Megan's Head

A place where Megan gets off her head.

Tag: Jewish (Page 1 of 2)

How to say it

From Koe’siestes to Kneidlach, Chantal Stanfield’s one-woman piece that I directed has just been extended for a week at The Baxter. Nothing could give me more ‘naches’ or joyful pride. This joy is brought home by me not having to beg, coerce or Chinese bangle (is that horribly un PC now?) anyone into going to see it. Crowds (mostly my abandoned tribe) of people have been flocking to see it, and have been doing the word of mouth thing that is more powerful than any advertising.

Although my job of directing and even ‘getting in’ to a new space is long over, I find myself drawn to the show every couple of nights, mainly to check in with Chantal because I know how lonely a one-woman show can be, but also to witness first hand the audience response to the work.

One of the benefits of directing work like this is that someone else is able to put across more subtly, kindly and persuasively, some of the strong opinions I have about being Jewish. Also, because Chantal tackles the subject from the outside looking in, she is able to make light of her observations, and it is this that the audience loves. Non Jewish audiences find the show a hilarious learning curve, while Jewish audiences are given an opportunity to laugh at themselves and see themselves a little more critically through an outsider’s eyes.

All of this in  great, true life, storytelling tradition. I am beyond delighted that this work is being so well received, thanks in part to Daphne Khun who began the journey with Chantal, and then to Nicolette Moses, who fought hard to have us at The Baxter.

You have one more week SlaapStad. Get your tickets now.

Being Jew-ish

Jew-ish is a notion I stole from actress Chantal Stanfield when we were working on From Koesistes to Kneidlach (coming to Cape Town in December, save the date, at the Baxter). She was talking about her husband, who is Jewish, and Jew-ish, in the lapsed kind of way that I am. We are not religious (I am an atheist), we are not kosher, we are not Zionists, and we are as critical of the problems inherent in Judaism as we are prepared to acknowledge the good in it.

I have had struggles with my Jewish identity for all my life. It is confusing and unsettling and sometimes even achingly painful. I won’t even go into detail. How I have emerged, at the age of 52, is as a much more committed human, South African, vegan, than Jewish person. I am deeply opposed to the Israeli government and its Apartheid crimes against the Palestinians. I am deeply opposed to any human rights abuses, including anti-Semitism, and I am constantly shocked at any group’s ability to be selectively moral, or morally outraged. Crimes against humanity must all be condemned with the same force. Nobody gets to pick and choose, and none can be worse than another because of who is doing it, or who it is being done to.

So, at a funny birthday party on Sunday I got into a dangerous conversation with a man I did not know, a Jewish man of my age group or slightly older, a man with good hair, teeth, clothes and definitely a house and car and servants and trips overseas, who described the increasingly shrinking jewish community of South Africa as ’embattled’. He gave reasons for this condition on the growing Muslim anti-Jewish sentiment in South Africa, and the government’s anti Israel stance. And I was blown away. Embattled? A community that lives in the best areas of Cape Town (and Joburg), that is seen as one of the wealthiest segments of South African society, with the best schools, big businesses, and high profiles, is ’embattled’? A community that isn’t driven out and forced into the sea to become refugees if they survive. A community that isn’t locked in and shut out, and water rationed and policed. A community that is not at war. On the contrary, the Jewish community is far more able and capable of serving other genuinely embattled communities.

The Jewish community that I know has always fed on this sentiment, this idea, this feeling of being embattled. It is probably in our genetic make-up. And even I agree that it is understandable. Israel is built on that foundation; that Jews are only safe in their homeland. But there is this completely skewed notion that Jews are struggling and under threat here. A notion shared by many whites. And it is such a dangerous notion because it separates out from the truth, totally minimises those who are actually embattled, like the poor, and ends up justifying ‘survivalist’ behaviour.

While there were many prominent Jews or Jew-ish people in this country’s struggle for liberation, there have been much fewer involved in meaningful transformation. Unfortunately, the sentiment of the SA Jewish community as a whole has aligned itself more strongly to a conservative, religious and Zionist-at-all-cost way of thinking. And because of this Jews have become easier targets. The sale of Tafelberg, here on our doorstep, is a fantastic example. So few (300 or so) Jews actively campaigned against the sale to the Phyllis Jowel Remedial School, yet allowed Helen Zille jump onto the anti-Semitic bandwagon when there was such deep resistance to the sale by pro-social housing campaigners. I can’t help but feel that the Jewish community is its own worst enemy here.

