The personal and the political collide in the late-’60s Soviet Union, where Jewish identity was in hiding.
They called it “jazz on bones.” In Soviet-era Russia, Western music was explicitly forbidden, and in order to listen, say, to the Beatles or to the work of the Jewish singer/songwriter Vladimir Vysotsky, music was recorded on X-ray films by cutting them in circles and burning a cigarette hole in the center. These X-ray recordings are a central metaphor in a new Off-Broadway play, “The Russian and the Jew,” written by Liba Vaynberg and Emily Louise Perkins. Inspired by Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina,” it comes on the heels of the debut of a new musical adaptation of the same novel in London, and just a year after the closing of Dave Malloy’s hit Broadway musical “Natasha, Pierre, & the Great Comet of 1812,” inspired by Tolstoy’s “War and Peace.” The new work was sponsored by grants from COJECO (Council of Jewish Émigré Community Organizations) and the Genesis Philanthropy Group.
Directed by Inés Braun, “The Russian and the Jew” centers on the close friendship between two young female doctors in the small town of Brest in Belarus. Lena (Vaynberg) is Jewish; Katya (Perkins) is not. Like the title character in Tolstoy’s novel, Lena is a married woman who has an affair, in this case with a man named Adler (Jordan Bellow). Katya, who is divorced, falls for a Jewish man named Levin (Terrell Wheeler), a railroad supervisor who tells anti-Semitic jokes to his colleagues to convince them that he is not Jewish. Lena and Katya, despite the differences in their backgrounds, bond over listening secretly to Radio Liberty, as well as to bootleg recordings (made on X-ray films) of the Beatles and Vysotsky.
The Jewish characters in the play, says dramaturg Erin Capistrano, are “forced to keep elements of their identity secret. … But traces still remain.”
But as anti-Semitism spikes throughout the Soviet Union, and as Lena attempts to get a visa to emigrate to America, Lena and Katya’s relationship turns out to be more fraught than either of them had realized. Russian fairy tales, including the tale of the witch named Baba Yaga (a staple of Yiddish folklore), as well as one about a frog princess, are interwoven into the play in ways that mirror the main action of the drama.
In an interview, Vaynberg told The Jewish Week that the two-hour play is based on her own upbringing; her father was a railroad engineer in Russia and her mother is a physician. The first member of her family to be born in this country, Vaynberg grew up in Los Angeles; her bat mitzvah, which was presided over by a Chabad rabbi, took place in the community room of a local theater. Although the play tackles serious issues, Vaynberg called it “lush, romantic and sexy — not didactic.”
Vaynberg explained that just as Anna Karenina was constrained in her behavior by Russian attitudes toward women, the Jews in her play suffer because of their ethnicity, despite the fact that the practice of Jewish religion — and all religion — was outlawed by the Communist regime.
She summed up the play as being about how “personal relationships reflect political realities.” The play is set among a group of Jewish dissidents in the wake of the Six-Day War in Israel, when a surge of pride among Russian Jews (as among other Jews worldwide) has led many of them to want to return to Jewish learning and practice; some are studying Hebrew and having Passover seders — none of which can be done openly without fear of anti-Semitic reprisals from both the government and from non-Jewish “comrades.”
Further, because only about 4,000 exit visas were granted to Jews in the late 1960s — the flood of Russian emigres to both the United States and Israel gathered steam in the 1970s, with a quarter-million Jews leaving during that decade — Russian Jews were caught in a no-win situation in terms of their lives and careers.
Braun, who was born in Argentina and raised as a Catholic (although she has Lithuanian Jewish ancestors on her father’s side), views the characters in the play as suffering the “torment of carrying empty lives” while living under a totalitarian government. “They weren’t allowed to have a religion at all,” she noted. “Lenin was God.”
Erin Capistrano is the dramaturg for “The Russian and the Jew.” Her interpretation of the play is that it is a kind of palimpsest — a layering of elements in which what has ostensibly been erased still shows through. The Jewish characters, she explained, “are forced to keep elements of their identity secret and not advertise who they really are. But traces still remain.”
She and Braun decided to make this manifest through having scenes overlap and by having props and scenic elements that are used in one scene make another appearance, in a different form, in another. For example, a wind-up record player turns up later as a mill that a fairy tale character uses to grind flour. Using X-ray films to record music, she added, is a way of “reusing and repurposing, but also creating something that is entirely new.”
In similar fashion, the Jewish characters “create what they can with what they were given,” taking elements of their identity and trying to refashion them into new ways of being and relating to one another. Yet, to use another metaphor, they are confronted with non-Jewish characters whom Capistrano compared to Russian nesting dolls whose deep-seated anti-Semitism is always there, if you look deep enough.
But metaphor and symbolism, Capistrano observed, go only so far. As the actors rehearsed the play, current events, from the refugee crisis at the Mexican border to the massacre of Jews at a synagogue in Pittsburgh, made the play’s relevance seem more literal. As Capistrano wrote in a program note, “news stories of families ripped apart by draconian immigration policies and asylum seekers being met at the border with tear gas and rubber bullets added unanticipated layers to the stories we were telling.”