Although the Spanish Inquisition took place over 700 years ago, the repercussions remain and are the subject of a new salon-style play produced by Jewish Women’s Theatre (JWT), that opened Saturday, March 18 and is running for two weeks at locations throughout the Southland.
Wendy Colman Levin, Abbe Meryl Feder, Lisa Cirincione, AJ Meijer
Every primary school student learns that Columbus discovered America in 1492, in a venture financed by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. What these children usually do not learn, is that the revered Spanish monarchs were escalating actions begun 100 years earlier to rid the Iberian Peninsula of the Jews that lived there. They offered them a gruesome choice—convert to Christianity, leave their homeland, or face execution.
“History tells us that about 100,000 Jews chose exile and settled in Africa, Asia, the Mediterranean countries or one of the Spanish colonies in the New World,” explains Ronda Spinak, JWT’s artistic director who helped select the stories that comprise the salon-style performances. “Sephardic Jews had no choice but to spread throughout the diaspora, where so much of their original culture, customs and even personality traits remain vibrant in their lives today.”
Forty generations later, the stories in “Exile: Kisses on Both Cheeks”, tell of the losses that still haunt and inhabit today’s Sephardim. They are written by a group of prestigious Sephardic authors: Moroccan-Jewish novelist Ruth Knatfo Setton; André Acimen, Egyptian-born writer and Distinguished Professor at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York; Cuban-American anthropologist and writer Ruth Behar; David Suissa, Moroccan Jew, president of the Jewish Journal and founder of OLAM magazine; Rahel Musleah, a seventh generation Jew from Calcutta, India who is a journalist and lecturer, and award-winning author Herbert Hadad, who tells about his Syrian ancestors and his devotion to both Jewish and Arab cultures.
In “The Last Seder by Andre Aciman”, Performed by AJ Meijer, he says, “When my father puts down the receiver, he looks at us in the dining room and says, ‘It’s started.’” No one needs to be told what he means. It’s common knowledge that these telephone calls will come at all hours of the night – threatening, obscene, abusive calls in which an unidentified voice, will remind us that we are nothing, that we have no rights and will soon be driven out, like the French and the British before us.” Every family knows it is destined to leave Egypt sooner or later, and in one room, usually locked and hidden from guests, sit thirty to forty leather suitcases in which mothers and aunts keep packing their family’s belongings at a slow, meticulous pace, always hoping that things might right themselves in the end.
JWT’s unique salon-style theatre uses professional actors to bring these authors’ stories to life in ten different locations in the LA area. Audiences will learn about the nomadic history of Sephardic Jews who were told they could “die as Jews or live as Muslims,” and hear songs and poetry that describe exile and yearning. They will learn why an Egyptian Jewish family decided to have a Seder on the first night of Passover, even though they were being banished from Alexandria the following day. And they will laugh at stories of “intermarriage,” a term which relatives use to describe what happens when a Sephardic Jewess falls in love with an Ashkenazi man.
Lisa Cirincione and AJ Meijer
In “Ways to Recognize a Sephardic ‘Jew-ess’” By Ruth Knafo Setton, performed by AJ Maijer and Lisa Cirincione these heartbreaking words are spoken: “It’s1790. A Thursday morning in July. The Berber village of Oufran, hidden in the Anti-Atlas Mountains of Morocco. Bou Halassa, the sheik who owns the Jews of Oufran says, to our ancestor and all the others, “Life or death? The choice is simple: Die as Jews or live as Muslims—under my protection. All you have to do is say the words: There is no God but Allah, and Mohammed is His Prophet.”
In “The Magic of Mimouna” By David Suissa, AJ Meijer says,
“Go back a few centuries and picture yourself on a small street in a Jewish neighborhood in Casablanca, Morocco, as the sun is starting to set. You’ve just finished the late afternoon prayers on the last day of Passover, and as you head home, you see Arab grocers setting up shop and laying out butter, milk, honey and most importantly, flour and yeast. They are doing what their ancestors did for generations: helping the Jews of Morocco prepare for the ancient tradition of Mimouna, a night when the Jews celebrated the end of Passover by opening the doors of their homes to their neighborhood.”
Abbe Meryl Feder, Wendy Colman Levin, AJ Meijer, Lisa Cirincione
Wendy Colman Levin, Abbe Meryl Feder, Lisa Cirincione
In “Return to India” by Rahel Musleah, we are transported to the world of her ancestors with these words: “The sign above the door at 11 Bowbazaar Street in Calcutta still says I.S. Musleah, my grandfather’s name. This city where I was born and which I left as a child of 6 has haunted me. The first of my Baghdadi ancestors moved to Calcutta in 1820 and for the past 80 years, the extended family has lived in the Bowbazaar apartment. The stories of their lives have become intertwined with my own. My bedridden, 98-year- old Great-Aunt Ramah is the last member of the family still at 11 Bowbazaar; she is also 1 of only 35 elderly Jews left of the 5,000 who once lived in Calcutta in the mid-20th century.
The music, singing, and and large collection of wonderful stories and vignettes in “Exile” will provoke deep thought about the human condition, and move you in many ways—from tears to laughter— but will never leave you indifferent.
Superbly directed, and flawlessly performed by the entire cast.
On opening night March 18, The Art Gallery @ The Braid opened a special exhibit, Exile: The Sephardic Legacy, featuring three artists: Renee Amitai, Jaco Halfon and Sara True. There will also be art talks on Monday March 27 and Tuesday, March 28, followed by performances. Art gallery viewing is free. Separate admission required for “Exile: Kisses on Both Cheeks” shows.
“Jewish Women’s Theatre is an arts center, not just a performance venue,” explains Spinak. We select contemporary, relevant themes and explore them through varied media of expression. What better way to increase our understanding of Sephardic Jews than to bring in works by Sephardic artists who explore their culture through fine arts.”
Renee Amitai was born into a Sephardic family with origins in Galicia in Spain. A graduate of L’Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris, France, she is now an accomplished printmaker, painter and sculptor, who has exhibited internationally. Amitai says her Sephardic origin is still the most important influence on her work.
Mixed media collagist Jaco Halfon grew up in Tunisia where he became fascinated with symbols. His work dramatically depicts the evil eye, the Hebrew letter shin and the open right hand, the Hamsa, which has been a sign of protection throughout history.
Sarah True discovered she had Spanish blood dating back to Sevilla in 1400, while exploring the origins of her love of flamenco. Her work reflects travels in Morocco and Spain, her ancestral home.
Ronda Spinak, Wendy Colman Levin, Abbe Meryl Feder, Susan Morgenstern, Lisa Cirincione, AJ Meijer
JWT provides a home for the diverse and eclectic community of artists and creators who comprise L.A.’s Jewish women’s community. Both at its new home in The Braid Theatre and art gallery in Santa Monica’s Bergamot Arts District, in intimate salons throughout the city, and on tour throughout the State, JWT stages and displays traditional and contemporary works that provide a forum for the development, performance and showcasing of Jewish talent.
Artistic director: Ronda Spinak, Managing director: Sharon Landau, Producing director: Susan Morgenstern
Lisa Cirincione, Abbe Meryl Feder, Wendy Colman Levin, AJ Meijer
Photos by: Jan Berlfein Burns
“Exile: Kisses on Both Cheeks” premiered on March 18 at JWT’s home theatre, The Braid, 2912 Colorado Ave. #102, Santa Monica, CA 90404.
Dates, times and locations of the salon performances are available at Jewish Women’s Theatre
Tickets to the plays are $40, which includes a dessert reception and Q & A, and are available from a link on the website to Brown Paper Tickets.
For more information, call: (310) 315-1400