Exiled from their land for more than 350 years, English Jews have always led a somewhat marginalized existence, even though many of the have risen to positions of great prominence and prestige. In Daniel Cainer’s one-man show, “Jewish Chronicles,” the contradictions of Jewish life in England come both bruisingly and enchantingly to the fore. When he performed in Sydney, Australia, in 2010, critic Lloyd Bradford of Australian Stage Online found that Cainer’s songs forge “deep connections” between his own chaotic personal experiences and the colorful life of his people. “Jewish Chronicles” opens downtown in early October for a five-and-a-half-week run.
Cainer, who has been called the “comic bard of Anglo Jewry,” grew up in an observant Jewish family in southwestern London. His parents’ marriage ended after his father was caught in bed with a non-Jewish woman whom he met at the laundress (laundromat). Cainer studied English at University College in London and gravitated away from Judaism, and then became a songwriter and moved to Los Angeles. After returning to the U.K. and having an unsuccessful marriage, he rediscovered his Jewish roots and started writing autobiographical songs, many of which feature his family.
And what a rich family history he has. Cainer’s great-grandfather accused his partner of stealing from him the idea — which became a gold mine — of making fly-front pants with concealed buttons. His mother’s sister woke up speaking in tongues and joined a Christian cult, despite the local rabbi’s efforts to bring her back into the fold. More recently, a millionaire Manchester rabbi, Baruch Chalomish (no relation to Cainer’s family), traded cocaine for sex with prostitutes. None escapes Cainer’s wry, knowing, warm-hearted and tuneful satire.
In a phone interview from his home in London, Cainer told The Jewish Week that Jews in England “still keep their head below the parapet. It’s not like in America, where Jews are loud and proud. We’re constantly looking over our shoulder, no matter how cosmopolitan our environment may be.” When he performed at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival over the summer, the war in Gaza and the ongoing anti-Israel demonstrations made him acutely uncomfortable whenever anyone asked him the name of his show. “I would cough over the word ‘Jewish,’” he admitted.
Cainer’s exploits the comic possibilities of many facets of Jewish life; he has particular fun with Cockney rhyming slang for Yid, coming up with “slippery Sid,” “dust-bin lid,” and “front-wheel-skid.” But at its base, Cainer believes that the show is applicable to all groups, not just to Jews. “It’s about the human condition,” he observed, “and about the need for a place to belong.”
“Jewish Chronicles” opens on Wednesday, Oct 8 and runs through Sunday, Nov. 16 at Soho Playhouse, 15 Vandam St. Performances are Wednesdays at 3 p.m., Saturdays at 3 p.m., Sundays at 5 p.m., and Mondays at 7:30 p.m. For tickets, $45, call the box office at (212) 691-1555 or visit www.sohoplayhouse.com.