Why perform a forgotten Yiddish play for the first time in English today, in New York City, and why with African-American actors?
These are questions NJJN posed to South Orange resident David Winitsky, director of Under the Cross, a play originally written in Yiddish by Isaac Dov Berkovitch.
The play is having its English-language and American debut this month in a performance produced by the New World Theatre Project at the June Havoc Theater in Manhattan.
Winitsky believes the play has particular relevance and resonance for today’s audiences because of the questions it poses about “otherness.” Casting black actors in the Jewish roles only reinforces this.
“In an odd way, like a design choice, it sets up the Jewish characters as the Other, visually,” said Winitsky. “It’s an opportunity to get closer to the heart of the play.”
Under the Cross — Unter Tzeylem in Yiddish — tells the story of successful businessman Moshke, the owner of a Russian lumber yard who converted to Christianity in his rebellious youth and married a devout Christian woman. He has a son, Yakov, now grown, for whom he has found a Christian bride.
Tensions erupt between father and son when Moshke decides to offer shelter to a Jewish woman raped in a pogrom. Moshke even considers returning to his Jewish faith and moving his family to Palestine. Then he finds out the son has not only participated in the pogrom but was the attacker of the young woman in his father’s home.
Winitsky said that for the last decade, he has focused his theater work on the exploration of Jewish identity as it expresses itself onstage. He was immediately attracted to Under the Cross when New World’s producing artistic director, Ellen Perecman, a Yiddish speaker, shared the English translation with him.
“This play presents Jewish characters we haven’t seen before,” he said in a telephone interview with NJJN.
Winitsky described Moshke, the protagonist, as “a tough guy with a short fuse and little education,” a Jewish character he thinks is seen all too rarely today in the arts.
“Today, we get Jewish characters of a specific type: the nebbishy Woody Allen world, or the historical portrayals that tend toward Yentl or the many, many descendants of Shylock the moneylender.”
He said he finds the complex universe of characters offered in Yiddish theater particularly compelling and somewhat surprising in contrast to the homogeneity of much of what has made its way into the popular sphere. “There is a golden halo, a kind of ‘Fiddler’ glow, over all things Yiddish because people see it as representing a lost world we want to honor,” he said.
The role of Otherness, according to Winitsky, is a complex matter in the play.
“Characters may feel positively or negatively, but still hold Jews at arm’s length,” he explained. “These devout Christian characters talk about the holiness of the Jewish people. But even in this positive light, Jews are not individual human beings, but members of the Chosen People, who always have a sense of Otherness.”
In that way, Winitsky said, he doesn’t see it as much different from the ways his own liberal Jewish community — he is a member of Congregation Beth El in South Orange — is working to accommodate a different “Other” community.
“Gay and lesbian couples, at least in the liberal Jewish community, are accepted to a large degree — but there’s still an otherness. Even at Beth El, which is so proud of its membership, there is still an otherness, whether good or bad,” he said, referring to the many gay and lesbian families among the Conservative congregation’s membership. “This play allows us to think about how we engage with the Other and how it can be damaging.”
Winitsky, who holds an MFA in directing from Northwestern University and is a member of the Lincoln Center Directors Lab, has done theater work on Broadway, Off-Broadway, and around the country. Recent productions include A Wonderful Flat Thing (14th Street Y), Displaced Wedding (New World Theatre Project), Until We Find Each Other (Midtown International), and Our Dad Is in Atlantis (Playwrights Theatre). He and his wife, playwright and painter Elizabeth Samet, have two sons, Ezekiel and Alexander.
Winitsky’s research into Berkovitch yielded little beyond the basic outlines of his life and work. “I would love to be able to sit down and have a conversation with Berkovitch,” he said. “That would be awesome. It would make the play so much richer. The first question I’d ask him is: How close were you to this story?”