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"Last Jew in Europe" Is a Tragicomedy about Current Polish Antisemitism, Self-Hating Jews, and Mormons Who Won’t Let the Dead Rest in Peace: No Wonder Someone Wants to Stop This Play

 By Susan Rosenbluth, Editor
The Jewish Voice and Opinion
Englewood, NJ 07631

April 2007

Poland may be trying to shed its reputation as a hot bed of antisemitism, one that, today, must exist virtually without Jews (living, that is; Poland has often been called "one giant Jewish cemetery"), but, in this effort, the country will receive no help from Tuvia Tenenbom.

The artistic director of the Jewish Theater of New York (JTNY), Mr. Tenenbom is also the playwright and co-director of the group’s current production, "Last Jew in Europe," a tragicomic theatre-of-the-absurd story about Jews in hiding, not during World War II, but right now.

Mr. Tenenbom calls Lodz, Poland, where his one-act drama is set, "an antisemite’s paradise, right in the middle of the EU, where anti-Jewish declarations are graphically exhibited in almost every street corner and calls for sending Jews back to the gas chambers go unchallenged."

Self-Hating Jew

The story concerns Jozef Kweczke (Csaba S. Lucas), who may or may not be Jewish, but who thinks he is (he’s a circumcised klutzy accountant whose father is a pathologist, doesn’t that prove it?), and, therefore, lives in dread that his secret will be discovered by his antisemitic fiancée, Maria (Lila Donnolo). His "salvation" appears in the person of John Jay Smith (Daniel Shafer), a young American Mormon who arrives in Lodz to research the genealogy of dead Polish Jews so that they can be "baptized" in an after-death proxy ceremony back in Salt Lake City.

Although Mormon missionaries invariably work in pairs (so exactly what happens to Smith can be avoided), in Mr. Tenenbom’s story, he is alone when he meets Maria, in a disco, and, after one or two drinks of forbidden Polish vodka, falls madly in love with her.

To rid Maria of her fiancé, Smith determines to prove that Jozef is Jewish. Jozef, however, wants Smith to baptize his entire family, meaning, Jozef reasons, that all of them would have been Mormon "from birth."

Lies of Convenience

Until it reaches its bazaar end, the story twists around questions of faith, defamation, and lies of convenience. Perhaps Jozef is actually the grandson of a Nazi leader. Or is his father just saying that? In Lodz, "Last Jew in Europe" tells us, a Nazi past is preferable to being a Jew.

Perhaps Maria is the child of a devout Jewess who is posing as a Christian butcher. And is Maria’s father, a Protestant pastor in Catholic Poland, really what he seems to be, too?

The real issues of faith are left to the Mormon to sort through. Should he steal a girl from a man who is begging to become a Mormon? And knowing the girl he loves will dump his rival if his Jewishness is proven, can Smith be trusted to know—and tell—the truth? Or would Smith lie to win the girl’s heart and hand, and which lie would work?

"Why is he interested in dead Jews?" a character asks regarding Smith. "I heard they have a law in America to recycle everything."

Personal Research

Mr. Tenenbom says he documented incidents of Jews hiding-in-plain-sight from still-virulent antisemitism during his own recent extended visit to Poland. The play is dedicated to "J," who, like Jozef in the story, is a young man from Lodz who refuses to divulge his Jewish identity for fear that his Christian fiancée will throw him out.

Mr. Tenenbom’s approach to theater comes from an eclectic background. A rabbi with smicha from Jerusalem, he also boasts a doctorate in English Literature from St. John’s University, a Master’s in Playwriting from CUNY, and an undergraduate degree in math and computer science from Touro. He studied about Christianity and Islam in Israel and New York, and journalism, acting, theatre, and finance at NYU.

He founded JTNY in 1994 dedicated to the idea that "the most sacred element in Judaism is its respect for endless probe and questioning." Among the issues the theatre group has explored are sexual yearnings in the ultra-Orthodox community, aversion to sexual intimacy among upper-class Jews, the Middle East conflict from the point of view of suicide bombers, double agents, extremists, and peaceniks, and the behavior of Jewish leaders and their organizations during the Holocaust.

