Even before the first performance of “Last Jew in Europe,” the Jewish Theater of New York’s play penned by Tuvia Tenenbom, the show already had people up in arms. Citing the tragicomedy’s use of photographs of antisemitic graffiti purportedly shot on the streets of Lodz, the Polish Embassy said the pictures could turn American Jews against Poles. The embassy even suggested that the wall-art was actually created by theater staffers.
Yet despite the controversy — which has since heated up with the alleged refusal of The New York Times to assign a reviewer to see the show — the house has had few empty seats.
The production, which had its first performance March 4 at The Triad theater on New York City’s Upper West Side, tells the tale of Jews living closeted existences in present-day Lodz, Poland, where antisemitism is rampant. Shortly before opening, The Jewish Theater received a letter from Piotr Erenfeicht of the Embassy of the Republic of Poland, denouncing the play’s use of images of antisemitic graffiti that adorn the walls of many of the buildings in Poland’s second largest city. Erenfeicht accused the theater of engaging in activities that “may be viewed as racist.” He criticized the show, saying that the materials “may lead to ethnic hatred… towards the Polish people.”
“It’s just ridiculous,” said Tenenbom, who also co-directs the play, along with German director Andreas Robertz. “I don’t even know how the Polish Embassy heard about the show, but their behavior was shockingly childish.”
Tenenbom responded with an open letter in which he stated that he was “honestly baffled” that “a foreign embassy would find it necessary to get involved in the affairs of an American theater company.” He continued: “American Jews, just like any other mature group of people, have their own brains and are surely mentally capable to draw conclusions on their own.”
Aleksandra Popov, a Serbian actress currently starring in “Last Jew,” said that she and her castmates were surprised by the hoopla surrounding their show, but they were nonetheless pleased that “Last Jew” was getting noticed. “Even though it’s theater of the absurd, it definitely touches on the truth,” she said. “[Antisemitism] is strong in many parts of the world, and it’s good to use art to teach people that today this sentiment exists in Europe but tomorrow, it could exist here.”
Tenenbom claims that after the theater received Erenfeicht’s letter, he called New York Times drama desk editor Rick Lyman and asked him to send a reviewer to the show; however, Tenenbom was told that not only did none of the newspaper’s critics want to come, but the paper also wouldn’t send reviewers to any future Jewish Theater productions. “That was shocking to me,” Tenenbom said. “I couldn’t believe the Times would refuse to review the show. It’s bizarre.”
The theater issued a statement calling for Lyman’s dismissal, saying that it hoped the Times “would rise to the occasion and either fire Mr. Lyman or revoke his boycott of our show immediately.”
In response, New York Times culture editor Sam Sifton said the paper has “by no means decided not to review shows put on by the Jewish Theater of New York. Instead, we are adopting the same policy that we use when evaluating which books to review, or musical performances (or recordings), or art shows, or restaurants. There’s simply no room for them all. And in this instance the editors have decided to take a pass.”
The Jewish Theater is no stranger to controversy. Last year, Tenenbom’s play “Kabbalah” unleashed the ire of shock-jock Howard Stern when his daughter, Emily Stern, appeared nude in the show. The younger Stern eventually caved in to pressure from her father to bow out of the production, causing it to close a month early.
But while this latest hullabaloo is utterly confounding to Tenenbom, who founded The Jewish Theater in 1994, he said he’s happy that people are talking about the show “because it means that theater can be a social force — it can do something.”
Leah Hochbaum is a freelance writer living in New York.