Naughty in Romanian

Storyteller Maia Morgenstern tells the tale of Romanian Jewish theater.

Maia Morgenstern (photo credit: courtesy)
Maia Morgenstern
(photo credit: courtesy)
For those of us not overly familiar with Romanian writing and comedy, Romanian Jewish actress Maia Morgenstern will be offering a tongue-in-cheek slice of that genre next week when she performs Speck and Naughty as part of this year’s Storyteller Festival at the Givatayim Theater.
The textual substratum for the show comes from the writings of late Romanian satirist Isaac Lazarovici, better known to Romanian audiences by his non-Jewish-sounding nom de plume, Ion Pribeagu (John the Wanderer).
The 51-year-old Morgenstern, a stalwart of the Jewish theater community in Bucharest, came to international attention when she played the role of Mary in Mel Gibson’s highly controversial 2004 movie The Passion of the Christ. This will be her first visit here, and she says he is delighted to be performing at the festival.
“It is a great honor for the Romanian Jewish theater, and especially for me, to be at the festival,” she says, noting that the event focuses on one of the major tricks of her trade. “Stories are wonderful, and I think that stories are the first point where theatrical artistic development begins. First of all, you have to have something to say, and you have to have something to share with other people. It is the idea of a gathering, of being together, and transmitting and saying something. That is a very important skill.”
Such a skill is even more important when the performance in question is a solo job – as is the case with Speck and Naughty, which will be in Romanian with English subtitles.
“To be in front of an audience, in front of other people, and sharing something... is a question of attention, and generosity on your part to share something very special, which belongs to you, with people and to try to convince them that you really have something to tell them in a very simple and direct way.”
Of course, it helps when you have good raw material, such as some poems by Lazarovici, who made aliya at the age of 75 and died here in 1971.
“He was very well known in Romania, during the Second World War and even before that,” explains Morgenstern, adding that he was very much a grassroots man of letters.
Under his pen name, she says, “he was very popular. The way he wrote his little comic poems was so close to the people. He was very funny and very sharp, and very naughty, but his work touched everybody’s heart and made everybody laugh or at least smile.”
Considering Lazarovici lived in Romania through the tough years of communism, when the country was under the thumb of the Soviet regime, the public must have greatly appreciated his offering them a chance to laugh.
“Yes, that was very important,” Morgenstern concurs, “and a lot of people... when they heard I was doing a show with material by Ion Pribeagu, they told me, ‘We know these poems.’ He was so popular, and he is still in the memory of people from all different generations... People say his work is like a fairy tale.”
Indeed, under his gentile-sounding professional moniker, Lazarovici’s popularity knew no bounds in Romania. That might not have been the case had his adoring public known of his Jewish roots.
“Yes, it is a non-Jewish name with a very interesting meaning,” says Morgenstern, adding that she has some firsthand experience of the possible pitfalls of working under her own name. “When I was young, I was warned that Morgenstern was not a very good name for me if I wanted to work in the theater and be a success.
But I thought, I’m not going to change my name. I am a Morgenstern, the name I got from my parents, and I am proud of it.”
There was a time when it was not a particularly good idea to perform in Yiddish, either, as the Romanian authorities were not well-disposed toward Jewish culture. But surprisingly ‘I am a Morgenstern, the name I got from my parents, and I am proud of it, says Maia Morgenstern of her Jewish surname. (Courtesy) | METRO 23 the State Jewish Theater in Bucharest kept going regardless, through political thick and thin.
“We perform works in the Yiddish language, and promote the Yiddish language, and [work] to translate our heritage, the classics of Yiddish literature,” explains the actress. “Of course, we do things by Isaac Bashevis Singer and Sholem Aleichem, and the treasures of Jewish folklore and music.”
She says she and her colleagues also do their best to access as wide an audience as possible, and to bring Jewish and even Israeli works to the public in a user-friendly format.
“We also do things in Romanian. We just had an opening of a play called Slihot, by Hanna Azoulay-Hasfari, and we are going to perform a play called Yom Kippur very soon. We perform in Romanian in order to bring Jewish theater, Jewish life and Jewish culture, which is not well known, to audiences in Bucharest and in other places around the country. We want to show non- Jewish Romanians the richness of our Jewish culture. They are very interested in our culture.”
In addition to her one-woman show on September 24, Morgenstern will contribute to the “We Are Romanians” slot on September 25, which also features several Eastern European-born Israelis or those who have roots in that cultural milieu. Comedian siblings Uzi and Haim Esner are among them, as are octogenarian actress and Israel Prize recipient Lia Koenig, and 82-year-old Romanian-born Yiddish actor Yaakov Bodo.
The lineup at the Storytellers Festival – which is in its 20th year – also includes 83-year-old children’s author Israel “Pucho” Wisler, as well as a dream team of Israel Prize-laureate storytellers: Koenig, sculptor Dani Karavan, movie mogul Menachem Golan and industrialist Stef Wertheimer.
Meanwhile, actress Miki Kam will MC the female-oriented “Women Are No Laughing Matter” show, and there will be plenty of cross-disciplinary energy at the “Square Wheel” performance, where festival founder and poet Yossi Alfi will join forces with classical pianist-composer Gil Shohat, mathematician-philosopher Haim Shapira and internationally renowned geneticist Eitan Friedman.
The Storytellers Festival runs until September 28. For tickets and more information: (03) 574-5005 or