Michael Wex says if you can’t take lewd humour, Lilith isn’t the show for you.
LILITH, THE NIGHT DEMON IN ONE LEWD ACT by Joshua Horowitz. Presented by Ashkenaz Festival at Harbourfront Centre Theatre (231 Queens Quay West). Monday (September 1) at 6 pm. $25, advance $22. 416-973-4000, ashkenazfestival.com
You know about Adam and Eve. But how about Adam's earlier partner, Lilith, who wanted nothing to do with the first man?
Lilith, The Night Demon In One Lewd Act talks about her origins and transformation into a demon who torments men's nocturnal dreams.
Writer Joshua Horowitz's bawdy tale has been turned into a chamber folk opera by Veretski Pass, a Jewish folk trio that includes Horowitz, Cookie Segelstein and Stuart Brotman. Performed at this year's Ashkenaz Festival, it's narrated by Michael Wex and features Anthony Russell as the randy first man and Heather Klein as the recalcitrant Lilith, backed by a 16-member choir.
"Lilith is a figure they don't talk about in the art school guide to being Jewish," says Wex, author of Jewish-themed books such as Born To Kvetch and How To Be A Mentsh. "In fact, the whole Lilith thing isn't usually invoked in any public discourse about Judaism.
"What Joshua's created, using folkloric material, is a spin on Lilith, who refused to be under Adam's control. She turns into a demon and in this version flies off to the Red Sea, where she steals sleeping men's semen and creates demon babies before killing the infants. A negotiation with three angels leads to an alteration of her actions."
Recent feminist scholars view Lilith as a proto-feminist who knows her own mind and stands up for herself. But in this piece it's her demonic aspect that's central.
Wex stresses the difference between Christian and Jewish demons. The former, he points out, are "initially good guys like Lucifer who do something wrong and are punished for their misdeeds. But most Jewish demons are created by God to do their jobs, whether they like it or not. In Jewish folklore, Satan is a government bureaucrat who wishes he had something else to do."
Lilith, says Wex, is an exception. Created for Adam, she turns into a terrifying creature who is responsible for three things: infant mortality, women's death in childbirth and the stealing of men's nocturnal emissions.
"Those were good reasons to be scared of her, and women who were lying in relied on amulets and incantations to keep her away from them and their newborns."
Told in English, Yiddish and Hebrew (there are surtitles for non-speakers), the piece is bawdy, and workshops in San Francisco proved that it's also very funny.
"There was real trepidation on my part to present something this overtly sexual to potentially conservative Jewish audiences," admits Wex. "I thought the language would cause some people to say ‘Feh' and walk out. Instead, the reaction was really positive, with a lot of outrageous, prolonged laughter.
"One of the highlights is a series of alternating insults between Adam and Lilith that goes on for three or four pages. It's a mixture of standard Yiddish curses (‘All your teeth should fall out except one that gives you a toothache') and sexual insults that Joshua came up with on his own (‘You can beg all you want for what your ding-dong requires, but this bearded clam is shut for hire')."
The music, performed by Veretski Pass, includes some recognizably Jewish melodies as well as modernist tunes, though nothing in the score is atonal. Wex, who's known the musicians for years, describes the piece as an oratorio rather than a full-fledged opera, its music "heavily string-oriented, almost in a country idiom, and different from the trumpet and clarinet loudness you often hear in klezmer tunes."
The narrator concedes that "if you have no tolerance for ribald humour and bawdiness, this isn't the show for you.
"It won't conjure up memories of your bubbe - unless your bubbe was very different from the traditional type."