A young refugee from Chervenkov‘s Bulgaria, Ovadia grew up in a Milan where refugee camps had to be set up for Jews fleeing post-war Austria. As a naturalized Italian Jewish youth, Ovadia was fully aware of how post-war Europe spawned all sorts of peculiar fascinations with pre-war Jewish life. Ovadia himself “discovered” Yiddishkayt in the 1970s, delving deeply into the music and folklore of 19th century Eastern European Jews. From there he began to perform this newfound Ashkenaziness with a clever, bizarre critique of contemporary European culture’s relationship to the Jew. As Vered Zaykovsky reports in recent article in Eretz Acheret:
“Look”, he says to me, “people in the West are now complaining about the Jew with the weapons, the Jew that shoots and then slips away, but the other Jew, I tell them – you murdered that Jew! So you got what you wanted! If you would have left that Jew alone, he would have remained the way he was, he was better off the way he was… That Jew, the pale, scrawny Jew with the big nose, the Nazi-propaganda Jew, he was destroyed due to a lack of understanding, no one really knew him and everyone told ugly lies about him. He was too fine a person for this world.”
At the same time, Ovadia represents his people, providing Europeans the opportunity to see those they once dehumanized as dynamic and full human beings filled with creative energy and religious fervor.
“One day”, says Ovadia, “the wife of the Chabad rabbi of Milan called me. ‘I wouldn’t change one iota of this show’, she told me. ‘This is by no means an Orthodox play, but it helped the people who work with our school to better understand us. In just two hours, this show accomplished what we have not been able to accomplish in two months: it clarifies who we are, where we came from, why and how.’”
In a sense, the European context allows for Jewish cultural activism like Ovadia’s to reach a wide non-Jewish audience, something to which so many of our young artists strive. Eretz Acheret, an Israeli publication available in Hebrew and English, has some new, amazing reportage and essay regarding European Jewish affairs. The diversity and competency is a breath of fresh air in a Jewish media culture that fails to raise promote the vanguard. Bless up to Shlonsky.