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2018, vol. 72

Excerpt: Heart of the World

by Helen Stoltzfus

Helen Stoltzfus is the co-founder and co-artistic director of Black Swan Arts & Media inOakland, California.

a play by Helen Stoltzfus, Albert Greenberg and Martha Boesing

originally produced by A Traveling Jewish Theatre, San Francisco, © 1989

performed as a dramatic reading by Helen Stoltzfus at the Mennonites and the Holocaust Conference, Bethel College, March 16-17, 2018

The following is an excerpt from Heart of the World, a play I co-wrote and performed 25 years ago as a member of A Traveling Jewish Theatre, at the time one of the oldest ensemble theaters in the country. A Traveling Jewish Theatre wrote and performed its own plays – employing sound, story, gesture, poetry and silence, and exploring everything from ecstatic mysticism to Middle East politics to Christian/Jewish intermarriage. They sought connections where others saw separation. The fact that they invited me – as a Mennonite – to join them as a permanent ensemble member speaks to that fact.

Heart of the World premiered in San Francisco and toured all over the United States – including Eastern Mennonite University, Goshen and Bethel Colleges as well as to Appalachia and Prague, soon after the Velvet Revolution. The play was written collaboratively by Albert Greenberg, performer, Martha Boesing, director, and me, performer.

The main characters are Joseph, a Jewish photographer, and Lydia, a translator of German poetry, who is from a Mennonite background. They are married and about to become parents. As an intermarried couple, Lydia and Joseph represent the norm, not the exception, in that at least half of American Jews are now intermarried.

In the course of the play, as the couple sort through the practical questions of raising a child (“Are we going to do disposable diapers?’), they are inexorably drawn into deeper questions of cultural and religious identity. “Who will this child be?’ is a recurring question that propels Lydia and Joseph into the worlds of their ancestors as well as their personal memories as they seek to answer that question. The following scene is the climax of the play in which the difficult history of Christians and Jews – and Mennonites and Jews in particular – erupts in their personal life.

The themes of the play are autobiographical, as my co-writer and fellow performer, Albert Greenberg, is my husband and is Jewish. And I am Mennonite. However, the specific, personal histories of the characters we portrayed are different from our own. It was important for us to create fictional characters who were not us. The story of Lydia’s Uncle Heinrich, for example, is based on a true story told to me by a Mennonite friend.

A few clarifying notes:

One of the central conceits of the play is that at various critical moments, Joseph and Lydia transform into archetypal characters called “The Mennonite Ancestor’ and “The Jewish Ancestor,’ who speak directly to their descendants, Lydia and Joseph.

We chose to have the modern characters play the Ancestors because their transformation into their forebears illustrates one of the central themes of the play: we all carry our ancestors within us, whether we are conscious of it or not. Indeed, we theatricalized this by having the modern characters literally drawn upstage – as if by a powerful magnet – toward opposite sides of the stage where iron metal figures, representing their ancestors, stood.

At the time we first performed this play in 1989, the role of Mennonites in the Holocaust was not discussed. One simply did not talk about it. Fortunately, that is changing. I hope this dramatic work will contribute to the new and vitally important conversation that Mennonites are now having. – Helen Stoltzfus

(Immediately prior to this scene, both Lydia and Joseph have been confronted by their Ancestors, who have reminded them of their traditions and the communities they have abandoned. When Lydia and Joseph transform out of the Ancestors and back into themselves again, they are sitting on opposite sides of the stage, near their ancestral figures, a literal and figurative gulf between them. Lydia voices the unspoken fear both she and Joseph are feeling: that perhaps they shouldn’t be having this baby. They look at each other silently as the lights fade out.)

Act II, Scene I

(Silence. The lights come up on Joseph and Lydia, still looking at each other. Lydia returns to her desk.)

Lydia: (looking at her translations)Die fuerchtbar, verschweigende Schlucht...’

Joseph: What?

Lydia: It’s this “terrifying, silent chasm’ – die fuerchtbar, verschweigende Schlucht – in which lovers fall.

Joseph: “Terrifying, silent chasm.’ How does it go?

