These days, when I start a formal talk about my book, I quote my French friend Daniel, who told me that the book “is part of the battle against amnesia.” The book fights to uncover and respect the past and understand its legacy. Last night, an audience got that exploration of legacy as never before.
What a thrilling event. I had no idea what to expect – perhaps a handful of people, as has happened in some of the other places that sponsored a talk – about 20 at the Stratford Festival, which got around to publicising it late; about a dozen at the Jewish library in Toronto. About 30 came, including five relatives, to the 92nd Street Y the last time I spoke in New York; I was hoping for at least that but prepared for far fewer.
I got to the Stella Adler Studio early, to work, as Tom Oppenheim the director of the Studio had asked, with the actors. It’s exciting just walking into the acting school, its cramped, busy space on West 27th crawling with intense young acting students – there, a huge bust of Stanislavsky, and there, portraits of Tom’s grandparents, the great actress and teacher Stella and her husband Harold Clurman, the influential director. “The theatre is a sacred space,” said a sign on the door of the small theatre where I was to speak and an assembly of actors to read excerpts from the plays. Marvellous actors – Betsy Parrish, who teaches at the school, read from Mirele Efros, Adam Gerber and Danielle Rabani, graduates from the school, read from the Kreutzer Sonata, and Michael Howard was the Jewish King Lear. We ran through their pieces, set up the space, and retired to the Green Room to chat.
From there, we heard a noise, growing – the sound of a lively audience. Michael said to Adam and Danielle, “May you hear that sound every night for the rest of your lives. Except for your day off.” Tom began, speaking with his usual eloquence about building a meaningful theatre, a theatre of social relevance, and then he introduced me. A joyful moment, to step onto a stage with fine actors behind me waiting to work and in front, a full house. The space was packed – standing room only. Maybe 70 or more, some of them young students from the school sitting on the floor at the front. “This is a friendship,” I said, hugging Tom, “that started 120 years ago.”
I told stories about Gordin and my search for him for almost an hour, then the actors did their magnificent readings – I had goosebumps, they were so good – and I finished off. The audience liked it. Some of the young actors, paupers though they undoubtedly are, bought the book and had me sign it.
Then adults, a whole group of Adlers, including Tom’s mother, Stella’s only daughter Ellen, and Josie, daughter of Tom’s aunt Lulla Rosenfeld who wrote her own book about the Yiddish theatre and helped me with mine. Josie reported a conversation. Ellen, at the end of my talk, asked Josie, “Are you going to say hello?” And Josie replied, “Say hello? I’m going to move in with her!”
They were so warm and generous, this bunch of descendants of Jacob Adler’s, to this descendant of his colleague Jacob Gordin. We must have lunch, Josie said. I’ll make dinner, said Ellen, who has incredible stories to tell. The Studio should help you sell your book, said Tom. And so I must come back to New York sooner rather than later, to greet my new family. Because that’s how it felt.
On the subway home, a group of women opposite were talking about the reading at the Cooper Union with Tony Kushner et al. Apparently Kushner was fabulous. I’m sorry I missed him. But my own small event was pretty fabulous too.
This morning I’ve received a very nice note from the Artistic Director of the Folksbiene, saying it was all a misunderstanding, he is very interested in the book and my work. That’s great news. Perhaps we can work out an event of some kind.
I have been fighting a bug with massive doses of Cold-FX, but now that my talk’s over, miraculously I feel healthy again. Half a day, now, to explore NYC – late afternoon I move from my cousin Ted’s to Cousin Lola’s and take her to the theatre tonight. She’s 87 and it’s supposed to pour with rain, so there are logistical problems, but she is the feistiest 87-year old in the world, so we’ll make it. She has a plan. You don’t go anywhere with a New Yorker without a plan.