"If Madonna can take charge in Kabbaladom, surely there must be a fiefdom for Yehuda Hyman... Hyman's one-man performance piece transports the Orthodoxy of that Hasidic tale to secular America... his transformations reveal the essence of character in simple choreographic strokes..." - The Jerusalem Post, 2010
THE CORNELIA STREET CAFE (New York City)
JEWFEST at CORNELIA STREET CAFE (New York City)
Please note: for this engagement, only Part 1 will be performed.
Thursday, January 19th, 2012. Click here for more information
UNIVERSITY OF SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA (Los Angeles, CA)
Visions and Voices Series
Wednesday, September 7, 2011 at 7:00 P.M.
University Park Campus Scene Dock Theatre
Info:Click here for more information
THE MARSH BERKELEY (Berkeley, CA)
Thursday, September 15, 2011 at 8:00 P.M.
Saturday, September 17 at 8:30 P.M.
Sunday, September 18 at 2 P.M.
Info:Click here for more information
THE HARRY AND ROSE SAMSON FAMILY JEWISH COMMUNITY CENTER (Milwaukee, WI)
Saturday, September 24, 2011 at 8:30 P.M.
At Congregation Beth Israel Click here for more information
I’m going to start with a very broad question, which is, what is the story about for you?
You can answer whatever aspect of that…
Ahhhhhh… What is the story of the play about?
Mm-hmm. I’m trying to figure that out…
Well, let me start with me. For me, it’s a quest to understand why I’m drawn to these stories. And they seem to hold some answers to questions I have about my life—how to live my life in this realm. So, on a very ground level, I’m looking for guidance through these stories.
And so is the character of Elliott, although he doesn’t know it. He’s lost, but he doesn’t really know—he’s so lost that he doesn’t know how lost he is. And so, this is a story about guides or mentors who come and lead this person to an understanding of himself, and his place in the universe, and who he is in this world and the other world. So that’s the base, I think, for what it is. It’s somebody who’s lost, who gets found.
What are those questions for which the stories seem to hold answers?
Are we alone in the universe? Do we matter? Does our life have any impact in time? Does it impact other people? Can we make a difference? What can we do to make the world a better place? I’m just going through, filtering through the story…
How do we deal with and accept the duality of our natures? We’re made up of two sides, and how do we integrate that and accept that into our lives—not just be one thing or the other thing, but our full selves?
And then on an even, just, surface level, it’s the power of storytelling. How a story that you hear can transform you. So Elliott is hearing stories, and the audience is hearing stories, and they’re transforming at the same time. They’re going through a series of circles, like hoops, one to get to the next, and the audience is experiencing it at the same time. So, we’re growing together and going through an experience together. It’s not the kind of theater where you want to just sit back; it’s the kind of theater that’s experiential. Because I think that’s what storytelling is, too.
And this comes out of the specific storytelling tradition of Rabbi Nachman, right? And a broader tradition of storytelling in general…?
Well, there’s a specific tradition of Hasidic storytelling. And that is that they’re very, very simple stories—almost childlike, fairy-tale stories—but they contain secrets. They contain transformative secrets. And that is the reason for them. Something needs to move between the beginning of the story and the end of the story.
And that, I think, is what I can bring to these. That’s why I think I’ve been summoned [chuckle] to do this piece. Because of my being a dancer. And because Rabbi Nachman was a dancer.
Yeah, he really, really believed in the power of music and dance. And Breslov Hasidim, which is a sect of Hasidim, always end every prayer session with a dance. It’s a very simple dance, it’s just a little dance in a circle, but that is one way, and I think Rabbi Nachman felt it was even the strongest way, to achieve union with the unknowable.
So, in addition to the tradition of storytelling, this piece falls within various traditions of dance, right? Because many different kinds of dance are incorporated into your version of this story.
