National Yiddish Theatre Folkbsbiene is dedicated to producing shows that are socially relevant and that foster understanding and cohesion within the broader Jewish community. In our ongoing effort to develop new works, we are proud to announce that we have commissioned Eleanor Reissa to develop a script based on her book THE LETTERS PROJECT: A Daughter’s Journey. The project is supported by the New York State Council on the Arts.
Reissa, a Tony Award-nominated director, Broadway/television actress, prize-winning playwright, and the previous co-artistic director at NYTF, talked with us about the project and its resonance today.
THE LETTERS PROJECT: A Daughter’s Journey is a very personal story – what inspired you to write this?
When my mother died in 1986 I discovered 56 handwritten letters in her lingerie drawer, all written by my father, an Auschwitz survivor, dated 1949. They were all in German, which I do not speak. I took the letters and put them in my own sloppy lingerie drawer.
It took me 30 years to have them translated. The young German woman who translated the letters suggested I join her on, what was for me, a wild goose chase in Germany to retrace my father’s steps to see what we could find, and let the letters be our treasure map. I expected absolutely nothing. What was there to find? Everyone was dead.
This bold transformational journey took me from New York to Germany to Israel as I struggled to fully understand, for the first time in my life, the man who was my father and consequently the girl who was his daughter. This is the story of that miraculous journey.
How is this relevant now?
One of the things that this story is about is finding out who our parents were before we knew them. Many of us have no idea. We believe that the people who are our parents have always behaved and been thus. Of course, that is not so. If we do not know our parents, how will know who we come from and consequently who we are? That, to me, is always relevant.
But this book also is about a larger topic than our parents. It is about the world of the Jewish people; how they lived and died; their struggles and their history and their perseverance and courage. In these challenging times of increased antisemitism and uncertainty, we must look to history and each other and realize our strengths so that we can live and contribute to the world.
Why a stage play for The Letters Project?
Folksbiene’s artistic director Zalmen Mlotek and Executive Director Dominick Balletta had read my book THE LETTERS PROJECT: A Daughter’s Journey and both were interested in seeing the book turned into a stage play. I come from the theatre and have written and performed and directed many plays. It was a perfectly logical and interesting idea.
It is their encouragement and support that made willing to retackle this story again. It is one thing to read it as a book and a completely other thing to sit in a room full of strangers and take this journey together.
How does THE LETTERS PROJECT lend itself to the stage or screen?
I think it lends itself to both – the stage and the screen. It is just the form of the tale that distinguishes it. The story itself is epic, an odyssey of sorts. If it were a film, it would be a big story, many characters, many locations etc. But as a play, it is almost too big and so the imagination of the audience is what is required here.
The play, which I am in the middle of writing and conceiving, can never be as large as the story except if it is extremely personal and therefore, the way I am thinking of it, is as a one-person or – at most – a two-person play. Yes, even though there are scores of characters…
What language are you writing this in?
The play is in English. There are Yiddish words in it and German words and Hebrew words but the story itself is told in English.
How has your life changed since the book was published?
My life has changed so much since the writing and publishing of the book. Most importantly, learning who my father was and who I come from have given me a sense of worth and value that I’m afraid was lacking for so long.
Also, some of the strangers in the book who helped me and witnessed my discoveries became my friends. In some cases, knowing them has connected me to other extraordinary people, including an immigration attorney who helped me get a German passport – so I am now a German citizen! (Who would have ever expected that?) And then, the passport gave me entree to an audition for a television show in Germany, which I ultimately got. (“Die Zweifflers”, which airs in Germany this April.)
This week, I got news that I have been invited to the Melbourne Jewish Writers Week as their guest of honor this August. I and my book are going to Australia!
Finally, I suspect that the play version of THE LETTERS PROJECT that the Folksbiene has commissioned will change my life as well. Most importantly, I hope it changes the lives of all those who come to see it.