Lydia: (She reads.) Immer wieder, ob wir der Liebe

Joseph: No, not the German, the English.

Lydia: I’m translating from the German.

Joseph: But what is the English?

Lydia: “Again, again, even if we know the countryside of love, and the tiny churchyard with its names mourning, and the chasm…’ (She sees scraps of papers left by Jewish Ancestor.) “… more and more silent, terrifying, into which the others dropped: we walk out together anyway…’ (She crosses to Joseph and puts her hands on his shoulders.) “… beneath the ancient trees, we lie down again, again, among the flowers, and face the sky.’

Joseph: Say it again.

Lydia: “Again, again…’

Joseph: Again, again…

Lydia: “… even if we know the countryside of love…’

Joseph: Even if we know the countryside of love…

Lydia: “And the tiny churchyard with its…’

Joseph: That’s so specific… There’s nothing universal about…

Lydia: Nothing universal about a churchyard!

Joseph: It’s specifically Christian.

Lydia: It’s just a poem, Joseph. It’s not a gospel. It goes beyond the churchyard. “We walk out together anyway, beneath the ancient trees. We lie down again, again, among the flowers and face the sky.’

Joseph: Flowers. Yes, the flowers of Vilna, Volugda, of Minsk. That’s why I have trouble with the churchyard.

Lydia: Now you’re so Jewish! And to think I’m the one who had to drag you out of the closet. You know, you didn’t tell me ‘til the second time we were together that you were really Jewish.

Joseph: And you’re not really Christian.

Lydia: I am Christian. I claim that.

Joseph: How to you claim it, Lydia?

Lydia: I claim it in the churchyard with the names mourning, all the dead, the suffering. I’ve been there. I know that. Und die fuerchtbar verschweigende Schlucht… Are you gonna make supper tonight? (She goes back to her translations.)

Joseph: If you’ll keep the German to yourself, I’ll make supper tonight.

Lydia: If I what?

Joseph: The German. Every day it’s the German.

Lydia: I thought you liked German! You studied it in college.

Joseph: I like the poetry. I like your translations. But day in and day out, to hear German over and over again.

Lydia: Is this a Jewish thing, too?

Joseph: Is this a Jewish thing, too?

Lydia: Is it because you’re Jewish that it bothers you?

Joseph: Is it because I’m Jewish that it bothers me?

Lydia: Not all Jews are offended by it. Some have gotten beyond it.

Joseph: Beyond it!

Lydia: Some actually enjoy it.

Joseph: What it the “it’ you’re talking about getting beyond?

Lydia: Beyond hearing someone speak the German language in any context.

Joseph: It’s not in any context. It’s day in and day out.

Lydia: This is poetry. This is the beautiful part of German culture.

Joseph: No, this is German. (picks up poem)

Lydia: This is not “Deutschland uber Alles,’ This is not the SS. This is the beauty of it. This is what we can taste and eat and drink. And you’d better get used to it. When I take our child to visit Uncle Heinrich, he’ll teach her the same nursery rhymes he taught me, … taught me. (She pauses.) Uncle Heinrich? Great-uncle? Tante Katrina? Great-aunt?

Joseph: So our child is going to be related to this great-aunt and great-uncle?

Lydia: Yes…

Joseph: I’m just asking. I just want to know.

Lydia: Of course she will be related to this great-aunt and great-uncle.

Joseph: And you spent a lot of time with them, in Germany, didn’t you?

Lydia: Yes, when we were living in Dusseldorf, I spent every Christmas with them. We stopped going there when I was about 14 years old, so I don’t really remember very much. I was a kid.

Joseph: That’s okay, most Germans don’t remember much. I’ll bet your great-aunt and great-uncle don’t remember very much either, do they?

Lydia: I don’t know. I never talked to them about it.

Joseph: You never talked to them about it? They must have been pacifists during the war. Mennonites are pacifists, aren’t they? They must have made enormous sacrifices.

Lydia: Some of them did, some them didn’t. I know that for a fact, that some of them didn’t.

Joseph: I thought you didn’t know anything about this?

Lydia: All I know is rumors. I don’t know facts. There were rumors about my uncle that my mother told me.

