Browse Topics

View all talks

Poison Cookie

Rebecca Joy FletcherFilmed at South London Limmud

Have you ever seriously thought about the vital role musical satire has played in social change,  how much musical satire is part of the Jewish legacy? That’s my passion, and that’s what I’ll share with you today, all through the lens of European-Jewish cabaret between the wars. In addition, you’ll get to hear me perform a wild 1937 cabaret song (with new English lyrics by Stephen Mo Hanan and musical arrangement by Bob Goldstone, a song originating from Warsaw’s Yiddish language cabarets) all the while wearing a Hassid’s hat. What more could you ask for? Come on: let’s devour some “poison cookies” together!

Rebecca Joy Fletcher is a Brooklyn-based theater artist (playwright/performer/producer) as well as a Jewish educator and cantor.  Over the past ten years, she has become recognized as a leading expert in the field of European-Jewish cabaret. Highlights include: Kleynkunst!, the smash off Broadway hit of 2008 and Cities of Light, which has been presented at theatres, synagogues, and nightclubs around the world.  Upcoming projects include Rebecca’s musical Nightingale; a Yiddish tango show, and a cabaret collaboration with Belgian theater artist Noemi Schlosser which will premier in November 2012 at La Vieille Grille Theatre in Paris. Rebecca is a sought after lecturer and guest-teacher at academic institutions and adult learning centers around the world.  She serves as vice president of the Association for Jewish Theater, and is a proud member of New York City’s award-winning Kabarett Kollectif, ROI, the American Conference of Cantors, and the Dramatists Guild.

