This is the second segment of a six-part interview with Yehuda Hyman, writer and performer of IN-Festival Spotlight Production The Mad 7. Read the first segment here. The play is based on “The Seven Beggars,” a story by Hasidic Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, and follows a character named Elliott as he encounters seven storytellers from various regions of the world. Each one shares a mystical story through music and dance, propelling Elliott on a spiritual journey of self-discovery. In the following section, Yehuda discusses the play’s connection to Jewish culture around the world, along with his own relationship to Jewish culture and his history with “The Seven Beggars.“
Why did you choose the specific traditions of dance and culture that are incorporated into The Mad 7?
Well, as I was working on this tale, the “Seven Beggars” tale, I was also at the same time on a journey into my culture, which is Jewish culture. And as part of that investigation I was finding out about different subcultures within the Jewish culture. For instance, the Sephardic Jews, who are descended from the Jews of Spain, have their own language—Ladino—and a rich, rich culture of music and language and customs. And the Jews of Yemen, of Persia, of Ethiopia, of India—very different cultures, very different music.
And so, part of this process has been going in to these different cultures. And they are different, even though the commonality is that we’re all Jewish. But within that circle, it’s very, very diverse—different languages, different ways of worshipping, certainly different music. And it just fascinated me.
And I’m attempting to be very true and very specific, but in the end I hope for the audience that it is just a treat, it’s sort of a magic carpet ride of different cultures. Specifically the music and the dance—that they just can enjoy that. And that I can bring these characters to life, and bring the story that each character is telling to life.
What is your personal connection to Jewish culture, and Jewish mysticism? Is that something you have always been really connected to?
Um, no. I’ve been connected to theater all my life, and through theater I’ve been led on different experiences…I mean, I grew up in a Jewish household, in Los Angeles. I’m a first-generation American; my parents were from Eastern Europe. My father’s family was killed in the Holocaust. So I had a very strong cultural feeling as a Jew, and I did have some religious training. But it’s a pretty common experience for American Jews that you assimilate into the larger culture, which I did. And at a certain point shortly after my Bar Mitzvah I felt very distanced from my identity, and any religious beliefs, and I didn’t even really think about it.
And my main focus was being at first a dancer, and then other things: choreographer, writer. So that was sort of my religion, and my culture—was theater. And then in the mid-80’s, I was hired to do a piece about the Jewish theater troupe in Vilna, Lithuania. It’s called Ghetto. It’s an Israeli play, and it was having its American premiere, and I was hired to be its choreographer. And I was having a lot of trouble because I had never really dwelt in [that world, and] I didn’t know what the language was going to be.
And through [that production I met] Giora Feidman. He’s a world-renowned klezmer clarinetist. And he’s someone who goes into a lot of different cultures—he doesn’t just stay within the Jewish community, he travels. He was a mentor to me. He really woke me up through his music, and started something with me. He forced me to face a side of myself that I hadn’t dealt with, dwelt with, looked at—which is my Jewish soul. That was really the beginning. And it was in the theater. It was in L.A., at the Mark Taper Forum.
So that began my trip. Several years later I went to Israel for the first time, and that was very, very eye-opening for me. That’s where I encountered the diversity of culture within Judaism for the first time. Because American Jews, I don’t know if you know this, but mostly we think of ourselves as Ashkenazi Jews, which is, you know, the culture at large. That’s where “oy vey” and all that, what we think of as Jewish humor, comes from. And that’s really just one part of it.
So in Israel I was exposed to a plethora of other things: Persians, and Moroccans, and Africans, and… It was very mind-expanding for me; it was really intense and great. After I came back from Israel, in the early 90’s, I just knew in my heart that it was time to start exploring this in theater. And that’s when I started.I’d always been intrigued by Hasidic stories. I’d read a few as a child; I always loved them. They’re humorous, they’re unexpected. I thought I would just adapt a few little stories, simple stories… And instead I stumbled on these Nachman stories, which are not simple stories at all. They’re actually very complex. And they were just kind of gifted to me, out of nowhere. And that led me—has led me, is still leading me—on this experience of working with them, and trying to uncover the layers. Uncover the layers to the point where I can simply convey them to somebody else.
What drew you to this particular story, the “Seven Beggars” story?
I had an experience a long time ago, in Israel, in a town called Tzfat, which is way up in the north of Israel. A lot of kabbalists lived there in the sixteenth century. It has this aura of mysticism. And I spent one night there, in a motel, in room number seven, and I just had this idea of seven little stories. And I was speaking of this to a young rabbi, and he said, “Well, what about ‘The Seven Beggars’?”
So I heard about it, and I read it, and I was fascinated. I was drawn, I was confused, I was challenged. I loved it, and I just thought—this is material that I want to work with. And I couldn’t quite grasp it. But in some way, some deep way, it really spoke to me.I remember particularly the story of the two birds, which is the fourth story in the play, and I’m going to do that in the Persian world. And that, I think, was the one, the clincher. So I’m excited about working on that, because that’s one I’ve worked on the least so far, in this whole process. And I know that’s the one that really has some special meaning for me.
This concludes the second section of our six-part interview with Yehuda Hyman, writer and performer of the upcoming IN-Festival’s Spotlight Production, The Mad 7. Stay tuned for part three, in which Yehuda discusses the history of past projects which have contributed to the development of this current piece, and the experience of performing the story as a one-man show.
Posted by Elizabeth Edwards, Literary Intern at McCarter Theatre.