Right, right, right. I mean, I myself have a very, very eclectic dance background. Beginning with being trained as a classical ballet dancer, and then jazz, and then ethnic dance: Israeli folk dance, flamenco dance, Bharata Natyam—you know, Indian sacred dance. Tap dance… So, I come from a lot of different traditions.
And what I’m attempting to do in this piece is bring different dance traditions for each of the storytellers in the story. I’m attempting to find a way to release these stories through the dance, so they really come to life on the stage. I think they just come to life more easily, that they’re more accessible through movement. It’s not a dance piece, at all, I mean I don’t want to make it seem like that. But I am moving and I’m speaking, and dance is a very important element of it.
The play consists of seven individual stories told by seven different storytellers. Is there an overarching theme, or something that ties each of the individual stories together, in this piece?
That’s a tough question because I don’t want people to come in with a lot of preconceived explaining of what this is or isn’t about. Because it’s going to be completely different for every person.
It’s open to many, many interpretations. Through the process of this, I’ve come at each story from a different angle several times. It’s fluid; it’s like water. It’s always changing for me. One day it means something, another day it means something else a little bit. And I think it needs to be that—whenever it gets stuck, it’s dead. You know?
For instance, there are seven beggars. There are seven days of the week. There are seven days of creation in the Torah, the Hebrew scripture. So that’s one way of looking at it—what happened on each of those seven days, what was created, what came into being. That’s one way of encountering the story.
But then the second story, for me, is also connected to the Sephardic experience. The story talks about this magnificent city. Well, in Sephardic culture, there’s the idea of a Golden Age, which was when they lived in Spain before the expulsion of the Jews in 1492. That was a peak, beautiful time, where Jews and Christians and Muslims all lived together and got along. The Jewish population was in a very good situation. And it was lost—they were expelled, they were all forced to leave or convert. Just like the magnificent city in the story is lost. So, that’s another way of encountering the stories—on a historical level.
You can also come from the angle of what happens in the story, and what does each thing mean. Which is interesting, because everything is a symbol for everything else. But then if people get stuck in “okay, what does this symbol mean,” they miss the whole thing. They miss the ride, they get distracted. “What is that, he’s going through a tunnel, what is the tunnel, is that the birth canal, what is going on?” No, it’s just a tunnel. Just go through the tunnel, and we’ll see where we’re going.
I mean, there are certain givens. Like, when we talk about the princess in the story, that’s a given. The princess, which is in the sixth story, is Shechina, which is the feminine aspect of God. And that comes from the Kabbalah. It’s an ancient, ancient part of Judaism, which is interesting, because it’s been left out. We think, “Oh, it’s a male God.” Well, it’s not male, exclusively, there are different aspects of God in Judaism, and that’s one of them, the Shechina. And so when we talk about the princess, that’s the Shechina, the dwelling place of the soul, the beauty of the soul. Okay?
But, on the other hand, when you’re performing the story, you don’t want people to go, “Oh, I don’t know, I don’t feel the Shechina.” Or, “I’m not religious, I’m an atheist, and I can’t bear this.” It’s just a princess; it’s a princess story. Whatever that means to you, is what the meaning is.
Rabbi Nachman himself always said, “Just tell the story.” You know, you tell it as a simple—it’s just a little story. You don’t go, “I’m going to tell you the secret of the universe, you’re going to have a great mystical awakening!” No, I’m just telling you a little story. So I think that’s really, really, really important.
How do you combine your multi-layered sense of this tale, and all its connections to Jewish history and symbolism, with your commitment to simply telling the story in a way that is accessible to people from all different backgrounds?
Well, let’s start at the beginning. The very first story begins, “Once there was a shipwreck.” And in the footnotes it says the shipwreck is the destruction of the second temple in Jerusalem, which starts the Diaspora. And I feel that in my bones. When I say, “Once there was a shipwreck,” I feel three thousand years of dispersion. I just do. It also comes from my family: I never met any of my relatives because they all died in the Holocaust. So, I know about a shipwreck.
