On Saturday night I attended a wonderful performance at Beth Emet, the Free Synagogue in Evanston, IL, where Cantor Arik Luck and a troupe of performers paid a musical tribute to Moishe Oysher. Cantor Arik Luck played the starring role beautifully and convincingly, singing favorite Oysher songs, and appealingly giving background to some of the songs, such as explaining the narrative of Oysher's film "Overture to Glory," before signing a song from the film. I loved how he made the packed audience clap in tune with his reanimated Oysher, in a celebration of the joy of the Yiddish tunes. (In a sense, his bringing back to life Oysher reminds me of Steve Stern's new novel, Frozen Rabbi, to be published in May, though excerpted now in Tablet, Nextbook's online magazine, whose titular character comes back to life a century later after defrosting in a Memphis 1950s freezer.)
What I noticed in Cantor Luck's captivating brief run-downs of Oysher's roles in his films was the theme of "returning to the shtetl" that seems a trend in recent films and novels. According to Luck, Oysher starred in only four films in the U.S., and in the two that he talked about, there was the theme of Oysher's character dramatically returning to the shtetl, and a conflict between pursuing a life of religious study or a secular life on Broadway. In kind of a meta-narrative, Luck's reanimation of Oysher in turn reanimates the 19th century shtetl for us, the audience, and reanimates the Yiddishkeit of Oysher and his world, and helps us reconnect to our Jewish past, the life of the shtetl that was annihilated, the same life that Oysher's characters were, ironically, trying to break free from in their efforts to assimilate in America.
It's this quintessential theme in Jewish-American literature and drama of the struggle between remembering and forgetting our past. In "Booking Passage: Exile and Homecoming in the Modern Jewish Imagination," Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi writes that the appeal of Isaac Bashevis Singer's writing "came not from his refugee stories but from his reinvention of the shtetl....and what is transpiring in this shtetl of the mind, at its most fundamental level, is a creative resolution of the struggle between remembering and forgetting."
It's interesting to see how contemporary writers, and performers like Cantor Arik Luck, are now reinventing the shtetl, how we have this fundamental compulsion to return to and to reinvent the shtetl, as Jonathan Safran Foer did in Everything is Illuminated. Perhaps the pendelum has swung and that now as Jews we have reached a certain point of comfort (arguably, too much comfort) on the continuum of assimilation into American society, now we feel the desire to reach back and find a sense of authenticity, to reach back and connect with our shtetl past. It's the same reason that the Coen Brothers start "A Serious Man" with a reanimation of the shtetl, to try to forge a creative resolution to this struggle between remembering and forgetting that Jews in America, the Jews of the midcentury on the midwestern prairie as represented by Larry Gopnik in the Coen's film, and Jews today, are grappling with. It's an attempt, as Ezrahi put it in describing Yiddish writers in America in the 1950s, to "reclaim a lost Jewish place and an interrupted Jewish story."
Cantor Luck's musical revue was joyous and celebratory, a pure and simple celebration of the music of our shtetl past and the Yiddish tunes Jews brought to the New Country.
The Coen Brothers, and Steve Stern in A Frozen Rabbi, are also attempting to reclaim a lost Jewish place, the shtetl, but with the darker tones of irony and satire, looking from the disconnected perspective of the postmodern early twentieth century, grappling with the question of what it means today to be an authentic Jew (authenticity, "realness", being hard to come by in the postmodern world).