Introducing Jenny Romaine for the Adrienne Cooper Dreaming in Yiddish Award

December 21, 2013

In his book Adventures in Yiddishland: Postvernacular Language and Culture, Jeffrey Shandler recalls a description of Yiddishland as a place that doesn’t appear on maps, but comes into existence whenever people speak Yiddish. Shandler complicates this description, asking:

Does Yiddishland flicker on and off during a conversation, vanishing during pauses and interruptions? … Does talking to oneself in Yiddish constitute Yiddishland, or is some sort of community, even a community of two, required? And what about thinking or dreaming in Yiddish?

As it turns out, especially for those of us who don’t have conversational skills, dreaming in Yiddish is one of the ways we can enter Yiddishland. In our waking lives, we can also enter through the collective dreamscapes that emerge from the New Yiddish Theater of Jenny Romaine. This world of moving images, mashed-up musical montages, swimming symbols, and folkloric fantasia offers us a portal into Yiddishland, an entryway that jumps from Long Island’s Jewish day schools to a busy Times Square intersection, to a borscht belt hotel, and then springs up again down under the Manhattan Bridge. Where else but in a Yiddish dreamscape could we meet a chicken version of YIVO aspirant Nekhame Epshteyn, and offer her a joke for her ethnographic collection? How else could we find ourselves at a body of water simultaneously in the mountains outside of Montreal and in Stanashest, Rumania, playing klezmer music with 400 people, walking backwards together in procession?

***

Jenny Romaine grew up in a family and community of political, creative, secular Yiddish speakers – she calls herself a “native listener.” She attended the North Shore Kindershule and says she understood early that “to be a Jew was to be engaged in larger discussions of marginality and power and who ends up on what side of it and what you can do to make justice happen.” What you can do is: organize.

“It wasn’t like you dream about it, and you long for it” says Jenny, “It was like you do it! You go to meetings, you make things happen. You apply pressure, you use strategy, you work from a place of political love, and you transform the culture. With other people. Given.”

By way of the 1981 Women’s Pentagon Action, Grace Paley sent Jenny to spend a summer at Bread and Puppet Theater in Vermont. From there, she has built decades of related performance craft in the ranks of 9th Street Theater, the Lesbian Avengers, Circus Amok, and of course, Great Small Works.

And in 1986, after studying folklore and performance with Dr. Barbara Kirschenblatt-Gimblett, Jenny got a job in the sound archives of the YIVO Center for Jewish Research, where she went on to work for the next thirteen years. Working at YIVO brought Jenny into a thriving community of Yiddish culture-makers including Adrienne Cooper. At Klez Kamp, Jenny created the Youth Theater Workshop, where she developed her specific model of New Yiddish Theater in the company of young people, many of whom are now adults who teach at Klez Kamp and perform here tonight. The 1999-2000 production of Glückel of Hameln was another important laboratory for this theater form, a collaboration with Cooper, Frank London, and many other artists who are here tonight. Of Glückel, Adrienne Cooper explained “this is Yiddish theater as it should be: in dialogue with contemporary culture and not seeing itself in continuous retrospective.”

***

Jenny’s skill, training, and strategy are often presented subtly in the context of a constant feeling of experimentation and invention, but the truth is that Jenny is consistently teaching us a developed methodology that addresses both the street and the stage, and aims to use ethnographic surrealism to transform our lives. I want to tell you a little bit about the elements of craft at work here:

First, in her work at YIVO, Jenny learned the importance of the fragments of our culture, and came to see that she could work with these fragments through her artistic practice – rearranging, layering, and montaging them Re-Mixing History to build new culture.

Speaking with some of my peers who have also been learning with Jenny over the past decade, a profound theme in our experience is that Jenny offers us illuminating clarity that who we are has a Yiddish legacy. That our experimental creative visions, our queerness, our yearning and our organizing for justice on a collective level have a rich history in Yiddishland. We are making new culture, and we also come from somewhere. We have a past and a future.

Second, Jenny’s theater prepares us for revolutionary opportunities by Rehearsing Resistance. Like speculative fiction, and like dreaming, her productions create alternative worlds that expand our perceptions and our revolutionary imaginations. They give us a space to re-imagine and rehearse our campaigns, strategies, and alternate endings to our inscribed stories. And in the process of building these shows, we also build real relationships that translate when it’s time to hit the streets.

A third key strategy I see in Jenny’s work is Dazzle Camouflage. Dazzle Camouflage refers to a way of painting ships (during WWI and II) that does not conceal, but confuses, making it difficult to tell the ship’s location, speed, and direction. I first heard the phrase from a friend who was describing the way queer people use glamour, humor, and wit to distract from potential attack. Artists use Dazzle Camouflage in the form of surrealism, satire, camp, and other methods of spectacle that enable political theater to reach even those who might at first be hostile to the messages.

Using dazzle camouflage, Jenny’s work is weird, radical, and super-queer, but it’s also accessible. It is fabulous to behold, the music is exceptional, and it happens where people are congregated – on the streets, at gatherings, protests, community centers, prisons, schools – and all of this allows her to create spaces for people who share her politics to find each other and see our truths shared, while also creating opportunities for wider audiences to hear the messages and join the fun (and the movement).

I describe these elements of craft in part to name the experience, the critical theory, and the labor that go into making these dazzling productions. Jenny works with everyone and as I’m sure we can all attest – when she works, she really WORKS! For many of us, she has modeled an understanding of cultural work as labor, a clarity that experimental does not mean unprofessional. Grounded in the “cultural powerbank” of the YIVO archive, she knows that the culture we produce is extremely valuable. And yet, to make a living as a cultural worker is no easy thing. Adrienne Cooper knew this well, and Sarah Gordon remembers Cooper explaining that getting other artists paid was a meaningful part of her work. The Adrienne Cooper Fund for Dreaming in Yiddish does something special, maybe even alchemical, in that it honors the role of dreaming – that visionary space outside of capitalism – with the chunk of change that artists need to pay our bills in the here and now. That chunk of change is generated by a ton of outrageously talented artists donating their time and all of us putting in our little bit of cash for the pleasure of coming together with gorgeous art, spirited community, and the memory of beloved Adrienne. Jenny shows us that what we have in Yiddishland is our fragments of culture, and the task of the artist is to bring our whole selves to the task of re-arranging those fragments, and in doing so, we make new wholeness.

THANK YOU, JENNY!

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