And my job as a storyteller is to embody that. When I say “shipwreck,” I have to feel it, what that means, you know? And to an African person it will mean something different; to a person from South America it will mean something different. But if I’m successful, if I’m doing my job, they will feel something.
So, he says “Once there was a shipwreck, and they came to a tower.” So, what is that tower? What do you think that tower is, Elizabeth?
Um… I don’t know, I guess it’s maybe a place of safety?
Uh-huh. Right. So it’s a place of safety. And we all have different places of safety…
You know, it’s interesting… Rabbi Nachman didn’t write any of these stories down—he just told them, and his disciple wrote them down. But he did write down a book of his teachings, called Likutey Moharan. And in the preface it says to be very clear that when Rabbi Nachman is talking, he’s talking about all humanity. He’s not just talking about the Jews; he is talking about all human beings.
And I really believe that. I think he was—I guess in modern day, you would say he was a guru. He was very, very smart. And very compassionate for all people. Because none of his stories say, “This was a Jew.” It’s like, “This happened, this old blind man,” or “this man with no hands.” They’re just people.
Why did you choose the specific traditions of dance and culture that are incorporated into The Mad 7?
Well, as I was working on this tale, “The Seven Beggars” tale, I was also at the same time on a journey into my culture, which is Jewish culture. And as part of that investigation I was finding out about different subcultures within the Jewish culture. For instance, the Sephardic Jews, who are descended from the Jews of Spain, have their own language—Ladino—and a rich, rich culture of music and language and customs. And the Jews of Yemen, of Persia, of Ethiopia, of India—very different cultures, very different music.
And so, part of this process has been going into these different cultures. And they are different, even though the commonality is that we’re all Jewish. But within that circle, it’s very, very diverse—different languages, different ways of worshipping, certainly different music. And it just fascinated me.
And I’m attempting to be very true and very specific, but in the end I hope for the audience that it is just a treat; it’s sort of a magic carpet ride of different cultures. Specifically, the music and the dance—that they just can enjoy that. And that I can bring these characters to life, and bring the story that each character is telling to life.
What is your personal connection to Jewish culture, and Jewish mysticism? Is that something you have always been really connected to?
No. I’ve been connected to theater all my life, and through theater I’ve been led on different experiences…
I mean, I grew up in a Jewish household, in Los Angeles. I’m a first-generation American; my parents were from Eastern Europe. My father’s family was killed in the Holocaust. So I had a very strong cultural feeling as a Jew, and I did have some religious training. But it’s a pretty common experience for American Jews that you assimilate into the larger culture, which I did. And at a certain point shortly after my Bar Mitzvah I felt very distanced from my identity, and any religious beliefs, and I didn’t even really think about it.
And my main focus was being at first a dancer, and then other things: choreographer, writer. So that was sort of my religion, and my culture, was theater. Then in the mid-80’s, I was hired to do a piece about the Jewish theater troupe in Vilna, Lithuania. It’s called Ghetto [by Joshua Sobol]. It’s an Israeli play, and it was having its American premiere, and I was hired to be its choreographer. I was having a lot of trouble because I had never really dwelt in [that world, and] I didn’t know what the language was going to be.
Through [that production I met] Giora Feidman. He’s a world-renowned klezmer clarinetist, and he’s someone who goes into a lot of different cultures—he doesn’t just stay within the Jewish community, he travels. He was a mentor to me. He really woke me up through his music, and started something with me. He forced me to face a side of myself that I hadn’t dealt with, dwelt with, looked at—which is my Jewish soul. That was really the beginning. And it was in the theater. It was in L.A., at the Mark Taper Forum.
So, that began my trip. Several years later I went to Israel for the first time, and that was very, very eye-opening for me. That’s where I encountered the diversity of culture within Judaism for the first time. Because American Jews, I don’t know if you know this, but mostly we think of ourselves as Ashkenazi Jews, which is, you know, the culture at large. That’s where “oy vey” and all that, what we think of as Jewish humor, comes from. And that’s really just one part of it.
