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What It Means to Never Forget

With 'The Gathering,' author and star face hard questions about their Jewish roots.

February 04, 2001|ELAINE DUTKA | Elaine Dutka is a Times staff writer

As a child growing up in the Bronx, Harold Lipshitz dreamed of becoming a big-band leader. After receiving his high school diploma, he decided to change his name.

"Swing and sway with Harold Lipshitz just didn't parse," Hal Linden explains, flashing a rueful smile.

A half-century later, Linden is again confronting issues of identity and assimilation in "The Gathering," a play by Arje Shaw that explores the relationship of a Holocaust survivor to his son, grandson--and to his traumatic past. A critical and box office hit when it ran off-Broadway last year, it opened at the Wadsworth Theatre on Saturday night before a Broadway run.

"The Gathering" revolves around Linden's character, Gabe, a Jew who fled Germany during Hitler's Third Reich. The play is set in 1985, the year of Ronald Reagan's controversial trip to Bitburg, where Nazi SS troops are buried. Stuart (Sam Guncler), Gabe's son, is an ultra-assimilated presidential speech writer helping to orchestrate the visit. Gabe pleads with him to rethink his ways and to encourage Reagan to do likewise. He and his grandson, Michael (Adam Rose), fly to Bitburg, where he conducts the youngster's bar mitzvah as a form of personal protest.

There they encounter a young German security guard (Coleman Zeigen) who raises the question of collective guilt. "Ten years in a thousand of Goethe, Beethoven, Heine, Rilke, Freud, Einstein, and all we're remembered for is murder! Innocent generations contaminated for eternity."

The role of Gabe, says Linden, is a natural fit. He was raised by an ardent Zionist who lost relatives to the Nazis. And the 69-year-old actor is national spokesman for the Jewish National Fund, a group dedicated to preserving and developing the land of Israel. In his mind, "The Gathering" is less about the Holocaust than about integrating it into one's life. The challenge, Linden says, is keeping memory alive without becoming consumed.

"When does holding on become self-destructive?" asks the actor, who studied acting after his return from the Korean War and made his Los Angeles theater debut in "Bells Are Ringing" in 1958. "Some Holocaust survivors, like some American blacks, have become professional victims. There is no 'forgive and forget,' of course. But when does it all stop?"

For the playwright, the project provided insight into a man he revered--and feared.

"I'd never thought about my father's losses--I was too busy living my life," says Shaw, 59. "He was a quiet man with impulsive rage. I called him the John Wayne of Poland."

Shaw wrote "The Gathering" during his off hours, relying on his day job as executive director of a Jewish community center in central New Jersey to pay the bills. His father, like Linden's character, is named Gabe--a man who fled Nazi-controlled Poland, where his mother and sister later perished. For Shaw, "The Gathering" was not only a creative outlet but literary psychotherapy.

"In my 40s, I was unhappy with myself, unable to deal with criticism or stress, convinced that I'd inherited my father's craziness," he says. "Writing this play helped me work out these issues and made me a more compassionate person."

When "The Gathering" premiered in May at Manhattan's Playhouse 91, home of the Jewish Repertory Theatre, the three-week run was extended through mid-October. "A thoughtful and provocative new play filled with humor and warmth," said the New York Times. "Worthy, engaging and potent theater."

Theodore Bikel played the lead during the New York engagement. Touring as Tevye in "Fiddler on the Roof" precluded his staying on.

"Theo, who escaped from Austria during the war, dug deep," Shaw says. "He was the embodiment of the burden, giving expression to what he'd lived. As an American Jew, Hal gives the dialogue a more external spin. But, as a musician--a talented clarinetist who still performs publicly--he makes my words sing."

*

Shaw always identified as a "displaced person," spending much of his life in search of himself.

Born in the Soviet city of Tashkent, Uzbekistan, in 1941, he battled starvation as a child. After the war, his family spent three years in a German refugee center before heading for New York's Lower East Side in 1949. The Szaijbowicz family lived in an $18-a-month, sixth-floor walk-up, sharing a bathroom with four other families. Tired of spelling their surname, they eventually became the Shaws.

Shaw met his wife, Esther, at Brooklyn College and they married in 1965. Both worked in Jewish community organizations before buying a kosher catering business. That purchase became inspiration for Shaw's first play, "A Catered Affair" (1986). Gussie, a Jewish caterer, falls in love with an Italian headwaiter--and both of them are married. Told from a woman's perspective, it's about surviving in a man's world.

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