INTERVIEW WITH YEHUDA HYMAN - Conducted By Elizabeth Edwards
The play consists of seven individual stories told by seven different storytellers. Is there an overarching theme, or something that ties each of the individual stories together, in this piece?
That’s a tough question because I don’t want people to come in with a lot of preconceived explaining of what this is or isn’t about. Because it’s going to be completely different for every person.
It’s open to many, many interpretations. Through the process of this, I’ve come at each story from a different angle several times. It’s fluid; it’s like water. It’s always changing for me. One day it means something, another day it means something else a little bit. And I think it needs to be that—whenever it gets stuck, it’s dead. You know?
For instance, there are seven beggars. There are seven days of the week. There are seven days of creation in the Torah, the Hebrew scripture. So that’s one way of looking at it—what happened on each of those seven days, what was created, what came into being. That’s one way of encountering the story.
But then the second story, for me, is also connected to the Sephardic experience. The story talks about this magnificent city. Well, in Sephardic culture, there’s the idea of a Golden Age, which was when they lived in Spain before the expulsion of the Jews in 1492. That was a peak, beautiful time, where Jews and Christians and Muslims all lived together and got along. The Jewish population was in a very good situation. And it was lost—they were expelled, they were all forced to leave or convert. Just like the magnificent city in the story is lost. So, that’s another way of encountering the stories—on a historical level.
You can also come from the angle of what happens in the story, and what does each thing mean. Which is interesting, because everything is a symbol for everything else. But then if people get stuck in “okay, what does this symbol mean,” they miss the whole thing. They miss the ride, they get distracted. “What is that, he’s going through a tunnel, what is the tunnel, is that the birth canal, what is going on?” No, it’s just a tunnel. Just go through the tunnel, and we’ll see where we’re going.
I mean, there are certain givens. Like, when we talk about the princess in the story, that’s a given. The princess, which is in the sixth story, is Shechina, which is the feminine aspect of God. And that comes from the Kabbalah. It’s an ancient, ancient part of Judaism, which is interesting, because it’s been left out. We think, “Oh, it’s a male God.” Well, it’s not male, exclusively, there are different aspects of God in Judaism, and that’s one of them, the Shechina. And so when we talk about the princess, that’s the Shechina, the dwelling place of the soul, the beauty of the soul. Okay?
But, on the other hand, when you’re performing the story, you don’t want people to go, “Oh, I don’t know, I don’t feel the Shechina.” Or, “I’m not religious, I’m an atheist, and I can’t bear this.” It’s just a princess; it’s a princess story. Whatever that means to you, is what the meaning is.
Rabbi Nachman himself always said, “Just tell the story.” You know, you tell it as a simple—it’s just a little story. You don’t go, “I’m going to tell you the secret of the universe, you’re going to have a great mystical awakening!” No, I’m just telling you a little story. So I think that’s really, really, really important.
How do you combine your multi-layered sense of this tale, and all its connections to Jewish history and symbolism, with your commitment to simply telling the story in a way that is accessible to people from all different backgrounds?
Well, let’s start at the beginning. The very first story begins, “Once there was a shipwreck.” And in the footnotes it says the shipwreck is the destruction of the second temple in Jerusalem, which starts the Diaspora. And I feel that in my bones. When I say, “Once there was a shipwreck,” I feel three thousand years of dispersion. I just do. It also comes from my family: I never met any of my relatives because they all died in the Holocaust. So, I know about a shipwreck.
And my job as a storyteller is to embody that. When I say “shipwreck,” I have to feel it, what that means, you know? And to an African person it will mean something different; to a person from South America it will mean something different. But if I’m successful, if I’m doing my job, they will feel something.
So, he says “Once there was a shipwreck, and they came to a tower.” So, what is that tower? What do you think that tower is, Elizabeth?
Um… I don’t know, I guess it’s maybe a place of safety?
Uh-huh. Right. So it’s a place of safety. And we all have different places of safety…
You know, it’s interesting… Rabbi Nachman didn’t write any of these stories down—he just told them, and his disciple wrote them down. But he did write down a book of his teachings, called Likutey Moharan. And in the preface it says to be very clear that when Rabbi Nachman is talking, he’s talking about all humanity. He’s not just talking about the Jews; he is talking about all human beings.And I really believe that. I think he was—I guess in modern day, you would say he was a guru. He was very, very smart. And very compassionate for all people. Because none of his stories say, “This was a Jew.” It’s like, “This happened, this old blind man,” or “this man with no hands.” They’re just people.
CONTINUE TO PART III