Conceived and directed by Coral Cohen, along with musician/composer Zoë Aqua and the cast, Threads illuminates the experiences of a large swath of the Jewish population, beginning with a warmly related litany of genealogy delivered by the five fine performers: Hannah Goldman, Lea Kalisch, Luisa Muhr, Daniella Seidl and Laura Lassy Townsend. In turn, each tells of her background, the individual stories adding up to a portrait of the extent that Jews were forced to travel the world to find homes, particularly before, during and after World War II.
Ms. Lassy Townsend is descended from a Middle Eastern family, forced to shorten the family name from Elkeslassy to Lassy to avoid sounding “Arabic.” Ms. Kalisch’s name comes from a Polish word for mud that describes the shtetl her family emerged from via European cities to New York, her background Ashkenazi. Another Ashkenazi, Ms. Goldman related that her family went from shtetl to Chicago while the family of fellow Ashkanazi; Ms. Seidl wound up in Caracas, South America being a last stop for many European Jews (including many of my relatives). Ms. Muhr’s background was “ambiguous,” while the Sephardim were represented by Ms. Lassy Townsend whose family wound up in Israel.
It is a list that boggles with its geographical spread. These travels were not without their travails, often meaning changes of social status, income and prospective for their futures.
Jewish names, it seem, oft-times originated with gentile noblemen or literal translations: “Baldauf,” another family name means “bad wolf”; “Biton” comes from the Latin for “life”; and there was even a “Bacal”—no relation to the actress! The five actresses muse about their names and how names are passed down in different Jewish traditions, or to conform to local traditions, such as adapting a name to a South American country’s customs.
Suddenly they question how they know they are Jewish and begin a dance with words that leads directly to a discussion about Bat Mitzvahs, the female equivalent of the Bar Mitzvah, and how it can affect close friendships. The ins-and-outs of Bat Mitzvah preparation are discussed, including hair straightening, fantasies, fears and the beginnings of becoming a woman. This leads directly to talk about the mechitza, the wall that divides men from women in the orthodox synagogue and on to the fear men have of women and their periods which make them traditionally “unclean.” They wonder at the story one of them tells of belonging to a shul, an Orthodox shul at that, which not only allowed the women to sit with the men, but to touch the holy Torah. But that experience is balanced by continued discrimination of Jewish women within the religious structure.
The issue of a male God and maleness in general is bandied about with both grave seriousness and humor.
The name Ruth is brought up, a durable Jewish woman who appears to represent all Jewish women, particularly grandmothers—bubbe—in her housekeeping, cooking and personality.
Things take a more grim turn when serious failures of the modern Israeli bureaucracy are revealed, scandals involving “stolen babies” which deeply affected one of the women’s families.
Weddings are fantasized about and related in great detail. The inroads of Christian holidays and their temptations become the subject of much colorful discussion.
In other words, there is not much about Judaism, Jewish women and their relationships with each other, their social lives and dealings with the rest of the world that isn’t touched upon during the efforts of these fine actors who also dance and sing. Watching the five performers and Ms. Aqua relate with relish and subtlety is very satisfying, although sometimes the amplified music overwhelms the unamplified voices.
The lovely, pale costumes, designed by Johanna Pan and the simple set of string and floral hanging sculptures by Lauren Barber set an ambiance of openness, enhanced by Elizabeth M. Stewart’s lighting.
The entire presentation is important without being pretentious and should be made available to a wider audience in these days of rising anti-Semitism.
Between the Threads (through February 10, 2019)
HERE, 145 Sixth Avenue, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-352-3101 or visit http://www.between-the-threads.com/tickets
Running time: 75 minutes without an intermission