Reuben Bard-Rosenberg reviews Chanukah Lewinsky: 120 Years from Grodno
Last week, a sell-out crowd at JW3 in London was treated to an unusual performance by up-and-coming performance artist Dex Grodner. As the lights dimmed, Chanukah Lewinsky appeared on-stage, and began to rearrange her bags and suitcases. It was 1890 Russia, and her life as a queer Jewish woman was about as easy as one might expect.
Her complaints ranged from the familiar to the unfamiliar. Her son had been conscripted into the army and sent to Siberia. She'd been forced out of her village by anti-Semitic legislation. And to top it all off, her husband, a fagele, had left her for a man. This, she told us, was a travesty. She was, after all, the Julie Walters of 19th century Russia. And he would never find a better gay icon to marry than Chanukah Lewinsky.
And so it was clearly time to move on. Acknowledging her voluminous arrangement of suitcases, Chanukah proudly told us that "you are what you shlap", and after hiding her pearls about her person, she proceeded to make her way first to Whitechapel in London, and then onto America and back again.
What followed was a glorious hour and a half of lip-syncing, dancing, and storytelling that took Chanukah through the lives of various awesome, struggling Jewish women from the turn of the century to the present day. In the East End of London she joined the Yiddish Theatre on Princelet Street. More established members of the community couldn't understand why she and her fellow immigrant-thesps wished to carry on making art in Yiddish and not the language of their adopted homeland. Yet she had a whale of a time until - as was historically the case - a fatal stampede, tragically caused by a fire scare, closed the theatre.
She moved to America where she eventually found herself in the shoes of her near namesake Monica Lewinsky. Few punches were pulled as to the way in which America's establishment ripped apart the life of this particular young Jewish woman. Monica, we were told, became "the people's other woman". And yet, the Monica we saw on stage was elevated into something far more than either a monster or a victim. Indeed, the characters portrayed in this show contrasted starkly with a mainstream Jewish comedy tradition that has too often reduced Jewish women to those two demons of the young adult male psyche: the overbearing mother and the stuck-up princess.
Throughout all of her adventures, Chanukah Lewinksy held on to the bags and suitcases that she'd brought with her from Russia.
It proved to be a powerful theme.
We are not supposed to come with baggage. Indeed, the phrase is something of an insult. We are supposed to be agile, ready to adapt to the present circumstance, ready to strike a deal, commercially, socially, sexually and professionally, unencumbered by ourselves or our past. As queers we hear stories of people breaking free from the boundaries of their small towns, or their immigrant communities, or in Billy Elliot's case, his class, in order to go and manifest their true individual character. And yet, Chanukah Lewinsky elected to have a different relationship with the cases that she carried.
In a powerful scene, she handles her pearls, now over 100 years old, and then her bags. She acknowledges that she does not know with certainty what they still contain, but determines to keep on carrying them. Within Judaic traditions, rituals matter - what we do augments reality in a way that doesn't quite make sense within England's more other-worldly Protestant culture, with its stricter separation between heaven and earth.
Today, much of society seems caught between the isolation and uncertainty of our liquid liberal order, and the reactionary siren songs of those who sell us stories of national authenticity. On the one hand we have the likes of Emmanuel Macron who bemoans the "Gallic resistance to change" - by which he means his countrymen's unwillingness to simply adapt to the commercial imperatives of the present economic order. On the other hand, we have the likes of Marine Le Pen who offers up a vision of national salvation rooted in an exclusive and unchanging vision of Frenchness.
Perhaps the image of Chanukah Lewinsky shlapping her baggage offers a better way of grappling with identity. It demonstrates an engagement with the past that is partly dictated by necessity, but which is also active and deliberate. The carrying of baggage represents an engagement with our history which is also an experience of moving onwards. And in the shuttered suitcase, our ethnic heritage is embodied not in a visible and knowable object, but instead in an opaque container - whose contents probably did evolve over the course of Chanukah's 120 year-long life. As the performer puts it, “Our stories can never be lost in translation, for they are born from it”. As a queer Jewish artist from the Edgware suburbs, Chanukah's creator Dex Grodner perhaps knows better than most that there is no final destination of arrival, and no untroubled point of communal origin.
Yet I fear that to meditate any further upon the meaning of baggage would not quite do justice to a show that is intelligent and moving, but which is also camp, flippant, joyous and seriously funny - a truly wonderful patchwork of stories about a crowd of badass Jewish women.
Reuben spent four years putting on radical folk gigs up and down the country, and likes socialism.