Mr. Tenenbom has been called "Founder of the Theater of Catastrophe" by the German paper Die Zeit and a "free artist who fights for truth and tolerance" by the Belgian Le Vif L’Express.

Radzyn

His extended visit to Poland was prompted by his desire to see where his great-grandparents once lived. On the way to Radzyn, where, he says, one of his ancestors established the chasidic dynasty known as the Radzyner Court, Mr. Tenenbom stopped in Lublin. At a monastery there, he met a man who told him he was unable to sleep because "there are too many Jews in the world."

Although Radzyn once boasted a Jewish majority, no Jews live there anymore. Even the headstones in the cemetery were looted by the Nazis.

"The Polish government, long after the war was over—to be precise, in 1957—erected a neighborhood on top of the Jewish cemetery, never bothering to move the graves," says Mr. Tenenbom.

Sweet Apples

This information led him to meet Basha, who lives in a home built on top of the graves of Mr. Tenenbom’s family.

According to Mr. Tenenbom, Basha, far from uncomfortable at her home’s position, believes the dead bodies of Jews under her house have brought her luck. Years ago, she turned her backyard into a garden where she grows vegetables and "very sweet" apples.

"The bodies of dead Jews make the earth very fertile when they get mixed with the soil," she told Mr. Tenenbom.

Mr. Tenenbom says he "almost collapsed." "I couldn’t believe my ears and eyes. To see the woman cheerfully telling how she uses the dead Jews underneath—my great-grandparents—as a fertilizer was horrific," he says.

No Christians

But Basha saw no reason for sadness, he says. She offered him an apple and was surprised that he refused.

Not even the occasional bone that protrudes from the earth has caused her any dismay. When that happens, she told Mr. Tenenbom, she simply grinds it down and plows it back into the earth.

But her cheerfulness disappeared when Mr. Tenenbom asked her if she would feel the same way if the dead underneath her house and land had been Christians instead of Jews. "No Christians. That would be terrible," Basha told him.

Offering "Help"

Mr. Tenenbom found more civilized behavior elsewhere in the town. A former mayor of Radzyn told him the decision to build the homes on top of the Jewish cemetery was made by "the communists," not the Poles. A local pastor took Mr. Tenenbom aside and asked for forgiveness, promising to pray for guidance for himself and the rest of his Polish flock.

"But nobody offered to remove the remains from this place," says Mr. Tenenbom.

The Mormons tried, in their own way. Mr. Tenenbom recalls that, two years earlier, while traveling in Utah, he visited a computer center which houses the sect’s genealogical databases. There, he discovered that his grandfather was among those whom the Mormons had baptized by post-mortem proxy.

"What a fate for a Jew: Turned into a Mormon in the US, into fertilizer in Poland," says Mr. Tenenbom.

Polish Offense

He set his play in Lodz, he says, because he had seen first hand an abundance of antisemitic graffiti throughout the city and met several Jews who still live in hiding.

He did not deny that sometimes there are official attempts to paint over the offensive graffiti in Lodz and elsewhere in Poland, but, he says, "all it takes is a day or two, and all the images ‘magically’ reappear."

Not surprisingly, this depiction of Poland in general and Lodz in particular greatly offended the Polish government, which, through the offices of its Embassy in Washington and Consulate in New York, has made clear that it finds Mr. Tenenbom’s play bordering on "racist."

Even before the play opened, Piotr Erenfeicht, press secretary for the Polish Embassy, objected to JTNY’s website and promotional materials featuring photographs of anti-Jewish graffiti scrawled on walls around the city of Lodz.

"The images in the press release focus on antisemitism not of specific people blemished by a particular vice of character or judgment, but rather on a whole nation. This creates a broad, unfair, and misleading perception of a given nation, in this case the Polish nation," said Mr. Erenfeicht.

"Four Cultures"

Mr. Erenfeicht pointed out that Lodz sponsors a "Four Cultures Festival" in which the city "celebrates the dialogue of four cultures that created Lodz: Polish, German, Jewish, and Russian." The festival, he explained, features achievements in the fields of culture, music, film, and theatre.

