Two works presented in Berlin last week explored different aspects of Jewish identity through art, music, and a whole lot of talking.
A Roma musician examines a photo of his Jewish ancestors in the film Der Zerbrochene Klang.
A Roma musician examines a photo of his Jewish ancestors in the film Der Zerbrochene Klang. Wolfgang Andrae
A four-person, one-act play, "Schweigenminute," or Moment of Silence, showed in guest production at the F40, the joint stage of Theater Thikwa and the English Theater Berlin.
"Schweigenminute" seeks to prise apart the difficult relationship between Israel and Germany through the semi-autobiographical stories of its four actors. They are jarringly interrupted several times over the course of their monologues by an actual "moment of silence," ironically accompanied by a deafening siren.
Der Zerbrochene Klang, or Broken Sound, premiered at the Russian and Eastern European film house, Kino Krokodil. The documentary follows a group of musicians who set out to find the missing link between Jews and Roma through the similar styles of music that have defined their cultures: Klezmer and Lautar.
With help from an EU grant, ambitious and slightly zany group leader Alan Bern brings together musicians from the US, Germany, Hungary, and Moldova to perform concerts and delve into their shared musical past under the group name, "The Other Europeans."
Although the background, goals, and intended audiences of "Schweigeminute" and Der Zerbrochene Klang could not be more different, their existence points to the persistent interest of German audiences in all things Jewish.
"Schweigeminute" is a four-person, one-act play that explores the complicated relationship between Israel and Germany through semi-autobiographical stories.
"Schweigeminute" is a four-person, one-act play that explores the complicated relationship between Israel and Germany through semi-autobiographical stories. Pierre Martinerie
Although the play is more successful in what it sets out to do than the film, both deal very well with the undertones of doubt felt, heard, and even performed by today's minorities, both wishing for and dreading the moment they will truly "fit in" and trying to hold onto their identities in an increasingly globalized world.
Even in the Europe of the 1920's and 30's, the question of assimilation was a controversial one, dividing Jews into Eastern European shtetl communities, whose members believed themselves to be living the authentic Jewish life (and who made music alongside Roma, as the film shows), and their Western European counterparts, who were somehow viewed as turning their backs on their true culture.
The musicians in Klang, many of them lured in by Bern using the promise of EU-Fördergeld—in short, the opportunity to get paid while jamming—puzzle over what the last 100 years have done to the appreciation for and understanding of their Klezmer music; the songs that used to be played at weddings, holiday parties, and get-togethers among villagers are now performed in the same settings as Western classical music—on concert halls stages in front of seated audiences. This, one musician astutely notes, means that the music has "lost its context" and become a relic of another era rather than a living thing that acts as the background noise to accompany everyday life.
In contrast, the revealing personal stories told in "Schweigeminute" confront this issue head-on: the only male character, played by writer/director Ariel Nil Levy, is first confused and then indignant when told he must give up his Israeli passport to become a German citizen.
All four characters struggle to communicate in languages that are not their first. The defining moment arrives towards the end when one of the three women, whom the audience is led to believe is German, explodes into fluent Hebrew- the result of moving to Israel and marrying a Jewish man.
As she explains how she yearns for the lilting musicality of her mother tongue (although "musical" might not be the first word that comes to mind when non-Germans think of about German speech), she and the other characters enact rituals and ceremonies intended to bring them closer to their homeland in a foreign place.
One aspect that both play and film get right is the feeling of unending displacement both Jews and Roma share. Both minority groups were rejected by mainstream established societies, bumping up against laws of settlement that forced them into their nomadic existence. Their frenetic music, sometimes completely lacking in harmony but with a beat that moves it ever forward, seems to echo the footsteps of millions of wandering Jews next to their Roma compatriots.
In many ways, the founding of the State of Israel was meant to correct this. But as the actors in "Schweigeminute" show with one repeated action—one of them blows a drill whistle and all four spring from the edges of the stage, each rushing to the next place in a bizarre game of musical chairs—having a homeland is not the same as feeling at home.
You can delve deeper into contemporary Jewish topics at the 18th annual Jewish Film Festival, which runs until June 17th.
Giulia Pines is a Berlin-based writer and photographer.
When not doing either, she also spends her time cooking, baking, and trying to make her thumb and plants grow greener in both city and country gardens.