I begin with this question… which is: Is that all that there is to Cabaret? Which is obviously a bit of trick question, for the answer is a resounding NO. But before we lay out all the arguments, a story.
So, the first time that I heard European cabaret it raised the hair on my neck straight up. It was about 10 years ago and I had just purchased a set CD of recordings of Berlin’s Jewish cabaret artists from before the Holocaust. I had no idea at the time what drove me to buy this particular set –just a hunch, a gut. A few minutes into listening, a funny little shpretzingeh, or ‘patter song’ came on and that’s when the hair stood up – because I somehow knew the rest of the song. Now, I don’t speak German and I definitely had not heard the song in question. But what I experienced at that moment was the keenest and most sharp sense of deja vu which I have ever felt, before or since. And – as I would advise any of you to do should such a moment come upon you – I sat up, I took note, and then I dove head-first into the vast world of European Jewish cabaret.
So in a nutshell, here is how we can define European cabaret. First of all, it’s an intimate venue, enormous venue, where you can’t necessarily feel the beads of sweat of the MC flick off onto your drink? That’s not cabaret. Food and drink almost always served in European cabaret venues I’m talking about venues up through the 40s and 50s. Thirdly, MC. The institution, the creation of a master of ceremonies or conferenciere, obviously many of us think of Joel Grey when we think of the ultimate conferenciere – that was the creation of cabaret. Someone who would speak directly to the audience who might give political diatribes; who might insult you; who might seduce you; who might simply introduce the next act. A kind of guide to what was going on on stage. That was new in the art form of cabaret. Fourthly , political satire throughout all the many countries where cabaret travels, political satire is at the heart of what is going on. Fifth, what I call ‘shifting tectonic plates’ meaning it’s not a through line narrative art form. They are not going for coherence. They are not going for consistency. They are not trying to tell one story. What they are doing instead, in the cabarets across Europe and Tel Aviv is they’re lining up different what I call tectonic plates; Emotions ,artistic styles, attitudes; they bump up against each other. In this way a sort of odd hodge-podge mosaic is created, which is the cabaret’s evening as a whole. In a sense it’s anti-narrative. Sixth, it’s very current material, it’s all topical. Once it gets a little old they might rewrite it or they toss it out, which is why when someone like me mines archival cabaret material, a lot of what I encounter is interesting historically but I wouldnt put it on stage, because either it doesn’t communicate to us today or it’s not very good, because they created an awful lot. Fast. And lastly it’s a child of modernism, just like: Bauhaus, psychoanalysis, Dada. It springs out of that same modernist world and attitude. So where does it start? The first cabaret is Le Chat Noir 1881 Paris. This is a poster that many of you may recognise; the evil black cat. Right instead of crossing the road to get away from it, you’re going to cross the road and come inside the cabaret to be right next to that evil black cat. What’s Jewish about cabaret though? Right, the million dollar question. Well first of all, an overwhelming number of Jews participate in European cabaret. Particularly in Berlin where we are taught that over 80% of the cabarettists from the set designers through to the lyricists were said to be Jews, but also in many other cities that I have already mentioned. Secondly, this art form draws its roots not only from such sister art forms that we might all think of live variety and vaudeville and burlesque but also from the Yiddish theatre, also from the Purim shpiel which is an incredible legacy in and of itself and finally from the traditional badkhen or wedding jester, which we used to have before the Holocaust at almost any Ashkenazi wedding in Eastern Europe. Next, it’s an art form which thrives on an outsider’s vision. If you’re too much inside the society, it’s pretty hard to say anything ironic. Not all Jews felt like outsiders but a heck of a lot of them did. Also, it’s an art form that thrives on questions much more than answers. That got into trouble with people who wanted straight political answers, like ‘don’t just make fun of the situation but tell us what to do and go there’. That is not cabaret that’s actually not satire inherently. Also lastly, it’s an easily transportable art form, meaning that it might reach across Europe wherever Jews go. Why? Because the sets are compact, cheap, its easily portable. You’ve got a song that’s talking about problems in one place you rewrite the lyrics the next day and talk about problems somewhere else, that’s inherent in an art form like this. So let’s return though to the cabaret artist themselves. Here, in quick succession are just a few of the faces and the pictures which haunt me to this day.
First of all here is Truder Hesterberg in Berlin 1929 performing a Friedrich Hollander song called, ‘The Ballad of the Stock Exchange’ with a bunch of fat cat capitalists behind her and lots of money signs all over her dress. This is a shot of different cabaret artists and writers who together formed a group in Tel Aviv. In the front left with a kind of eraser – hair is Shlonsky who modelled himself as a rival of Bialik and of the force of a new Israeli voice. He was also quite active in the cabarets. But haunting faces aside, why do I believe in this material? Why do I wish to encourage all of you to fall in love with it as I have? Because music and satire can be powerful forces for social change, and these 1920s and 30s cabaret artists knew that in their bones. Perhaps this is something which, in our confusing and politically correct age, we have a bit forgotten. But the artists whose photos I just showed you they didn’t forget. They fought for a better world through their songs as well as through their actions. I recently spent a day searching the web for newly penned topical songs, monologues or comedic sketches which take the piss out of the current economic crisis both in Europe and in the US. Shockingly, I found almost nothing. Of course, certainly, there are a few brave, made geniuses out there who are singing truth to power, but not tons of them. And where are the Tom Lehrers of the Occupy movement? Where is the national bailout song we’re all wishing despite our politics, just because it’s so catchy? Why didn’t I find a million songs about the insidious temptation of credit- card debt, or urban food deserts or the injustices of international water conservation? It seems to me that we’re in a huge pickle as a planet these days, and what we need is creative vision, freeing our minds from stale thinking, from routine blindness in order to see solutions in place of hopelessness. As it turns out, satire is one of the best ways to clean the schmuzt off your eyes and helps you to think creatively. And as it turns out satire, particularly musical satire, is a vital part of our legacy as Jews. For this reason I encourage you took to European cabaret for inspiration. Who knows it may just help you to laugh your way into a better world and at the same time I want to encourage those of you who write music or lyrics to pen some new political or satire songs. In fact, I challenge you. If you write them, I will perform them.
Which brings me to the title of this lecture, “Poison Cookie”. That’s what composer Friedrich Hollander called cabaret: “a cookie you eat without thinking ,it goes down sweet and yummy, and only then it explodes like an existential bomb in your stomach.” That’s what cabaret does best and that’s why I chose to close with this ferocious cabaret song from Yiddish Warsaw 1937. The song was written in response to the Polish government’s short lived plan to cart off all the Jews of Poland not to the Promised Land, no, but instead to Madagascar. So they sent a fact- finding mission to Africa in 1937 only to discover that they were natives living there already. So the plan is shelved. But in the cabarets of Warsaw they get a wind of this and they go bananas and they create an extremely not politically correct song –know that which I shall present to you. Now finally about this (furry hats). So, in the cabarets of Yiddish Warsaw it was quite typical, of these cosmopolitan young hipster Jews to make fun of their Hasidic brothers and sisters. So that’s one reason for this hat. But there’s actually a deeper reason for the hat, which is that it’s really interesting to me to, as I’m about to do, perform this song from this Hasid’s point of view. Let him get the say, which he never got to in reality. Let him get the say inside the cabarets about his attitude towards this governmental policy. So I hereby present you with the 1937 Warsaw Yiddish Cabaret hit, Oy Madagascar.


This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License