The subject of a new documentary, “Love and Politics,” which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in April, actress and director Judith Malina is internationally celebrated for startlingly unconventional theater, such as her 2011 play “Korach: The Biblical Anarchist.”
A rabbi’s daughter who turned 86 on June 4, Malina has long been invigorating and scandalizing audiences with avant-garde theatrical inventiveness. Although occasionally appearing in films and TV — from Sidney Lumet’s “Dog Day Afternoon” (1975) to “The Addams Family” (1991), and as a dying nun who confesses to being a gangster’s birth mother on HBO’s “The Sopranos” (2006) — Malina’s main focus has been overwhelmingly theatrical.
The Living Theatre, which she co-founded in 1947 with her husband Julian Beck, who died in 1985, broke boundaries and expectations while expressing a spirit of left-wing pacifist anarchy. For many years, the theater company also featured nudity and overt sexuality, which discomfited some of the critics and public. Before one of Malina’s 1990s theatrical happenings in Paris, the American Jewish jazz clarinetist Steve Lacy (1934–2004, born Steven Norman Lackritz) told me: “We only recently convinced Judith to put her clothes back on during the shows, since some audiences were complaining.”
Still a wild child and free spirit, Malina is deeply influenced by Yiddishkeit, which her compelling new journal and memoir, “The Piscator Notebook,” makes clear. In it we read about how Malina was born in Kiel, Germany, in 1926 to Rabbi Max Malina and Rosel Zamora. Malina’s mother, a Yiddish theater actress, had shelved her own career ambitions to raise a family. In 1928, already wary of the rise of European anti-Semitism, the family moved to New York.
Once there, as we read in Steven Lowenstein’s “Frankfurt on the Hudson: The German Jewish Community of Washington Heights, 1933-82, Its Structure and Culture,” Rabbi Malina became a key figure in New York’s German Jewish spiritual life. His daughter realized her mother’s frustrated ambitions by studying acting and directing at a school founded by one of Rosel’s artistic heroes, the leftist director Erwin Piscator, who resolved, as Malina describes, “to make the world better through the art of the theatre.”