So, in Israel I was exposed to a plethora of other things: Persians, and Moroccans, and Africans, and… It was very mind-expanding for me; it was really intense and great. After I came back from Israel, in the early 90’s, I just knew in my heart that it was time to start exploring this in theater. And that’s when I started.
I’d always been intrigued by Hasidic stories. I’d read a few as a child; I always loved them. They’re humorous, they’re unexpected. I thought I would just adapt a few little stories, simple stories…and instead I stumbled on these Nachman stories, which are not simple stories at all. They’re actually very complex. And they were just kind of gifted to me, out of nowhere. That led me—has led me, is still leading me—on this experience of working with them, and trying to uncover the layers. Uncover the layers to the point where I can simply convey them to somebody else.
What drew you to this particular story, “The Seven Beggars” story?
I had an experience a long time ago, in Israel, in a town called Tsfat, which is way up in the north of Israel. A lot of kabbalists lived there in the sixteenth century. It has this aura of mysticism. And I spent one night there, in a motel, in room number seven, and I just had this idea of seven little stories. And I was speaking of this to a young rabbi, and he said, “Well, what about ‘The Seven Beggars’?”
So I heard about it, and I read it, and I was fascinated. I was drawn, I was confused, I was challenged. I loved it, and I just thought—this is material that I want to work with. And I couldn’t quite grasp it. But in some way, some deep way, it really spoke to me.
I remember particularly the story of the two birds, which is the fourth story in the play, and I’m going to do that in the Persian world. And that, I think, was the one, the clincher. So I’m excited about working on that, because that’s one I’ve worked on the least so far, in this whole process. And I know that’s the one that really has some special meaning for me.
What has the developmental process of this piece been like since you first became inspired to explore Jewish cultures and spiritual awakening through “The Seven Beggars” story?
Well, I feel like this is a fresh start, this piece. [I have explored the story in several different forms and from several different angles, but] I don’t feel like, “Oh God, I’m hauling this thing out again.” Because it actually is really new for me.
[When I first started working with this material,] I was living in San Francisco. I had given up my career as a choreographer and become a temp, and was writing, and creating performance pieces in little clubs around San Francisco.
At first I was just working ten-minute increments on nights where you could go up and try stuff out. I did that for about a year, and eventually it became a forty-five minute piece—just the first story [out of the seven]. And it seemed clear that there was something of interest to an audience. So that was the beginning.
Then at a certain point I didn’t want to be in it, because it was too big, and I felt that I needed to be outside of it, so that I could look. And that impulse eventually culminated in a play for seven actors [called The Mad Dancers]. And that is that play, and that’s a different entity. And I feel good about it.
And then what made you decide to create a new piece, a one-person performance piece, that also explored “The Seven Beggars” story?
Well, Mara [Isaacs, director of The Mad 7,] had this opportunity in Bulgaria. She had been involved fairly early in the process, when she was working at the Taper, and I was still doing a section of it as a solo performance. And you can talk to her about it, but I think she felt that in some ways it was the best marriage of the material, that it’s told through a solo performer. She wanted to explore that again, but explore me doing the entire piece, because I’d never done that. I’d only ever done the first story, that’s all—the set-up of Elliott and then the first story and that was it.
And I was a little scared, but Mara said, “We’re going to be in Bulgaria, no one will see us. We can just play and experiment. And I’m really excited about it.” I mean, I’ll just quote her, she said, “When I think of all the plays I’ve worked on, the one I’m most excited about is this.” So I couldn’t say no.
The process of making it a one-man show, what does that do to the story, or to your experience, or to the audience’s experience of it? How does that change things?