Mr. Tenenbom was not impressed. "I’ve been there. I was amazed by how this festival so carefully chooses Jewish shows that depict Jews as a nebbish bunch of idiots," he says.

Mr. Erenfeicht argued that the images used by Mr. Tenenbom "in no way improve relations between our peoples or educate the uneducated, whether they are Jewish or antisemitic."

The Polish Embassy suggested that by implying all Poles were guilty of antisemitism, JTNY’s play "may be viewed as racist."

Many Examples

Mr. Tenenbom, however, has documented that there is no dearth of examples of antisemitism coming from Poland. In response to a video presentation of graffiti shown on the JTNY website, a viewer on YouTube, "flagwaver1969," posted: "Many Jewish gangs in Lodz do this graffiti themselves. Jewish extremist groups created the victimization industry worldwide."

Just this past February, Prof Maciej Giertych, a Polish member of the European Parliament, published a booklet which suggested Jews are unethical.

The tract, entitled "Civilizations at War in Europe," contains this passage: "When a pious Jew travels on Saturday on a train sitting on a rubber water bottle, he is doing so to remain faithful to his religion, because he is not allowed to travel on a Sabbath except when on water."

According to reports, Polish President Lech Kaczynski said the booklet "worried me seriously," and the European Parliament is reportedly considering sanctions against Mr. Giertych. Thus far, nothing has been done.

A Solution

The difference between the new antisemitism rising in Western Europe, which seems to be fomented by Muslim rhetoric against Israel and Jews in general, and the variety rampant in Poland, is that Polish antisemitism may simply be a continuation of the sentiments that were active before World War II.

Mr. Tenenbom has a solution: The Polish government should make the public display of antisemitism a felony.

"If the Polish government really cares how the country is seen around the world, let them move on this today," he says.

Polish Interference?

Mr. Tenenbom is convinced that pressure from the Polish Embassy and Consulate prompted the newly appointed theater editor of the New York Times, Rick Lyman, to refuse to allow anyone from his paper to review "Last Jew in Europe."

Mr. Tenenbom calls the Polish government’s efforts a "bizarre intervention by a foreign government in the affairs of an American theater," and, he says, it "should not be allowed to succeed and will not; we will continue to present our show."

But he saves his sharpest barbs for Mr. Lyman, whom he accuses of doing the Polish government’s bidding and lying about it. Mr. Tenenbom has publicly demanded that if Mr. Lyman does not reverse his decision on having the play reviewed, the paper should fire him.

Sam Sifton, culture editor of the Times, denied that the paper was interested in boycotting JTNY.

"We are adopting the same policy that we use when evaluating which books to review, or musical performances, recordings, or art shows, or restaurants. There’s simply no room for them all. And in this instance, the editors have decided to take a pass," he said.

Never Asked

But Mr. Tenenbom’s experience belies that simple explanation. According to Mr. Tenenbom, when Mr. Lyman was asked to send someone from the Times to review the play, the new theatre editor, who had been on the job only two days, replied that the paper would pass because "not one of our critics wants to review" the show.

Surprised, Mr. Tenenbom made a few calls of his own to critics he knew from the paper. According to Mr. Tenenbom, "they flatly denied ever refusing to review the show and claimed they were not given the opportunity to do so by Mr. Lyman."

"In addition, they expressed their own opinion that ‘Last Jew in Europe’ should indeed be reviewed," says Mr. Tenenbom, adding that some of the critics asked Mr. Lyman to change his mind, but he refused.

Mr. Tenenbom went so far as to contact Patricia Cohen who, until March 1, 2007, served as the paper’s theatre editor. "She told me this was ‘Rick’s decision; I can’t do anything about it; I’m no longer the editor,’" he says.

Only "Good Reviews" Allowed?

Two days later, Mr. Lyman told Mr. Tenenbom that "Last Jew in Europe" would not be reviewed because the theater’s two previous productions, which were reviewed by the Times, were panned.

