Next month, the Alex Theatre St.Kilda presents a landmark celebration of Jewish Writing. Theatrics: The Wit and Wisdom of Jewish Writing will present a collection of centuries of celebrated Jewish writing over three performances that promises to be a must see experience for both the Jewish and non-Jewish communities.

The Melbourne Jewish Writers Festival has joined forces with the Melbourne Writers Festival to present this event which, according to MJWF Director Esther Kister, has been in development over the last 10 months. It has indeed been a labour of love for all involved, with choosing from centuries of Jewish writing being the biggest challenge for the event organizers.

” Our initial concept was to dramatize one work by one author,” Kister explains. ” We’ve always been very clear that we are a literary festival, not a theatrical group and whatever we did had to add an extra dimension to the written word. The present concept evolved over months of passionate discussions within the committee and then with Gary Abrahams, our director/ dramaturge who created Theatrics: The Wit and Wisdom of Jewish Writing¸ a dramatic presentation of extracts from the works of 10 Jewish authors. As far as we’re aware this event is unique in its approach.”

“The final 10 authors include four Australians – Arnold Zable, poet, Alex Skovron, Serge Liberman and Maria Tumarkin, a Russian-Jewish author, who is collaborating with Gary to write a short story especially for the production. With acclaimed international authors Nathan Englander, Howard Jacobson, Etgar Keret, Grace Paley, Ayelet Waldman (who is coming to Australia later this year) and the late Yiddish writer, Isaac Bashevis Singer , Gary Abrahams has ensured a variety of styles and formats will be represented – poems, short stories, novels and essays. ”

“We wanted to capture the essence of Jewish writing and to present a kaleidoscope of the humour, wisdom and tragedy of the Jewish experience. I was once asked by an interviewer if the MJWF was all about navel gazing. Absolutely not! I think the selected pieces of writing featured in Theatrics illustrate the universal themes including love, family, migration, the experience of being the outsider, which Jewish authors deal with.”

“We hope our selection will encourage our audiences to read more by these and the myriad other Jewish authors.”

An ensemble of four actors – Deidre Rubenstein, Michael Veitch, Luisa Hastings Edge and Christopher Brown – will present a fluid arrangement of scenes, monologues, and direct readings in various styles. The creative process is being lead by award-winning director, writer, dramaturge and actor, Gary Abrahams who says: “Some pieces are underscored with a traditional cynical Jewish humour. Other works are not particularly Jewish in either content or style. The pieces range from ‘high literature’ to the engaging story telling of Arnold Zable. Some have a strong autobiographical quality. Others are fantastical. With 10 different works, there will be something that speaks to each individual audience member.”

The philosophy and significance behind Theatrics: The Wit and Wisdom of Jewish Writing is multi layered and richly complex. “Theatre has always been a major expression of the drama of life in its many complexities, and Jewish theatre has a long proud history,” says Kister. ” At last year’s inaugural 2 ½ day festival, we presented more than 70 Australian and international Jewish writers covering a broad range of subjects and genres, but due to time constraints we weren’t able to feature play writing. The opening event of our festival last year was an evening hosted by Rachel Berger where 8 authors appearing in the festival, presented on the festival theme “It started with a Word”. The audience loved it and this encouraged the committee members, who are passionate theatre lovers as well avid readers, to present something challenging and entertaining in our “in between” festival year.”

The MJWF committee is the most important driving force behind this and all other projects. Kister explains the organization operates very democratically with majority rules. “There is a core planning committee made up of more literary types – a couple of writers, reviewers, ex book store owner, editor, former exhibition curators.”

The MJWF is an initiative of the Lamm (Named after Norman Lamm, a major American Modern Orthodox rabbi) Jewish Library of Australia. The inaugural festival took place last year at the Library premises in Caulfield South.

“Our philosophy is that each Jewish generation needs to explore its cultural inheritance through the lens of its own time and place,” Kister explains. “Our festival of writing provides an opportunity for today’s literary generation to make sense of its contemporary world through the unique perspectives of our Jewish writers and thinkers past and present. We want to show our community and the wider community the amazing writing talent, richness and the diversity of Jewish writers. For instance there is an online resource “Australian Jewish Writers Database” that has been developed and is constantly being updated. It’s quite amazing in the number of authors listed.”

When the Lamm Jewish Library of Australia approached Kister to stage a Jewish Writers Festival, she jumped at the chance. “I’ve been involved in a number of cultural organisations in the community in a voluntary capacity, so I’m familiar with the community. My main skill in heading the festival has been to assemble a committee comprising dedicated, hardworking, creative and well-read members. Having belonged to a book club for the past 30 years, I thought I had a good grounding in literature, however I am in awe of their broad knowledge and their enthusiasm which is boundless.”

Theatrics: The Wit and Wisdom of Jewish Writing is a celebration of Jewish writing but aolso0 a celebration of what it is to be human.

Says Kister: “All round, the stories speak to larger, universal themes about motherhood, love, friendship and loss, sometimes from a Jewish perspective, sometimes not. What they do have in common is the high quality of the writing. The actors will not be wearing costumes as we wanted the power of the words to shine through.”

Kister, who has a BA, B.Social Work and a Dip. Public Relations, was instrumental in the introduction of the Victorian Seniors Card in 1991 though her work with Turnbull Fox Phillips . She worked on a number of other key projects including the first Workskills Australia Conference, the transformation of Australia Post and social policy projects for various Victorian government departments. Her community activities over the years included the Testimonies Project at the Jewish Holocaust Centre, Court Network, Jewish Taskforce Against Family Violence and Co- Convenor of Public Programs at the Jewish Museum of Australia 2000 – 2012.

Theatrics: The Wit and Wisdom of Jewish Writing
7.30pm Saturday 22; 2pm & 6.00PM Sunday 23 August
Info: [email protected]

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