Well, it’s very different. Because the play The Mad Dancers was actually the story of two people—it was Elliott and the Rabbi character in the play. And there was a whole drama about Rabbi Nachman, nineteenth century, and Elliott, who is this contemporary man. That doesn’t exist in this piece at all, now—this is really Elliott’s story. Elliott is telling the story, and it’s all through his eyes, and through his body. So, that’s one thing.
I think, also, it’s just better, because it is storytelling, that it’s one person telling the story. And the audience watching that person go through transformations, rather than having different actors play different parts. It’s certainly more in the spirit of Hasidic storytelling—or any kind of storytelling, really.
And also, I come in a certain body, in a certain package, and I’m just using everything I’ve got. I’m using everything I have as a dancer, and an actor, and a singer, and everything. I bring all my history, and all my anxiety and fears and emotions and feelings and love. I’m bringing all my questions about Judaism, about religion, about belief in God, about culture, about everything. I bring the whole package to the stage.
I bring myself as a performer, as someone who wants to entertain people, someone who wants to take them through an experience. I’m a great believer in theater as an interactive process, so I’m bringing all of that. I bring my life to it. I’m really putting, in a way, my life on the stage—that’s what’s also very scary about it.
Are there any specific artistic influences that you’ve had, from other dancers or writers…?
In this particular piece?
God, there’s so many. From a very early age the person that most excited me about theater was Peter Brook. I remember I saw a piece of his in Germany, in an armory. It was an African folktale called The Bone, with a multi-national troupe. They did the piece in French mostly, which I’m not fluent in, and some German, a little bit of English—so basically I couldn’t understand what was being said. They did it on a bare stage; I think it was six actors and a percussionist. And it was—I’ll never forget it—it was one of the most enjoyable, funny, powerful pieces I’ve ever seen.
And it was very much integrated with the audience. So that idea of that, and the simplicity of a folktale—because that piece was about hunger, it was about a village that was hungry. So it just tapped something, in all of us. All of us can relate to that. So his work was really, really an influence to me.
I also remember, on my first trip to Israel, there was an international theater festival. I don’t know who this woman was, I wish I did, but she was from India, and she was on this tiny postage stamp stage, and it was just her, and she told stories and danced them. And I thought—this is it, this is the whole experience. She was so highly skilled. She really brought everything to life, and she did it with her body and her voice, and so… Whoever that woman is, I don’t know, but… It’s the kind of thing I’m attempting.
Some of my favorite writers, even as a child: Edward Albee, because it’s… bigger. It’s not realism, so it’s bigger. And it’s a combination of humor and something dark going on, underneath. Thornton Wilder was a big influence on me, even as a child. His, I guess, spirituality, as a writer, finding the different levels in the universe, and doing it with humor and compassion. And speaking in plain language.
I think music is a huge influence. I listen to music all the time when I’m writing and moving around. For this piece I’m listening to all kinds of music. Diverse rhythms, and… Dancers, of course. The dancers influence. In the next month and a half I’m going to be studying more dance, and learning more dances.
And then, you know, with this piece, things just happen. Little weird things happen, and I meet people, and they help me to tell the story. They become part of the story, and they help me to understand the story. Last week I was doing storytelling at a camp for inner-city kids at risk. And I told them, not something from “The Seven Beggars,” but I told them a very simple parable from Rabbi Nachman. It was really interesting because most of these kids are African-American, or Latino, but they got it, they really responded to it, because it’s about their lives.
I mean, if you understand the time that Rabbi Nachman was telling the stories, it was in 1810, in Eastern Europe, in the Jewish ghetto. They were in a very violent situation, that community. So he was teaching them ways to preserve their identity, give them courage, find their joy in life. He was saying, “Look, we know it’s very bleak out there, but on the inside, there’s more than what’s out there. There are other worlds, and inside you have this, inside you, and it’s your life force.” And I think there’s value in that, if you can tell that story. I mean, I’ve found value in it. I wouldn’t be able to work on these [stories] as long as I have… But they’re constantly inspiring me.