I write this with a yortzeit candle burning its last. I am commemorating the death of my mother a year ago. I lit the candle for connection, for ritual, for her really. And there is a part of me that longs for a true, deep and meaningful connection with something Jewish; not religion, not even culture, but something else wrapped up in identity and belonging. But I am still the black sheep, and the South African Jewish community (on the whole) shames me.

 

 

On Death and Drama

Today is the first day of three days in a row off from performing the Finkelsteins. It is also Rosh Hashanah and this evening we will go and have a feast with our closest and best friends (whose names are not Finkelsteins, and who are, according to the play half-Jewish).

The Finkelsteins (are Coming to Dinner) is the play that has brought me back into performing in a conventional theatre piece, with other actors, a proper script, a director, a rehearsal process. It has been fabulous and scary and exciting and challenging and rewarding all at once.

For those of you who don’t know, the Finkelsteins is about a young Jewish artist, Nate, who is falling in love with his life model but their relationship has the unusual triangle problem of Nate living with his dead mother. No surprises that I play the ghost. Weirdly enough the last time I wrote myself a play, Drive With Me, and performed it, the character was also a ghost. But it gets weirder.

Two weeks into me rehearsing the play in which my character is a dead Jewish mother my own mother unexpectedly died. In an absolute turmoil of crazy emotion and strange dislocatedness I flew to Johannesburg to bury her. In the car on the way to the airport I messaged my cast and director to tell them I would be away for a few days because my own mother had died. It was surreal.

After spending too short a time in mourning with my family I had to rush back to Cape Town to go straight into production week before opening at the CT Fringe. And for the last 10 days I have been playing a character for whom Kaddish (the prayer that is said for the dead) is said in my presence on stage. The layers of connection, communion, catharsis and empathetic link to my universe and the made up one are huge.

I have no real idea about how anything works, but I know this. The magic of stage, word, life, family,  friendship, allies, ghosts, dreams and my own fleeting journey in this space are like tiny, absurd unicorn burps of miracles, and I am both grateful and unexplainingly furious for and about everything.

 

Jewish

Most of you know, I’m jewish by accident of birth, and proximity to and love of family (to whom it may or may not mean a little or lot more), but personally, I can take it or leave it. Mostly I am not proud of the special antics of visible Jewish behaviour and am definitely the other side of Zionism (which is a whole ‘nother story and can be found on this blog in better and more serious detail here and here).

I am often in mood swings with the Jewish stuff; I love making and eating kneidlach, which I do generally very well. I have some fond memories of Jewish occasions and traditions, kept in a bastardised kind of way by my grand parents, and I love Kletzmer music with a deep and abiding soul connection. I will speak out against all forms of anti-Semitism in the same way as I do with racism, sexism, homophobia and xenophobia – I despise discrimination and hate those that practice it. But the truth is, I am often embarrassed by the way Jews behave!

So, what happens? I fall in love with, and marry, a perfectly un-Jewish gentile (his 6ft4 frame stands like a lamp post amongst my very Jewish family of bedside cabinets), who is delighted, entertained and fascinated by all things Jewish. Big Friendly has three ‘yarmies’. He asked for and received a Channukiya for a wedding gift. He indulges in an Afrikaans-ised Yiddish that is as hilarious as it is corrupt. He loves Shabbash (Shabbat, with our friends the Noodles). He geshvitzes and shloofs. He gets toegedreidt (instead of tsudreit (sp)) and he loves all Jewish references in movies and books. Go figure.

When my cousin decided to come to Jozi from Australia to hold a rolling four day barmitzvah for her son I realised that is was going to be a series of firsts for Brenton. And it was brilliant.

Day 1 was a drive through a sleepy public-holiday-Jozi city centre to get to the Lion’s Shul. All Jozi Jews of a certain age remember this shul near the old Alhambra Theatre because of the two lion statues on either side of the doors. It was Big Friendly’s first time at any shul. He was a little unnerved that men and women would sit separately and so I sent him in with my brother, and I went upstairs to the opposite balcony so that we could at least see each other and pull faces. The shul is cute, old and gorgeous, with lots to look at. Imagine Big Friendly’s total surprise when some of the men, with giant prayer shawls in place, hauled two little leather strapped boxes out of bags and started putting them on heads and arms. His eyes nearly popped out of his skull.

After the service, and his horror at the kids pelting the barmy boy with sweets (Big Friendly’s second fave things, next to chocolates), his amazement at the Brocha spread, and his fascination at how, throughout the service everyone kept up a constant chatter, he asked me why one of the men was a ninja. He felt very sorry that this guy, the ninja, had been asked to leave for a section of the service. He in fact was a Cohen, who had to leave so the family could get preference for coming up to the bimah (you try and explain that!).

