Russian-Jewish Identity, Lost And Found

New theater troupe, a division of the Folksbiene, mounts second production digging into Russians’ complex background.

05/21/2013
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The struggle to free Soviet Jews was one of the most successful protest movements in history, and it brought close to three-quarters of a million Jews to this country. But just a few decades later, studies show, many Soviet Jews feel alienated from both their Jewish and American identities.

Now comes a new experimental theater troupe, Lost and Found, to give a voice to the struggles of young Jews from the Former Soviet Union. Lost and Found is forming a new Russian division of the Folksbiene Yiddish Theater to stage “Covers,” its second production, which started performances this week on the Upper West Side.

Presented in English, the play is directed by Alexandre Marine, an award-winning Russian theater artist based in Montreal; he is known for highly physical productions that spring from intense psychological training (of the “method acting” variety) to mine the actors’ own experiences as the basis for their art. Written by Ruvym Gilman and Boris Zilberman, “Covers” begins performances next week with Ukrainian-born Yelena Shmulenson (“A Serious Man,” “Boardwalk Empire”) and Israeli film star Gera Sandler (“Jellyfish,” “Epilogue”) in the cast.

Lost and Found is the brainchild of Anna Zicer, who grew up in Russia and then emigrated to Israel. Half a dozen years ago she came to the United States to work for Birthright Israel as an emissary to the Russian community in the New York metropolitan area. Zicer, who is trained as an actor, has attracted funding for the project from COJECO (UJA-Federation of New York’s division for Russian Jewish emigres) and from the Genesis Philanthropy Group — best known as the sponsor of the Genesis Prize, the “Jewish Nobel Prize,” newly administered by Wayne Firestone, the former president of Hillel International.

Out of dozens of young Russian Jewish performers who auditioned for the project, Zicer chose 10 from a variety of backgrounds. The company’s plays are based on the cast members’ own stories and their continuing efforts to reconcile the different parts of their Jewish, Russian and American selves. In “Covers,” these conflicts are presented in a non-realistic structure, with clowning, abstract movement, and other techniques that are the hallmark of the director’s style, and that are typically more familiar to Russian audiences than to American ones. 

The company’s inaugural production, “Doroga” (Journey) traced the parallels between the lives of the company members’ grandmothers in Russia and their own lives in America. “Covers,” by contrast, is entirely set in the present; it centers on a character named Alex Litvinov, a 20-something investment banker who suffers an emotional crisis and moves back home, where he hopes to start a new career as a musician. But first he needs to cope with his family, which includes his brother Michael, who is married to a non-Jewish woman, and his cousins, who are trying to sell their grandfather’s apartment next door.

In an interview, Zicer told The Jewish Week that the new play is about how Russian Jews “cover ourselves with our masks and identities.” Since Russian Jews were deprived of any opportunities to worship or study Judaism, she noted, “religion is not necessarily relevant,” to them. Nevertheless, many look to connect to Judaism in their own way, with a resistance to “someone telling us how to be Jewish or what religion means.” 

“Covers” comes on the heels of a survey by the Jerusalem Post that indicates that 57 percent of Russian Jews in this country feel disconnected from the American Jewish community. Nevertheless, Brynna Wasserman, the executive director of the Folksbiene, sees Lost and Found as a shining example of “what the new generation of Russian Jews can accomplish.” Even though Russian Jews were “denied access to their heritage,” she said, many are interested in finding a path back to Yiddishkeit. At the same time, the Folksbiene has been trying to increase its connections to Russian Jews in New York through transliterating its Yiddish productions into Russian, producing last year’s Notes from the Underground concert (featuring Jewish folk and protest music from the Former Soviet Union), and this year’s cabaret dinner — starring Ron Rifkin — that showcased songs from the Soviet Jewry movement. With Lost and Found, she remarked, “all the work that we have done in engaging and supporting the Russian Jewish community is really paying off.”

In a joint interview, the playwrights recalled that they began to write the play by sitting down with the cast and crew; they asked about their backgrounds, their values, their neighborhoods, and the ways in which their own desires — for both their personal and professional lives — either meshed or clashed with their family’s expectations. The pair found great variety in the identities of the group members — some have a strong sense of Jewish identity, while others have none; some are immigrants themselves, while others are the children of immigrants. And while the majority of Russian Jews who came to America in the late twentieth century settled in Brighton Beach and Forest Hills, nowadays they live all over the city. (One in five Jews in New York lives in a Russian speaking household.)

Among their aims, Gilman noted, is to “play with some of the stereotypes of Russian Jews — we aren’t all tough guys from Brighton Beach with big Jewish stars around our necks, zip-up Puma suits and Kangol hats on backwards.” Gilman, who grew up in Flushing before his family moved to Jericho on Long Island, confessed that he “mostly stayed away from Jewish culture” before joining Lost and Found. “I didn’t walk around with it on my sleeve,” he said. He believes the play is about “multiple layers, levels, masks, and shells,” and the question of “What barriers are you putting up, or breaking down?”

Zilberman, who arrived in New York from the Ukraine at the age of 6, grew up in Bay Ridge. He explained that the play is “exploring a niche” by showing young Russian Jews blazing their own trails, and establishing that the past “need not be magical, or idolized, or fetishized.” He sees the play as mostly about the relationship that Russian Jews have with their parents. “Are these my struggles, or theirs?” he asks. “And are these my successes, or theirs?” However, Zilberman added, “We don’t have to do Russian Jewish shows — we have Russian Jewish souls that shine through whatever we do.”

“Covers” runs at ArcLight Theatre, 152 W. 71st St., through Sunday June 2. Performances are Monday through Friday at 8 pm, Saturday at 9 pm, and weekends at 3 pm. For tickets, $18, visit www.nationalyiddishtheatre.org or www.lostandfoundprod.com

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