Limmud Cape Town 2023: reflections and reviews

By Benji Anstey

Hello! My name is Benji Anstey. I’m a 19-year-old Jewish student born and raised in Cape Town. I attended Phyllis Jowell Primary School for 6 years and then moved to Herzlia High School where I later served as the Head Student for 2021/2022. I matriculated in 2022 and am now studying for a Bachelor of Music, specialising in jazz guitar, at the South African College of Music (affiliated with UCT). Previous projects of mine involve playing and performing as a musician as well as composing music for various projects. Recently I completed work on a podcast series called “I’ll Always Be Your Brother” where I wrote the score, took a lead role in planning and interviewing and also worked with a team on the marketing, focusing on the written descriptions of each episode.

The following are some reflections and reviews of sessions I attended at Limmud Cape Town 2023. You’ll notice that my session choice is particularly focused on creative subjects. Naturally, those are the topics that my circles and I are drawn to.

Scroll down for:
• Marc Chagall and the Soviet Yiddish Theatre
• Bob Dylan Boulevard Corner Leonard Cohen Street
• NKOLI: THE VOGUE-OPERA: Simon Nkoli and the Fight for Gay Rights in South Africa
• General reflection on Limmud Cape Town 2023

Marc Chagall and the Soviet Yiddish Theatre

As a wannabe artist myself – granted my discipline of arts is music – I was immediately drawn to Jeffrey Veidlinger’s morning session on the Moscow State Yiddish Theatre. The artists that experimented in and around this space – artists such as Marc Chagall, Natan Altman, Robert Falk and Aleksandr Tyshler – have had significant impacts on the aesthetic world; the reverberations of which have been felt far beyond the borders of the artistic domain

Art as a form of creative expression and cultural critique was, as all cultural critiques and creative endeavours were under Soviet rule, quite limited. So too were religious freedoms. Did these two restrictions help form the foundation of modernist and avant-garde experimentation?

Well, my preconceptions were proved wrong by Veidlinger. For the first six years of Soviet Rule in Russia (1917-1923) the state actually supported the Jewish Yiddish Theatre. The theatre group created productions that explored the ideas of both internal Jewish issues and wider societal commentary. For the performers and writers of the Yiddish Theatre, the Jewish Theatre was a revolution of modernity. These secularised city Jews rejected conservative shtetl life (rural villages where Jewish people lived in Eastern Europe) and made a concerted effort to embrace secularism. They viewed Yiddish (a dialect somewhere between Hebrew and German) as the language of the future and rejected Hebrew as the language of the past. For the group, the theatre was the new synagogue. There was a strong focus on youth development and some of the young who took part in these productions would later grow up to take on leadership roles in the Russian Jewish Community.

One of the most famous contributors to the Jewish Yiddish Theatre was none other than Marc Chagall. A lot of what we know about Shtetl life is mediated through Chagall’s eyes. His famous paintings often juxtaposed Belo-Russian Jewish life and urban Christian life. Chagall also incorporated these ideas into his work for the Yiddish Theatre, which included set design, costume design and even mechanics of acting. Chagall’s early work with Jewish playwright Shalom Aleichem was heavily inspired by Cubism. His sets were geometric and unnatural; the creatives of this time rejected natural shapes and objects. The actors of the Yiddish Theatre also implemented a technique of movement called Biomechanics – where they mimicked the movement of machines. This symbolism alluded to factory work – the everyday reality of the proletariat. The common belief held at that time stated that the theatre should reflect real life, particularly the real life of the working class. Most of the writers and creatives involved in the theatre were themselves working class.

Shalom Aleichem’s plays poked fun at the rich, often characterising them in grotesque exaggerated images. This was picked up on and supported by the communist government. The themes explored by the Soviet Yiddish Theatre were reflected and interacted with by Russian-speaking theatres too. The Yiddish Theatre was located in the heart of the Moscow Theatre District: across the road from the Stanislavski Theatre and near the main Russian-speaking Theatre. Songs from the Yiddish Theatre were widely popular in Russia and were reproduced commercially.