That night, at the party, I watched Big Friendly as the barmy boy was hoisted high above heads on a chair and shaken about in celebration. I watched as the look of confusion spread when he took in the barmy singer, singing along to the remix track of “Simeltov u Mazeltov” and his amazement at the food and the Jewish love of it.

Then there was the Friday night supper. Brenton loves the Kiddush wine. I had to give him my glass as well. He still laughs every time he hears that there will be benching, and he forgets every time that it means grace after meals.

Then there was the actual service and main reading at the Glenhazel shul on the Saturday morning. It was a long one, in a giant, modern shul. I don’t remember why, but Brenton absolutely loved it. Maybe because he got given another special yarmie. My fave moment was when a wooden walking stick suddenly went horizontal among the seated men, and I watched as ancient Hymie tried to poke my cousin with it; he needed help to go to the bathroom.

Saturday lunch in an old Joburg garden was when Big Friendly attached to Frank the French bulldog. And when we drank pink gin and watched kids versus adults play the most vicious, dangerous and hard-core game of soccer.

It was intense.

Being home is a lot less Jewish.

A moment of home

To be honest, I have been a little cynical of the SA community in Australia; I have carried a suspicion that I wouldn’t like what they thought about home, and too many white ex-seffefrikens are cliquey and ‘old fashioned’ and have switched privilege for privilege in a quite unconscious way. These ideas have made me quite nervous. Added to that has been my projected response to the SA Jewish community in Oz, particularly in Sydney. So, first thing was me catching up with an old school friend who I haven’t seen for 30 years, and it was like swooping back in time to brilliantness. It was so lovely and easy and miraculous.

Then, my cousin, whose family is recently in Sydney (a year and a half), took us to see what the men (dad and two sons) in the family were doing. I was so touched. They had gone to Our Big Kitchen, a Jewish organisation that makes meals for the homeless. Tonight, in celebration of Madiba’s birthday, a huge group of mainly ex-South Africans came together to cook 700 meals in 67 minutes, to feed homeless and needy. It was magnificent. I had to keep myself from crying about a hundred times.

Right now I am feeling horribly disillusioned about home. It’s been a bit of a struggle coming to terms with these new feelings about me and SA, so it was really weird having this touching reference to home in the most positive and pro-active way.

Real Rose

When all is said and done, it is absolutely blatantly obvious when a piece of theatre or storytelling is amazing. Rose, written by Martin Sherman and performed by Fiona York at The Kalk Bay Theatre is just that; a performance that crept up on me (it had time to; it was two hours long) and had me sobbing and sniffing onto my sleeves again.

On a wooden bench (she is sitting shiva), Rose tells the extraordinary story of her life; a Jewish peasant girl growing up in a village in the Ukraine where she feels like she doesn’t belong, to her escape as a young girl to meet up with her brother in Warsaw. She tells of her time during the war, in the Ghetto, her rescue and final convoluted trip to Palestine that ended up in America, with a second husband, and the feisty creation of an interesting, unusual life.

Punctuated with delicious humour, strange little details, and of course the terrible facts that Rose has trouble ‘remembering’, this is an engrossing story told absolutely brilliantly.

Again, I wasn’t sure about whether I was going to like this one. At the heart of the tale sits a Jewish holocaust survivor story. As I have said before, been there done that. But the character of Rose navigates an original take on this, making its horrors fresh and personal. I was also uncomfortable about how the whole Palestine/Israel issue would be handled. It is no secret that I have very strong anti-Israel occupation of Palestine feelings. Well, I don’t want to give the story away, but this was for me the most moving, tragic and brilliantly resolved moment of the whole thing.

Rose sneaks up on you, and her mannerisms, cowardice. quirks, bravery and foibles become totally endearing. You want a happy life for her, but what you get is a real life, told in the simplest, truest way.

It is always interesting for me when somebody who isn’t Jewish plays someone who is. It is an interesting debate. It’s not like a specifically black character. There is the issue of colour. It wouldn’t be believed. But can you tell whether someone is Jewish? Fiona York does a brilliant job because she plays the person, not the characteristics. I had one or two moments where I found her accent a bit weird, and her pronunciation of chuppah made the u sound like ‘cup’ instead of ‘hoop’, but I am nitpicking as only a Jewish somebody could. (If my fingers weren’t typing they would be making hand gestures.)

If I could be like Fiona York when I am in my later years I would be so happy. I aspire to be her, and do her kind of work.

PS. It is going to be so, so interesting to see if this production is accepted by the Jewish grapevine here in Cape Town. Of course it should, but will it be politically challenging?

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