‘Dybbuk’ at DePaul: Classic play looks at spiritual and real life

A scene from 'A Dybbuk or Between Two Worlds.'

By Ellen Braunstein, Special to Chicago Jewish News

Jeremy Aluma, director of ‘A Dybbuk or Between Two Worlds,’ at DePaul University, said the play is not just about a shtetl in 1880s Poland. He wanted to share the stories of all types of Jews in this college theater production that continues through Feb. 24.

In all, 20 actors are playing close to 50 roles. There is also a three-person klezmer band scoring this Jewish folklore play about a malevolent wandering spirt that enters the body of a living person until exorcised.

“The play is natural and supernatural. There are a lot of themes going on,” Aluma said. “On a cultural level, it matched morality issues that I’m interested in in the world.”

‘A Dybbuk or Between Two Worlds’ was adapted by Tony Kushner and translated from Yiddish by Joachim Neugroschel. It tells the story of a young Chasid named Chonen who uses dark spiritual forces to thwart the wedding plans of his true love Leah. Her body becomes possessed. Jewish law and spiritual law are at odds in this Kabbalistic ghost story that tackles the meaning of death.

The play is by S. Ansky, authored between 1913 and 1916. It was originally written in Russian and later translated into Yiddish by Ansky himself. ‘Dybbuk’ had its world premiere in that language performed by the Vilna Troupe in Warsaw in 1920.

According to Rebbecca Galkin, dramaturg for the DePaul production, the play is “encapsulated in destruction. Yet every character in our play fights for something: love; freedom; joy; understanding. Though their faith may be shaken at times, they righteously move forward. ‘Dybbuk’ is a reminder of our strength. It is a story of resilience—and with anti-Semitism rising at alarming rates—we must be strong.”

Aluma cast the play inclusively, using black actors for example, to demonstrate a story about the struggle of the Jewish people as a whole – an eternal struggle. Aluma’s grandparents were born in Iraq. They fled Baghdad in the 1930s at a time when Jews were publicly hanged. His family goes back to the Babylonian era. His mother is an Ashkenazi Jew, born and raised in New York, third generation American. Her ancestors came from Austria and Poland. “Their culture, customs and way of practicing Judaism were vastly different. That’s because Jews come from everywhere.”

 “The question is do I only cast white looking actors because it takes place in an Ashkenazi world. I am interested in our people as a whole, what it means to be a Jew, not just one segment.”

Aluma has been in Chicago for three years. His wife Jazmine converted to Judaism and is a staff writer for the Kabbalah Center, a national Jewish organization.

Combining Judaism with the theater “gives me a feeling of spirituality and wholeness. Both try to reflect our world and make it better. I feel blessed to tell a story that says, be able to love who we want to. It makes me a better Jew.”

‘A Dybbuk or Between Two Worlds’ will be performed Feb. 15 to 24 at the Watts Theatre in the Theatre School at DePaul University, 2350 N. Racine, Chicago. For tickets, call (773) 325-7900 or go to theatre.depaul.edu.

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