Glückel of Hameln is quite emphatic about her purpose when she takes to writing a memoir in 1690 (“the year of Creation 5451,” as she calls it, referring to the Hebrew calendar). “I am not writing this book in order to preach,” she promises her dozen children, to whom she addresses the tome, but rather “to drive away the melancholy that comes with the long nights.” The three artists who have newly adapted the digressive diary—the only premodern Yiddish text by a woman—may also drive away a good share of melancholy with their avant-garde, boho-balladeering, music-theater staging. But their purposes are rather more complex.
Sure, Jenny Romaine, Adrienne Cooper, and Frank London love to tell a good story, and Glückel offers many as she describes her dealings as a pearl trader and moneylender in the emergent capitalism of northern Germany: plague, murder, incest, fortunes won and squandered, true romance and false messiahs. Through it all she sustains an abiding faith that the Almighty will “cast down the wicked.” (Protestations notwithstanding, Glückel does tons of preaching.) Yet more than depicting Glückel’s world of commerce and communal commitment, the creators of the production, running at La MaMa from January 20 to February 6, are also, with their own sense of communal commitment against a tide of rapacious commerce, forging a new Yiddish culture.
Performed in Yiddish and English, The Memoirs of Glückel of Hameln has original music that builds on a range of medieval and modern Western European Jewish motifs. “Think ballads, moritat, Kurt Weill, not klezmer music,“ insists co-composer London, a prime force in the klezmer revival movement as a member of the rocking Jewish roots-band the Klezmatics. “Glückel didn’t live in Eastern Europe, and besides, klezmer music came along later.”
Theatrically, the show also borrows from the Middle Ages (as well as from the modernist experimentation of artists like Kurt Schwitters). In addition to hand puppets, a central device is bånklsang—the popular form of illustrated public storytelling that was presented at the mercantile fairs Glückel frequented. The economic technique also enables the company to pack in what director Romaine calls “the sheer amount of information the audience has to have just to stay with Glückel’s story: How did Jews get to Europe? What is money? And what is it with Jews and money already?”
The aesthetic—shaped largely by Romaine’s work with the Downtown experimental troupe Great Small Works, the producer of Glückel—is direct, smartly self-conscious, and proudly poor. In sum, says Cooper, the internationally renowned performer of Yiddish song, who co-composed the show’s music and plays the role of Glückel, “this is Yiddish theater as it should be: in dialogue with contemporary culture and not seeing itself in continuous retrospective.”
Not everyone agrees it’s possible—or appropriate—to create a new Yiddish culture. “An older generation of scholars argues that Yiddish is dead and meant only to be studied academically,” London explains. “We’re not naive. We aren’t saying Yiddish is going to return as the living language it was 100 years ago. But you can’t deny that it’s infusing the music, poetry, and theater of today’s American-Ashkenazi Jews.”
“We extrapolated from what those scholars taught us,” adds Cooper. “They talked about the missing generation, and then there we were with this amazing material and our teachers’ profound analyses. We put the analyses in front of an audience instead of in front of an academic reader. So the vocabulary got broader, the reference points increasingly multiple. We broke the frame.”
Part of that frame included a reverential grief that was honorable, but also stultifying to a new generation searching for a usable past. Romaine—who doubles in the show as Glückel—remembers that in her introductory Yiddish class in the ’80s, “on the first day, they taught us five words for liquidation. That’s not what happens when you learn Spanish. The sense of rupture hangs over Yiddish study. It’s almost as if you’re being asked, in the name of the 6 million, to please conjugate this verb. We didn’t want to sustain the act of being depressed.” The “we” in question are the young musicians, filmmakers, writers, and theater artists who found each other in day jobs at the YIVO Institute for Yiddish Research from the late ’70s through the ’90s. (Romaine served as sound archivist for the last 13 years.) “Talking in the halls, we created the Yiddish cultural don’t-call-it-a-revival.”
“The other option was sentimentalized memorial,” chimes in Cooper, YIVO’s erstwhile assistant director. “Instead we took a leap over the historical divide, with full knowledge of the ironies and difficulties and violence of that disconnect.” As a line in Glückel‘s opening ballad puts it, “Our modest presentation is burdened by the weight/of European history and epic Jewish fate.”
“That’s the dialectical key to the whole show!” says Romaine, sounding rather like a bånklsanger. Sounding like Glückel, whose diary recounts family deaths, commercial failures, and anti-Semitic expulsions without a trace of self-pity or sentimentality, Cooper adds, “We have a deep love and respect and passion for Yiddish culture. What we don’t have is nostalgia.”