Jewish Geography
By Elizabeth Schwartz

 

Posted April 18, 2011 at 04:27 PM EST

History and truth comprise the core of Jewish culture and art… but “The Witches of Lublin” is a work of fiction; only its foundation is historical fact.  The story I am about to share with you is true, and its foundation is what we Members-of-the-Tribe like to call Jewish Geography.

JG can be general to the point of featherweight (I refer to the very nice Austrian couple I met in Kitzbuhl in 2007… who asked me if I knew “a Mr. Epstein in Westport”.  So, Mr. Epstein, if you’re reading this and you’ve ever been to Kitzbuhl… how do you do.

Joking aside, JG is a real phenomenon, one that can bring long-lost friends and family together and can be pinpointed to a very specific day and location, and that is where I’m going in this blog entry:  To one specific day in July of 2010. 

Yale Strom and I had been brought to the Jewish Genealogical Society’s conference in L.A. to wear many hats – we gave concerts, we screened films, we lectured… and we met playwright Ellen Sandler, who had adapted Mimi Sheraton’s wonderful book “The Bialy Eaters” into a play.  Ellen asked us to perform live music during the staged reading, and we readily accepted. 

Then this phenomenal cast of actors filed in… led by Lawrence Pressman.  We’ve seen him in a million things, but in particular, he was in “Like Mom, Like Me”, a TV movie from the 70’s written by my sister, based on a book written by my mother, which was about my mother and me (yes, factoid alert: I have actually been depicted in two separate TV movies, it’s a long story for another blog… or maybe my memoirs.  Or possibly therapy). 

Anyway, back to “The Bialy Eaters”:  The show starred, as Mimi Sheraton, Tovah Feldshuh.  And we got on like a house afire.  It was after the performance in the hospitality suite that I said, “So, Tovah, we’ve been working on an audio drama, and… well, would you read it?”  Tovah said, “If you wrote it, I’m interested.”  Emboldened, I ventured further: “Well, would you be interested in being in it?”  Her reply was, “If it’s a good part, I’ll do it.”  She liked the part.  She gave a magnificent, lush performance.  She made all of us better.   When is anything in life that simple?  Only one other time… and it was on the same night.

Larry Pressman (I can call him Larry now) is one of the most intelligent, intellectual, well-read, gentlemanly humans I have ever met.  I think I left out erudite and an amazing raconteur.  He invited us to join him and friends in the lobby for drinks, so we went (yes!  We are PAR.TAY.AN.I.MALS… at least, in Jewish genealogical circles).

We found Larry in the bar, seated with two lively women, one of whom was acclaimed British actress Miriam Margolyes.  Did you know that Professor Sprout is an avid genealogist and a fixture at these conferences?  (She gave us an autograph for our Harry Potter-maniacal daughter.  You know… so we would be cool.  Finally.)

Miriam promised to come to a screening of the documentary film, “Romania, Romania: Searching for Schwartz” and my lecture afterwards (about the affinity and relationship between the Romanian doina and klezmer doyne, if your interests head in that direction).  I took the promise with a grain of salt, as by this time we were in our cups and it was growing late (par.tay.an.i.mals).

The next morning, I was a little… squinty… and couldn’t make out who was at the screening… but as my lecture was about to commence, there was Miriam, full of energy… She raised her hand, then turned around to the room and said, “I just want to say that this was an extraordinary film about how an artist prepares, and now we have this amazing artist speaking to us, and I just want to say that we are very fortunate and I hope everyone here bloody well knows it!”  Yes.  The best compliment of all time from a consummate artist!  I was beyond grateful.  In fact, I am now her slave for life (and I hope she bloody well knows it).

Cut to… November.  A few days after successfully recording the audio drama and its companion music CD “The Devil’s Brides”.  Sue said, “Let’s think outside the box” (because she is one awesome director), “let’s write a little narration and get a host for the music CD.”  I mentioned that we had met Miriam and Sue said, “She’s the best in the world.  If you could get her, that would be great.”  So I shot Miriam an email, and she wrote back, “I will do anything that you and Yale are involved in.”  Period.

What began as “let’s put on a show, we can use my uncle’s barn” became something far greater, far more stellar, than we could have hoped.  What started off as a work conference led us to friendships with two extraordinary women, neither of whom was anything less than generous and brilliant, both of whom have made our work sing.  What else can I say:  Blimey.


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The Witches of Lublin was originally commissioned by the Michigan Festival of Sacred Music, through a generous donation from Arthur and Marilyn Feinberg, and premiered in a live performance version at the 2007 Michigan Festival of Sacred Music.

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