We Keep Coming Back, which will play at this year’s Ashkenaz Festival is a theatrical production about a real-life mother and son, Mary Berchard and Michael Rubenfeld, descendants of Polish Holocaust survivors, who traveled to Poland to reconnect with family history, Jewish identity and one another. Yet, though they expected their quest to be challenging they were not prepared to find a thriving contemporary Jewish culture in Poland. Nor did they have any inkling that there were Poles who were also seeking to rediscover their lost Jewish identities.
Upon learning that there were diverse narratives about Jewish-Polish identity to explore, Berchard and Rubenfeld decided to invite a Polish counterpart to join them on their expedition. They found Katka Reszke. She found them. Their stories intersected and a co-creation was seeded.
The fourth key player on this odyssey was Sarah Garton Stanley, Rubenfeld’s friend and colleague, who came to Poland to help document Berchard and Rubenfeld’s story and who directed the play.
Now a U.S.-based writer, researcher and filmmaker, Reszke’s story provides insight into a search for Jewish selfhood that is less familiar in North America.
Reszke says her relationship with Judaism began with a hunch. She doesn’t know where it came from. It seemed irrational and was not based on any solid memories.
In the early 1990s, Reszke, a 15-year-old Catholic Polish girl began to think she might be Jewish. She only had sketchy memories related to her great-grandmother and to her mother on which to base her hunch. Reluctant to broach the subject because it was based on premonition, she finally did ask family members, “If I was by any chance Jewish.” All replies were, “No.”
It wasn’t until her last years of high school that she met young people who were members of the Jewish community of Wroclaw, her hometown. Reszke says that she felt the only difference between them and her was that they knew they were Jewish and she guessed that she was. She couldn’t let go of that belief.
Her family thought she was crazy, recalls Reszke. They couldn’t fathom why she wanted to take on Judaism when she didn’t have to.
However, Reszke discovered other Poles her age who were having similar experiences. The 1990s was a time when there was a growing interest in Poland about Jews and life before World War II. Perhaps the fall of communism in Poland in 1989 had something to do with this. Reszke conjectures that she and her contemporaries might have sensed that they were Jewish because there may have been many more “secret” Jews in Poland than was suspected. Ultimately, she and a few of her friends decided to go through conversion “to get a certificate of authenticity.”
Soon after, she ended up in Israel. While there she discovered an opportunity to do a PhD in Jerusalem. Her masters degree was in Jewish studies. She did a PhD in Jewish education. After five years in Israel, she “almost accidentally” landed in New York City, where she lived for eight years. Now she lives in Boston.
“I don’t tell people I’m a convert,” Reszke states. “I say I have this messy family history, which is true.”
About two decades after that life- changing hunch landed in her consciousness, Reszke’s mother revealed that she was Jewish. This was in 2013. Her mother claimed that she didn’t disclose her knowledge earlier because it was a secret told to her by her grandmother on her deathbed. Her grandmother asked her not to speak of this as long as her daughter, Katka Reszke’s grandmother, was still alive. Ironically, this encounter occurred shortly after Reszke’s book Return of the Jew was published.
Regarding We Keep Coming Back, Reszke claims that connecting with Berchard and Rubenfeld was meant to be.
Her amazing story is the background to the narratives Reszke contributes to the play. The production incorporates video footage, archival material and music. Reszke says the show has not been scripted. Rather, each performance is to some degree improvised. The four co-creators took a “phenomenological” approach to play creation. In other words, the work is an enactment of experience.
The performance is on Sept. 3 at 8:30 p.m. at Harbourfront’s Studio Theatre. For tickets visit harbourfrontcentre.com. It will be followed by a talkback with the cast in the Marilyn Brewer Community Gallery at 10 p.m.