Polish Actors Reenact the Shtetl Better Than Any Jew

Krakow cabaret proves that small-town Jewish life is great material for theater.

On a recent visit to Poland I hadn’t really intended to go to the theater. But as I was on my way to my hotel in Krakow I passed by a small theater called STU. If it weren't for a poster, I wouldn’t have noticed that the residential-looking building had a theater inside. The title on the poster – "Ay Vay, or Stories with Cinnamon” – made clear what I would be doing that evening, though not without some trepidation.

I will try to explain. I am indeed Polish (that is, I was born in Poland), and I do not agree with the common Israeli opinion that the Poles bear – and will forever bear – responsibility for the terrible fate of Poland's Jews during World War II (including my parents’ entire families).

On all my visits to Poland, and certainly in recent years, I have formed the impression – without ignoring the blood-soaked Polish-Jewish history of the mid-20th century – that the country is trying to deal with the past courageously. In fact, in Poland there is a great deal of love for everything Jewish, perhaps even enchantment. There is nostalgia for the Jewish part of Polish culture that disappeared with the departure of the remaining Polish Jews.

In any case, the title of the play hinted that it focuses on small-town Jewish life and culture, something of the world that was destroyed in the Holocaust. I felt some anxiety that attempts by Polish actors in a Polish theater to bring these characters to life could be received by a Polish audience as a caricature, distorted one way or another, of the Jewish world that no longer exists. It could even border on anti-Semitism.

The ticket cost 70 zlotys (about NIS 77) and granted the spectator entry to an intimate auditorium with a thrust stage and seating for about 250. The columns on each side of the stage were very reminiscent of Jerusalem's Khan Theater.

The audience consisted mainly of teenagers and young adults. Onstage were a jumble of objects and furniture, and a trapdoor gaped in the stage. From it emerged four men (trousers, black vests, white shirts) and a woman. I don’t know if the young Polish audience got this; for me the context of Jews emerging from a hiding place was unambiguous.

When the stage lights came on, after a brief musical overture (klezmer, of course, a clarinet, of course), one actor showed the audience a shtreimel – the large fur hat worn by Hasidic Jews. “The Jews always wear a head-covering, and this isn't just any head-covering," he said. "This is the head-covering of the righteous man. And the righteous man is capable of working miracles and even curing the ill.”

The lighting revealed the young woman sprawled as if having fainted. The young man waved the shtreimel above her and she righted herself for a moment and then dropped back down. “The sick people die again afterwards, but they die a lot healthier,” the man said.

And thus the explanation of the black hat develops into a heated debate. On one side is the son wearing a skullcap who is oppressed by the narrow confines of Jewish life. On the other is the father who wears a peaked cap and speaks in the name of the values of Jewish tradition and religion.

Each complains about the other to the wife and mother who is backstage. The son questions why it is forbidden to eat pork and the father, who is certain he has a good answer, declares “because that’s how it is.” The son complains about the way the Jews claim to be the chosen people when there are no doubt other equally worthy peoples.

He argues to his father that maybe the Jews have given a lot to the world but for example they didn’t invent the tango or tap dancing. Here the father rallies: Shmuel the tailor had 10 children and only one toilet, and the 10 children who had to hold it in invented tap-dancing.

Plenty of klezmer

At this stage the suspicious spectator (as distinct from the local Polish audience) realizes what's nice about this play – largely skits and songs based on what's known in Polish stage jargon as szmonces (shmontzes), routines of Jewish humor and popular wisdom The nice thing is that no one's laughing at Jews but with them. Actually, not really with them, because so few Jews are left in Poland. But this show convinces with its affectionate, if not loving, attitude toward the Jewish world that knows how to laugh at itself and enjoys doing so.

Moreover, this performance is also a cabaret. Jacek Stefanik takes a bottle and two glasses out of the cupboard. He pulls the cork and the clarinet bursts into a series of klezmer trills. He puts the cork back in, pulls it out again and the music erupts anew.

Marcin Kobierski takes a second bottle out of the cupboard and out from under the cork erupts a second clarinet, even wilder than the first. Andrzej Rog takes a jar, and from under its cap bursts a trombone. Marta Bizon comes on stage with a fan, whose every flutter emits the sound of an accordion.

Gradually a scene of Jews with props becomes a musical celebration of a traditional-modern Jewish sound. It's an imaginative dance with bottles and a lovely picture of life. This play has clear entertainment value but doesn't hesitate to be sentimental; for example, when a mother sings to her baby, or in a song about the dream of Mendel the tailor.

Director, skit writer and troupe manager Rafal Kmita has run his cabaret for some 20 years now. "Ay Vay, Stories with Cinnamon” was first performed in 2005, when it won the prize for Polish cabaret. It has been performed throughout Poland more than 300 times (the theater in Krakow is one of its home bases). The cabaret has even performed the show with great success in France in front of a French, not Polish, audience, with captions. A recording of the songs, with original music by Boleslaw Rawski, has been a big seller.

When I tried to explain to myself the secret of success of this production with an audience that has no special interest in the topic (as I do) – apart from the good-spirited magic of the Jewish material itself – I concluded it was because this company, both as individuals and a group, has an infectious energy.

Toward the end, when the very Jewish music had taken on rhythms of contemporary dance club music, with bits of rap and hip hop, the encores began, with each actor doing an individual number. Outstanding was the song sung by Zelda-Rachel, the Jewish prostitute who offers her best wares to her Jewish clients, at a price anybody – and any body – can afford. At this stage the audience was applauding as if possessed by a dybbuk; it sounded like they would sit in that small auditorium all night if only the Jewish tales went on.

It was amazing – in Polish of all things, before a Polish audience, performed by non-Jewish actors (as far as I could tell, though toward the end they looked, as the Polish expression has it, “like a hundred Jews”). This “Diaspora" small-town Jewish material, which we in Israel have learned to scorn and shun in the name of Israeliness, provided full human-theatrical enchantment, with the necessary self-irony.

I emerged from this performance in Krakow, Poland, with the feeling that maybe it's hard to be a Jew (and a Pole and an Israeli), but there are moments when this can be both charming and enjoyable. And somehow it seems odd that during the eight years this production has existed on Poland's stages, no one has thought to bring it to Israel as a guest performance.

True, we're a difficult audience, but it seems that with Hebrew captions, it's a production that could convince even Israelis that there's a certain fun in Judaism. Certainly stage fun.

Jacek Wrzesinski