Joseph: And they were?

Lydia: What her mother had told her… that… look… I…

Joseph: That he was part of “Das Volk.’ That he just went along with everyone else, because that’s all you could do at the time.

Lydia: The rumor was that he joined the Party. And that’s all I know. I don’t know what he did beyond that. I mean… that was a rumor! My mother always said, “Now we don’t know about this….’ She just insisted that it was rumor and she didn’t know. And that’s all I know. Okay, are you happy now? You feel better? You feel cleansed? My Uncle Heinrich was very kind.

Joseph: Was he?

Lydia: Yes.

Joseph: He’d probably like me, wouldn’t he?

Lydia: Listen, Joseph. I want you to hear something.

Joseph: He’ll probably be great with our kid, won’t he?

Lydia: Yes. He was the only man who ever held me as a child. (She crosses to a stool. A woman’s voice singing a Gregorian chant is heard faintly in the background.) One of my favorite memories is going into their house at Christmastime, and being brought into a room, blazing with real candles on a tree, the room filled with excited children, brightly decorated presents, and pine wreaths like a lush forest and Uncle Heinrich laughing, throwing me into the air, opening his arms wide as if to let me drop and catching me, always catching me just in time. Joseph, ah, Joseph…

Joseph: I had this memory, an incredible memory… It was Christmas…

(At the Jewish Door, Joseph transforms into the Jewish Ancestor.)

. . or was it Easter? Who can remember these things? And the little Jewish cobbler, who was one of the Lamidvov, one of the thirty-six, one of the Just, one of the Men of Sorrow, was brought before the Cathedral, as his predecessors had been brought for countless generations.

(He stands on a stool.)

Barefoot, with two vast yellow disks sewn to the whiteness of his front and back and wearing the obligatory pointed hat. To the strains of the Mass and with great ceremony… (sings) O dominus sanctus ominus… (speaks) the Count of Toulouse administered the traditional blow to his face.

(He mimes the action and falls from the stool.)

The hat rolled violently to the ground. In accordance with the ancient custom, the old cobbler stooped to pick it up and thanked the young Count three times.

(He bows obsequiously.)

“Merci, merci, merci.’ Three weeks later, he was dead. He died of shame.

(He falls on the desk, picks up poems and floats them, one at a time, to the floor.)

And his son died in the Inquisition. And his son was sold into slavery. And his son died on the rack. And his son was dragged to death by a Mongol pony. And his son had lead poured into his eyes, his ears, his nose, his anus, one molten drop each day. And his son and his son and his son filled the Polish skies with smoke. It happens. They’re just stories. Don’t take it personally.

(He transforms back into Joseph and re-enters the apartment wearing the hat of the Jewish Ancestor.)

Lydia: I don’t take it personally.

Joseph: They were your ancestors who did this.

Lydia: They were not my ancestors. Stop confusing my ancestors with some general history back there that affected you.

Joseph: You Christians never identify with each other when you do something evil. It’s always “not you.’

Lydia: You see yourself as a part of some great flood of history. I don’t see myself that way. I am not my Uncle Heinrich. (She picks up poems from the floor.) I am not… whoever the Count of Toulouse was. Why should I identify with that? It may surprise you but a lot of Gentiles actually like Jews – go into business with them, enter psychoanalysis with them, make love to them. Some of us even marry them! And why is it always about what my ancestors did to you anyway? Oh, you’re always going to play the victim. “Oi vey, how we suffered!’ You grew up in a large house with two cars, a swimming pool, your own darkroom, and you traveled all over the world. And now you’re going to tell me about how much you suffered.

Joseph: My family was successful in Warsaw, too. And a lot of good that did them. But I’m sure the little Nazi in your family knows about that. Why don’t you ask him?

Lydia: You know, it really hurts me when you talk about him like that. You make him into a monster.

Joseph: He called himself a Nazi, didn’t he? What do you want me to call him…

Lydia: Look, Joseph…

Joseph: …the Saint of Dachau?

(Lydia grabs the hat off his head, crushes it and throws in on the floor.)