This all serves to demonstrate the modernity and revolution of the Jewish Soviet Yiddish Theatre in the early 20th century. Commenting on society in general: the woes of the working class and the evils of the wealthy, as well as reflecting on the state of Judaism at the end of the Enlightenment. Onsky, one of the writers who lead the Hebrew Theatre spent many hours recording the life of the shtetl, before its demise as a result of the world wars and pogroms. He supported this demise, as a secular Jew, but wanted, as a creative, to preserve it.

The theatre would eventually dissipate under Stalin’s rule and the creative director, Solomon Mikhoel, would be assassinated. In his session on the topic, Veidlinger quite expertly demonstrated that despite the relatively short life span of the Yiddish theatre, it was forward-thinking and self-aware. The creatives involved in the project were fixated on Jewish culture and Jewish identity, and its place in a changing modern world. Their theatre reflected this, often criticising shtetl life and traditionalism. What a fascinating episode in Jewish history!

Bob Dylan Boulevard Corner Leonard Cohen Street

As some of the most iconic songwriters in history, Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen occupy this somewhat legendary, prophetic, space. Whilst both artists are Jewish (Bob Dylan’s real name is Robert Zimmerman), Judaism is not an inherently visual part of their identity. Dylan heralded from Middle America, and Cohen from Canada, and their music is, as I would describe, wistful and worldly. It comments on wider social issues that they perceive through their distinct lenses, but not necessarily from Jewish ones. In his session on these two creative geniuses, Tamir Hod wrote that he would explore the Jewish themes in their works.

Tamir interspersed his talk with covers of Dylan and Cohen songs which was engaging and beneficial – it helped showcase the music of these greats and bring the discussion to life.

Though Dylan didn’t grow up connected to his religion, he humorously recalls a Rabbi appearing for the first time in his life right before his Bar Mitzvah (Jewish coming-of-age ceremony at 13). He hailed from a middle-class family in Minnesota but, as he left middle America and made his way to New York he became connected to Folk music, which was very closely associated with socialism and class struggle. Dylan was uncomfortable with his upbringing and so invented a backstory for himself.

Dylan’s writing style was a questioning style. His music poses many questions – just read the lyrics of “Blowin’ in the Wind”! He dealt with social problems in a way that probed his listeners to think. He was defined as a voice of his generation and became a social commentator of sorts; people would wait to hear his opinion on topics. Dylan’s creative appetite, however, could not be satiated for long and eventually transitioned to playing the electric guitar. The folk community interpreted this as a betrayal.

Later in life, Dylan began exploring Chabad and Jewish learning. He spent four years learning Talmud (Jewish Oral Law) with the Lubavitch community in New York. Middle East politics even influenced some of his music in the 80s, however, I am confident that there are many more Jewish themes in Dylan’s musical works, Hod just didn’t explore them much.

Leonard Cohen had a strong Jewish tradition in his family and appears to have even studied Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism), although Tamir only showed us one example. Cohen also wrote a song called “Who By Fire” which quotes from a traditional Jewish tune called “Unataneh Tokef” which is performed on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year.

I enjoyed learning about these two influential musicians: their lives, their writing styles and their influences. However, I did think that Tamir, unfortunately, failed to explore the Jewish themes in their works enough – which was an aspect I had been particularly excited about and was under the impression that was going to be the focus. There are wonderful literary themes prevalent in the Torah (the Old Testament) that Cohen and Dylan surely explored, as poets and writers. It would have been nice to have focused a little more on that. But granted, I am coming from a musical background: I study music at UCT – so perhaps to others, it was enough analysis. Regardless, it was an enjoyable session.

NKOLI: THE VOGUE-OPERA: Simon Nkoli and the Fight for Gay Rights in South Africa

Phillip Miller’s session on NKOLI: THE VOGUE-OPERA project tells the story behind this multi-media ‘artivism’ (art activism? I must assume) project.

