Reigning Queen of the Yiddish Cabaret
Throughout her life, Eleanor Reissa has been a storyteller. “Storytelling is the way you understand everything,” she says, reflecting on her craft during Passover. “You have a Passover seder that’s been for thousands of years, and it’s your job at that Seder to tell the story as though you yourself were enslaved.”
She adds, “Part of the point of the Seder is that you become an empathetic person who understands the challenge of oppressed people and that you not only see yourself in the slaves of Egypt, or the slaves of South Africa, or the slaves of the United States… storytelling is the history of the world.”
This Thursday, Reissa will showcase one of her most poignant stories as part of the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan’s commemoration of Yom Hashoah. Her work will be part of a special program, Women, Theater, and the Holocaust, presented in partnership with Remember the Women Institute and in cooperation with National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene and the National Jewish Theater Foundation.
The evening will feature dramatic readings by professional actors and theater students, and feature the launch of a free, online Women, Theater, and the Holocaust Resource Handbook. Reissa’s contribution – performed by Robert Zukerman – will be from a play she had penned in the 1990s called The Last Dinosaur.
“It’s a monologue by a man, the last person on Earth to have been in Auschwitz,” Reissa says. “I knew there would come a day when we would look back at the Holocaust, as we have with the civil war or Native American massacres, when no one would be alive anymore who had lived through it.”
The Brooklyn-born Reissa – who has been called the “Reigning Queen of the Yiddish Cabaret” – is a Tony Award-nominated director, a prize-winning playwright and singer, host of the Yale University/Fortunoff Video Archive podcast, Those Who Were There: Voices from the Holocaust, and former artistic director of the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene.
A storyteller in English and Yiddish, she is a regular at the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, including their episodic radiocast, Who is Guilty? And visitors to the Museum of Jewish Heritage – where Folksbiene is headquartered – also can hear her voice in the audio guide of the Museum’s exhibition, The Holocaust: What Hate Can Do. Her memoir, The Letters Project: A Daughter’s Journey, was published last year to critical acclaim.
As we reach a moment in world history when those who endured the Holocaust will no longer be with us, theater continues to raise the curtain on their stories, illustrating the horrors and complexities through a communal experience. “Theater is an art form that counts on community and on that collective experience,” Reissa says, “and the theater is where you can watch flesh and blood human beings poetically and creatively take you on a journey.”
Throughout the JCC’s program, audiences will watch a series of short works, each of about 10 minutes, through a variety of views and experiences. Afterwards, attendees can learn more about the playwrights and artists. “It’s a bit of a smorgasbord of Jewish Holocaust projects that in one way or another involve women, and you can’t help but to be the better for experiencing it.”
She adds, “What a terrific opportunity to get a patchwork quilt of what the Holocaust has meant to a number of Jewish women artists at this time in our history.”
The event provides an opportunity to illustrate how art can help to overcome ignorance and remind audience members about the importance of education, which is core to Folksbiene’s mission. “Art can tell the truth,” she says. “Art can be prescient. The more books you read or movies or plays you see, the more you are informed. They stay in your mind and heart. You look at the world and understand history and how you fit into that world and what it means to read between the lines.”
Thursday’s event begins at 7:00 PM, and encourages “pay what you wish” contributions (with a suggested $10 donation).