When we think of Jewish immigrants, many of us recollect those from Eastern Europe who came to New York around the turn of the 20th century. But the city continues to be a haven for Jewish immigrants from all over the world. In Graciela Berger Wegsman's "Memory is a Culinary Affair," a young Jewish woman from Argentina struggles to rebuild her life in New York as she grapples with her mother's disappearance at the hands of the military dictatorship in her country. The play opens next Thursday evening at the Red Room in the East Village.
Directed by Fabian Gonzalez, "Memory" is based on the history of Jorge Rafael Videla's abduction, torture and murder of thousands of his own people during what came to be known as Argentina's "Dirty War," which lasted from 1976 to 1983. After slaughtering those whom it identified as terrorists and guerillas, the Argentinean junta typically dropped their bodies from military planes into the River Plata. Many of the children and parents of the desaparecidos ("disappeared") continue to search for them to this day.
Wegsman grew up in Buenos Aires, where she studied journalism at a Jesuit university. After making aliyah and living in Israel for six years, Wegsman moved to New York, where she eventually started writing for the Spanish-language newsweekly of the Daily News, Hora Hispana. Her first play, "The Dream of Claudia Jade," is about an immigrant from Argentina who runs for city council; it took second prize in a playwriting competition sponsored by the Inter-American Development Bank, which supports economic growth in Latin America and the Caribbean.
In "Memory is a Culinary Affair," which had its premiere last August at the Manhattan Repertory Theatre, Carina (Mariana Parma) is visited in New York by her sister, Flor (Ydaiber Orozco), who confesses that she is dating Carina's ex-boyfriend, Pablo (Ron Sarcos). As they sort out their love lives, the two sisters also try to piece together what happened to their mother, Blanca (Michelle Concha), who was kidnapped while serving dinner to Carina, who was 4 at the time. (Also in the cast are George Bass and Ben Bucher.) As part of her research, Wegsman drew from testimonies about the junta, interviews and government reports such as "Nunca Mas" (Never Again) - the official report of the Argentine National Commission on the disappeared citizens.
"It's so hard to be an immigrant," Wegsman told The Jewish Week. "Americans put all of us Hispanic immigrants in the same bag, and don't realize that we are very different depending on what country we come from." Her play's title, she noted, comes from the associations that immigrants have with the foods of their home countries, like the alfajor, the round Argentine cookie filled with dulce de leche, which Arabs brought from Spain to South America.
When they hear the name of the play, Wegsman said, many people erroneously assume that she is a chef. "Actually, I'm a terrible cook," she said. "The play is more about the memories that food brings than about the food itself."
"Memory is a Culinary Affair" runs through June 17 at the Red Room, 85 E. Fourth St. Performances are June 9, 10, 11, 16 & 17 at 8 p.m. and June 11, 12 at 3 p.m. For tickets ($18), call Smarttix at (212) 868-4444 of visit www.smarttix.com.