Of all Jewish prayers, perhaps the best known is the Kaddish, the memorial prayer for the dead. But for the celebrated Hungarian Jewish author, Imre Kertész, who survived Auschwitz and Buchenwald, Kaddish became a way of mourning the child he never had, the child whom he refused to bring into a post-Holocaust world. Now Kertész’s celebrated stream-of-consciousness novel, “Kaddish for an Unborn Child,” has been turned into a one-man play, “Kaddish.” Starring Jake Goodman, it runs this month at the 14th Street Y.
Kertész, who now lives in Berlin, won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2002. “Kaddish for an Unborn Child” was adapted for the stage by Barbara Lanciers; the project stems from her trip to Hungary a decade ago, when she was researching her grandmother’s flight from Budapest at the time of the Soviet occupation in 1944. Lanciers picked up Kertész’s 1990 novel in a bookstore and was instantly hooked by its profound treatment of memory, identity and loss. She premiered the 55-minute play in 2012 at the Baltimore Theatre Project before bringing it to Budapest, where it ran last June.
In an interview, Lanciers, who also directs the play, told The Jewish Week that she was “struck by how raw and how brutally honest the protagonist’s self-exploration was — it was like an inner archeological expedition in which he dealt with questions of survival, responsibility, and the complicity that people have in electing totalitarian dictators like Hitler.”
Like the novel, the play moves toward the protagonist saying Kaddish, a prayer, Lanciers noted, that could be for himself as much as it is for the child who never was. For Kertész, writing is, as literary critics have pointed out, akin to digging his own grave.
Goodman, who is a Jewish educator and LGBT activist, performs the play on a 10-by-10-foot square of dirt, with dozens of bare light bulbs suspended from ropes above his head. He pointed out that while many have argued that the only response to the Holocaust is to bring more life into the world, Kertész refuses to have children in a world in which the Holocaust can happen. Nevertheless, Kertész is “tortured” over that decision, Goodman said. “The play is a ritualistic turning over and over of that question. Only if he can survive that question, can he live life in his own way.”
“Kaddish for an Unborn Child” runs from Friday, Jan. 10 to Monday, Jan. 13 at the 14th Street Y, 344 E. 14th St. Performances are on the 10th at 5 p.m. and 7 p.m.; on the 11th at 11 a.m., 3 p.m., and 9 p.m.; on the 12th at 1 p.m., 4 p.m., and 6 p.m.; and on the 13th at 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. For tickets, $18, call the box office at (800) 838-3006 or visit www.brownpapertickets.com.