shayna Maidel’ was from a woman with the Lutheran Church who works with Cambodian refugees. She said that the play helped her finally understand emotionally the process that a lot of the refugees go through — letting go of family, letting go of the dream of a perfect world.

“What does it mean to be picked up and snatched away from your safe environment, into a world that is completely alien and strange to you?” asks Lebow.

And finally “I am interested in the strength of families — in how we accept that which will never be!’