Satire as Spiritual Resistance
Rebecca Joy Fletcher is an alumna of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship Program and a scholar and performer of international Jewish cabaret. She is also a playwright, actress, and cantor. Rebecca lives in Brooklyn, NY and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or www.RebeccaJoyFletcher.com.
Audiences sometimes ask me how I became so passionate about cabaret. They wonder why a nice Jewish woman, a cantor at that, became enamored with the satiric, fiery, and often risque´ cabaret songs and sketches which flourished between the two world wars in urban centers ranging from Berlin to Beunos Aires to Tel Aviv. What do I find in cabaret that’s so Jewish and even if it is Jewish, who cares?
The kind of cabaret that I am passionate about did not ever quite catch on in America. Perhaps it was too political, particularly in an era (the Great Depression) when politics in the performing arts were often shunned in favor of heart-warming, sentimental fare. Instead, the cabaret about which I’m passionate – it’s usually referred to as European or literary cabaret — began in Paris in the 1880’s, then spread to Berlin, Barcelona, and other teeming urban centers whose faces were quickly and radically being redrawn. A child of modernism, cabaret came fully into its own after World War One, particularly in that mother-ship of all cabaret cities – Berlin. Consider for a moment that Berlin tripled in size from the turn of the century to 1921. This new kind of city – heterogeneous, fast moving, noisy, anonymous, lit up late into the night – needed new art forms which could speak its language. Enter the heyday of cabaret.
From Le Chat Noir in 1881 in Paris through Weimar Germany’s bawdy tingel tangels (the
particular inspiration for the musical Cabaret) cabarets were always defined by the physical intimacy between audience and performer, by their topical and to-the-minute satire, by the quick, harsh shifts between emotional styles, and by their exploration of gender roles, anti-Semitism, hem lines, urban blight, tango dancing, heroin, and other hot topics. Many cabarets were also defined by the disproportionately high number of Jews involved in their creation. It is fair to say in Berlin, for example, that close to 80% of all cabaret artists, performers, composers, lyricists, set-designers etc, were Jewish. Yes, most of these Jews were unaffiliated. Nonetheless, the statistic is shocking and begs the question: what drew Jews to cabaret?
Not only in Berlin did Jews flock to the waters of satire-on-a-small-stage. The Yiddishists of Warsaw found in klaynkunst (the Yiddish term for cabaret) a young, cutting-edge outlet for self- expression and visioning. The immigrant hipsters of 1930’s Tel Aviv also went wild for cabaret (teatron satiri, as it was called) seeing in the art form not only a vehicle for original all-in- Hebrew performance, but an important outlet for the Yishuv’s mental health. In fact wherever Jews were involved in cabaret they espoused its satiric weapon as essential to their culture’s well being. From Budapest to Moscow Jewish cabaret artists sharpened their pens and saw in their satiric creations an expression of resistance – to the anti-Semitic government of Warsaw, to the British mandate in Palestine, or to the fascist winds wracking Italy.
Even during the Holocaust the satire of cabaret found means of expression. There has been some discussion, amongst Holocaust scholars, as to whether the cabarets which blossomed inside the ghettos and some of the concentration camps can be considered examples of rebellion or instead, of compliance. I for one would agree with those scholars who argue that the cabarets of the Holocaust exemplified a form of spiritual defiance. After all, to laugh in the face of disaster – to dance on the edge of a volcano – requires tremendous inner strength. To joke when one is being ordered to weep, to create art when all is hopeless, to uplift ghetto audiences’ spirits for an hour and help them feel strong: what is all this but resistance? And isn’t this what Jews do so often: don’t we laugh in the face of disaster? And isn’t that a gift?
In this time of great economic, political, environmental, and global uncertainty we would do well to remember the healing gifts of satire. We would do well to cultivate a multiplicity of voices on every topic, from patrilineal descent to Gaza’s borders. We would be wise to encourage not only debate, but also an explosion of satire. Perhaps it is for this reason that I am passionate about European cabaret, finding in its material something vital, independent thinking, and free. Or perhaps it’s just a sense that in this early form of Jewish satire, in song and sketch, monologue and Master of Ceremonies’ welcome speech lie the roots of today’s Jewish culture.