From Rabbis Daughter to World-shocker

Still a wild child and free spirit, Judith Malina turns 86 with memoir and documentary.

The subject of a new documentary, Love and Politics, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in April, actress and director Judith Malina is internationally celebrated for startlingly unconventional theater, such as her 2011 play Korach: The Biblical Anarchist.

A rabbis daughter who turned 86 on June 4, Malina has long been invigorating and scandalizing audiences with avant-garde theatrical inventiveness. Although occasionally appearing in films and TV — from Sidney Lumets Dog Day Afternoon (1975) to The Addams Family (1991), and as a dying nun who confesses to being a gangsters birth mother on HBOs The Sopranos (2006) — Malinas main focus has been overwhelmingly theatrical.

The Living Theatre, which she co-founded in 1947 with her husband Julian Beck, who died in 1985, broke boundaries and expectations while expressing a spirit of left-wing pacifist anarchy. For many years, the theater company also featured nudity and overt sexuality, which discomfited some of the critics and public. Before one of Malinas 1990s theatrical happenings in Paris, the American Jewish jazz clarinetist Steve Lacy (1934–2004, born Steven Norman Lackritz) told me: We only recently convinced Judith to put her clothes back on during the shows, since some audiences were complaining.

Still a wild child and free spirit, Malina is deeply influenced by Yiddishkeit, which her compelling new journal and memoir, The Piscator Notebook, makes clear. In it we read about how Malina was born in Kiel, Germany, in 1926 to Rabbi Max Malina and Rosel Zamora. Malinas mother, a Yiddish theater actress, had shelved her own career ambitions to raise a family. In 1928, already wary of the rise of European anti-Semitism, the family moved to New York.

Once there, as we read in Steven Lowensteins Frankfurt on the Hudson: The German Jewish Community of Washington Heights, 1933-82, Its Structure and Culture, Rabbi Malina became a key figure in New Yorks German Jewish spiritual life. His daughter realized her mothers frustrated ambitions by studying acting and directing at a school founded by one of Rosels artistic heroes, the leftist director Erwin Piscator, who resolved, as Malina describes, to make the world better through the art of the theatre.

The Nazis hated Piscators Marxism so much that even though he was Protestant, he was treated as if he were Jewish and forced to flee Germany in 1936. Piscator established a New York theatrical school where the teachers included Jewish refugees such as the Habima companys Raikin Ben-Ari, who taught the young Malina, as she recalls, that the stage is not a mirror but a magnifying glass, and that I could overcome my Jewish inhibition of making the sign of the cross on stage because, as an actor, there is no facet of human nature alien to myself.

Although Malina shared her mothers deep admiration for Piscators innovations, she did not agree with all of her mentors political views:

"I did not share Piscators unqualified admiration for FDR. My father had been dedicated to the lifting of the [anti-Semitic U.S.] immigration quotas, which would have saved countless lives. But petitions and protests and appeals were to no avail. Roosevelt defended the legal limitations that prevented masses of Jews from escaping from their Nazi persecutors."

Though she stayed home from school for Passover and other High Holy Days, Malina was sometimes obliged to work on Shabbat. During a 1946 production of Hannele, Gerhardt Hauptmanns play about a young soul striving towards purity, Malina reflected that she herself had been forced to choose between the theatre and the shabbos. But since I had already made my decision for the theatre, the best I could do was light the shabbos lights in the dressing room, or in a hotel room, which I have managed to do all my life.

Among other teachers were the eminent German Jewish architect and art historian Paul Zucker and stagecraft wizard Hans Sondheimer, a veteran of Berlins Jewish Culture League, who taught Malina how to drive a three-penny nail through a half-inch plank in three strokes. She was also influenced by her fellow students, including aspiring Jewish actors destined for film or TV careers, such as Walter Matthau, Tony Curtis (then known as Bernie Schwartz), Jerry Stiller and Bea Arthur (born Bernice Frankel).

Others she studied with were talented, but remained as devoted to theater as Malina. George Bartenieff was later celebrated for his marathon show I Will Bear Witness, adapted from Victor Klemperers 1933-1941 diary of Nazi oppression. Anna Berger, another classmate and mentor, starred in the 2009 Aviva Kempner documentary Yoo Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg as well as the 1950s TV series which it celebrates, and was recently still touring with her own one-woman show.

To pay for classes, Malina worked in a laundry and as a waitress, singer, and hat-check girl at the nightspot owned by the German Jewish cabaret icon Valeska Gert, who had played the role of Polly Peachum in the 1931 film version of the Kurt Weill-Bertolt Brecht Threepenny Opera. In one class, a teacher commended Malinas well-honed pantomime in the role of a waitress, unaware of the students laborious nightly training in such gestures.

The classes themselves, as described by Malina, were revelatory on many levels. When one teacher played a scratchy recording of the famous French Jewish actress Sarah Bernhardt in Racines Phdre, Malina recalls: At first, it sounded like nothing but a most unhappy chicken, but after repeated study, the gliding, classical rhythm, and the beauty of Sarah Bernhardts rendition became clear. Other classes included performances that immediately struck her as exemplary, such as when instructor Herbert Berghof recited excerpts from the 18th-century German philo-Semitic play Nathan the Wise. Malina comments: Mr. Berghofs Nathan was so wise, so Semitic, so humorous as to elude description.

By contrast, Malina was fiercely self-critical of her own early class performances, such as in Racines Old Testament-inspired Esther, as part of a chorus which played the role of the eponymous heroine in the student staging. Concentration was a problem for Malina as a teenager, and the more she struggled, the harder I was thinking of thinking and the less I was being a Jewess freed from slavery. This pensiveness made her independent-minded. Though her classmates dismissed it as commercial Broadway fare, Malina relished Jacobowsky & the Colonel, a 1944 romantic comedy-drama adapted by S. N. Behrman from a Franz Werfel original. The same play was later filmed, starring Danny Kaye, as Me and the Colonel. Malina mused: Perhaps [the plays] European, Semitic flavor was closer to me.

That flavor led Malina to perform at Maurice Schwartzs Yiddish Art Theatre on Second Avenue as one of the angels in a production of I.L. Peretzs Dray Matones (Three Gifts). From Schwartz, Malina states that she learned a different discipline derived from the acting style of the celebrated Dybbuk: It is an endless struggle between outcry and restraint. The Jewish outcry overcoming the restraint of oppression.

Malina was still exemplifying this outcry in Living Theatre street appearances during last falls Occupy Wall Street protests. She is a bearer of powerful tradition, part of her lastingly intense, illuminatingly idealistic theatrical legacy.

Read more at the Forward.

The legendary director Judith Malina is captured in some intimate moments in a new documentary.
Azad Jafarian / Forward
The legendary director Judith Malina is captured in some intimate moments in a new documentary.
Azad Jafarian / Forward