Lydia: It’s very hard when you start talking about them as though they’re not people that I love. (He picks up the hat and scraps of paper.) You’re close to me and happen to love me, so you damn well better realize that you’re connected… and our child is connected to my Uncle Heinrich. It’s ridiculous. I know, it’s completely ridiculous. But I also… I care about these people. I mean, I don’t even know if I really am a Christian. I don’t identify with them….Well, there are times when I long to sit in one of those plain, white churches again, surrounded by people who know my name....

(Both Lydia and Joseph move – as if in a dream – toward their ancestral figures. She speaks in German. He speaks in Yiddish.)

Lydia: Errinerst du dich an mich, Omi?

Joseph: Gedenk zhe mikh, zeyde?

Lydia: Hast du mich vergessen?

Joseph: Host du mikh fargesen?

Lydia: Ich habe dich vermisst.

Joseph: Ich denk oyf dir.

Lydia: Ich habe ueberall nach dir gesucht.

Joseph: Ich hob dir gesucht in ale platzn, ober ich dir nisht gefinen.

Lydia: Aber ich konnte dich nicht finden. (She takes Ancestor’s bonnet and sings.) “Blest be the tie that binds…’

Joseph: (He takes Ancestor’s hat and sings.)

Lomir ale zingen

Lomir ale zingen

A zemerl

A zemerl…

Lydia: (speaks) You left with nothing, right, Omi?

Joseph: (sings)

Lechem is broit

Bosor mit dogim

B’chol matamim…

Lydia: You got on a ship and you went.

Joseph: Oi zog zh’mir tatetnu

Lydia: And maybe all you had was what you were wearing.

Joseph: Bay der groise gevirim

Lydia: And you went.

Joseph: Is lechem a bulker

Lydia: Maybe you gave birth on a ship.

Joseph: Un bay unz ale kaptzonim

Lydia: And maybe you lost a daughter, or a son, on the way.

Joseph: Oi vey, oi vey kaptzonim

Lydia: Maybe you buried them at sea.

Joseph: Is lechem a skoinkle

Lydia: Maybe you arrived and there was no one there to meet you.

Joseph: Oi dos is lechem

(They put on hats and transform into Ancestors.)

Lydia: And you go and you find the community.

(He sings and dances near the Memory Door.)

Joseph: “Lomir ale zingen

Lomir ale zingen

A zemerl

A zemerl…’

(He begins a wordless melody as he dances.)

Lydia: And maybe you stay. Maybe you marry and have a child. And then maybe your child grows up with green hills around her and corn. And maybe the house across from her is the house she raises her children in. And maybe the house right next to that is the house she goes to when she dies. Maybe she lives her whole life around this cornfield. And this is what she knows.

(She transforms back into Lydia and returns the bonnet to the ancestral figure.)

Lydia: And my child, Omi? What will she know?

Joseph: (singing) Oi vey, oi vey kaptzonim…’

Lydia: What if she likes Christmas?

Joseph: “…is matmim gehakhte tzuris!

(He puts hat back on the ancestral figure and transforms into Joseph, but stays behind the figure.)

Lydia: What if she wants to be a Christian?

Joseph: Then my grandfather was right.

Lydia: What?

Joseph: I am destroying the Jewish people.

Lydia: You believe that, don’t you?

Joseph: Yes.

Act II, Scene II

(In the apartment, Joseph and Lydia)

Joseph: A part of me does. Sometimes it feels like it’s your child, not mine.

Lydia: Are we going to be like Solomon? Cut it in half? This half gets circumcised.

Joseph: This half gets baptized.

Lydia: This half has Passover.

Joseph: This half wears a white dress for Easter.

Lydia: This half lights Chanukah candles.

Joseph: This half runs around quoting the Sermon on the Mount.

Lydia: What’s wrong with the Sermon on the Mount?

Joseph: How do I know? I don’t even know the Sermon on the Mount.

Lydia: Well, learn it.

Joseph: What is it?

Lydia: “Love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you. Blessed are the pure in heart. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness.’ It’s very Jewish, don’t you think? “Blessed are the peacemakers, for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven.’ Can’t my child hear this?

Joseph: I don’t know what to say, Lydia.