Mr. Tenenbom says the remark left him "stunned."

"This is not about ‘good’ reviews," he says. "This is about abhorring censorship. In our theater, we regularly deal with sensitive political issues, where the chance of negative review is higher. We understand it, and we never complained about a bad review. Why does he? We are the only English-speaking Jewish theater in the city; all the others closed down years ago. What does he want, to close us down as well?"

Previous Reviews

In fact, the Times has reviewed virtually all of JTNY’s productions for the past ten years.

When the company did a piece entitled "Love Letters to Adolf Hitler: A Story of Passionate Love," based on intimate love letters sent to Hitler by German women between 1939 and 1945, the Times approvingly called the production "skin crawling." The Times called "The Beggar of Borough Park," another JTNY production "a buoyant play."

Last year, JTNY made headlines when its production of Kabbalah had to be abruptly cancelled. Cast in the leading role of Madonna, Emily Stern, daughter of shock radio host Howard Stern, left the cast, frightened because some of her father’s more lewd fans had discovered her identity. Nevertheless, before the show was cancelled, the Times said the play "denigrates most religions…with increasing sacrilege and blasphemy."

Censorship

Mr. Tenenbom maintains that by refusing to review "Last Jew in Europe," the New York Times is engaging in "censorship by omission."

"We cannot be silent in the face of rising antisemitism in Europe and the New York Times’ attempts to keep it out of the public awareness. The rise of antisemitism in Europe should not, and will not, be kept a secret from millions of New Yorkers just because of one man," says Mr. Tenenbom, recalling that, during World War II, the paper wrote very little about the horrors befalling Jews during the Holocaust.

"It is well known that the outstanding order at the time was not to have Holocaust stories on the front pages. Is the New York Times returning to the same pattern?" he says.

High Acclaim

In fact, "Last Jew in Europe" has received high praise from many publications in the US and abroad.

During the 2006 World Cup games in Germany, the country’s leading theatrical organization, Mülheim Stücke Festival, invited playwrights from the participating countries to engage in an "intellectual match" to parallel the games. From each of the 32 countries, the Festival chose one playwright with a play the judges deemed most intellectually promising for the upcoming season.

Mr. Tenenbom and "Last Jew in Europe" were chosen to represent the US.

Critics from Germany’s leading daily paper, Süddeuutsche Zeitung, said the play was "without a doubt, the darling of the festival," and the prestigious theater magazine, Theaterheute, called it "first rate comedic farce, soberly presented."

Nothing in Poland

In Poland itself, the play has, thus far, gone unnoticed. Mr. Tenenbom says he tried to find a theatre to produce the work, but, he says, they were interested only in the kind of plays that find their way into the "Four Cultures Festival."

"My attempts to get Polish theatres to join us in condemning the rise of antisemitism within their own country, failed," he says, adding that, in private conversations, he was told that any theater that agreed to produce the play risked losing its government funding.

Worse, he says, the producers feared "the masses would have rioted outside the theater, demanding the show be stopped."

Sensitive Nerve

Mr. Tenenbom says this saddens him because, given his family’s history, it would not be false to call him a Pole.

He told Mr. Erenfeicht, "I am saddened, probably more than you, by the state of antisemitism in your, and my, country. It’s time that the Polish government start to remedy the disease within instead of accusing everyone without."

While the Polish government and perhaps the New York Times do not appreciate his efforts, in "Last Jew in Europe," Mr. Tenenbom has clearly touched a sensitive nerve in a play that seems designed to offend everyone: Poles, self-hating Jews, and Mormons.

The play is running at the Triad Theatre, 158 W 72nd Street, between Broadway/Amsterdam and Columbus Avenues, on Sundays at 3 and Mondays and Tuesdays at 7. For tickets, go to the website, www.JewishTheater.org or call TheaterMania at 212.352.3101.

The Jewish Voice and Opinion is a politically conservative Jewish publication which present news and feature articles not generally available elsewhere in the Jewish or secular media. Articles may be reprinted in their entirety with attribution.

 

 

 

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