Co-created by South African composer Phillip Miller and rap artist S’bokanaliso Nene, the project will be presented in November as a Theatre production. Theatre, in general, has always played a powerful role in SA – often as a changemaker and political commentary tool. It’s a strong tradition and one worth supporting and celebrating.

Miller began his presentation by introducing us to the man that was Simon Nkoli. Nkoli was born in Soweto. He was a student activist – part of the UDF – and took part in the Vaal Civic Uprising. In January 1986 Nkoli and several others were arrested at a rally and were charged with treason. Nkoli was simultaneously a flamboyant, fantastic persona, and a fighter. The trial took three years, but they were all eventually acquitted. However, Phillip explains that Nkoli, during his time on trial, encountered homophobic stigma from his fellow activists. His co-accused were concerned about catching HIV/AIDS from him – a ridiculous assumption – and feared that the state could manipulate Simon’s sexuality to obtain secrets from him – an even more ridiculous assertion. However, his co-accused eventually capitulated and trusted him, and even came out of prison with a more nuanced understanding and appreciation of gay rights.

Once he was released from prison he hosted the first Gay Pride march in Africa, in 1990. Nkoli would eventually contract and tragically die from HIV/AIDS in 1998.

I think it’s fair to assume we all know what an Opera is, however, to understand what a Vogue-Opera is one must surely know what a Vogue is. Well, Vogueing originates from the Harlem ballroom scene of the 1960s. It’s highly stylized and often includes drag shows, runways and dance. It’s usually a competition where participants put themselves in categories and act and dance. Miller wanted to take a popular art form that is modern and imaginative (Vogue) and combine that with the Operatic discipline with the hopes of creating something unique and engaging. Although Miller acknowledges that, in reality, the production borrows from myriad disciplines, and does not restrict itself to one genre.

So Miller decided to tell Simon Nkoli’s story with the structure of a Vogue competition, in the format of an Opera. Miller explained that he is the only white gay male taking part in the project, and he is also the oldest. He concedes that this brings its challenges: working with so many young people from such different backgrounds puts him in a vulnerable position, but he is learning a lot from everyone.

Miller made critical use of an archive containing all Nkoli’s communications. This included everything from letters to his boyfriend to letters to his lawyer. Later, Miller went, and interviewed people close to Simon, to get a more nuanced understanding of how Simon was perceived by others. These interviews included Simon’s mother, close friends, and his lawyer.

Miller interspersed his talk with video recordings of the performance. Through these recordings, I can understand why Miller describes the project as “multi-media”. We hear recordings from the interviews he conducted, alongside live music and powerful monologues that break into what I assume would be described as an English Aria.

I think what I find impressive about this project is how intentional every facet of it is. By exploring so many different perspectives (Nkoli’s writings, the people close to him, etc), and including multiple creative voices Miller has enabled a very unique story to be told. This project is aimed at young people who have never been to Opera and is well worth a watch. In Miller’s words, “It’s a universal story.”

The show premieres at the Market Theatre in Joburg in November and will (hopefully) be coming to Cape Town soon.

General Reflection

Limmud Cape Town 2023 was an impressive event. Overall, the talks I attended were of a very high standard, and, as usual, the Limmud spirit was palpable. Conversations were open, debate was free, and questions were unlimited. Although this year was noticeably smaller than previous events, the sense of community was still immensely strong.

The Limmud team seems to have put a lot of thought and effort into every aspect of the experience – from the easy-to-read schedule to the accessibility of the venue, various food vendors and a great lunchtime meal. Perhaps the only thing missing from an almost perfect event is the sense of community created over a weekend conference, where there is plenty of time to get to know your fellow attendees and what interests them.

For those that did not attend this year, I highly recommend joining us in 2024. The quality of the presenters was outstanding, and the topics were all-encompassing. There is something for everyone at Limmud, regardless of denomination, gender, sexual orientation, or race.
A space like this should not be taken for granted. Thank you to the team at Limmud Cape Town for their toil and sweat, to bring this wonderful event to life once again.

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