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James Inverne

Jewish resonances of Broadway’s ‘Lempicka’

Sometimes a show will strike a chord with you, and sometimes, that chord is uncomfortable, if not atonal. In New York, I was recently invited by a producer friend to see the new show she has brought to Broadway – Lempicka, written by Carson Kreitzer and Matt Gould, and directed by Rachel Chavkin. About the (thus far) too-little-known life of the iconic and fascinating artist Tamara de Lempicka, I expected it to be a pleasant bit of escapism from the relentless stress, surely shared by all Israelis and most Jews worldwide, after 7th October.

Since I caught a preview, I mustn’t talk too much about the show, except to marvel once again at the way theatre can crystallise and present to us, in a profound way, how we are feeling. How I am feeling – how so many of us are feeling – is, still, almost exactly how I was feeling on October 7th, at about 3pm, when my family and I arrived back home in central Israel, after the scariest car journey of our lives. It was nothing, of course, compared to the horrors of what was happening in the area around Gaza; we were on a one-night holiday in the north, and as news of the invasion was filtering through, we merely had to drive for a few hours back home. That’s all. We drove steadily, keeping one eye on the roads for gunmen, one eye on the sky for rockets, the radio tuned to an easy flow of favourite pop hits to keep the kids as relaxed as possible. Things really hit me when we reached our destination, in our nice, safe city, and pulled into our nice, safe underground car park – as always I went to drive forward into our space, and a family member asked me to reverse park. “Why?” I asked, slightly irritably. She looked at me in earnest – “In case we need to get out quickly.”

That floored me. This person, one of the bravest people I know, actually feared that we were at imminent risk of Hamas terrorists pouring into our nice, safe city. And the worst thing was, she was right. And that is quite some realisation to have.

So, watching Lempicka, without giving too much away, there is a particular section of the show that suddenly caught me – bearing in mind that Lempicka was both of Jewish heritage and bisexual in Europe in the 1930’s, her famous phrase that “I live life in the margins of society, and the rules of normal society don’t apply to those who live on the fringe” was never going to be true under the growing shadow of the Third Reich. As I watched her story, I felt for a moment right back there, in that car, feeling that punch in the gut.

It feels cliched to write this, but it doesn’t feel cliched to feel it, that Jews across the ages have faced that reality. Tamara de Lempicka felt it in the Thirties. The Jews who fled Spain and Portugal in the wake of the Inquisition felt it. My great grandparents felt it as they escaped Poland for the UK. Jewish talk show host Jerry Springer felt it, for heaven’s sake, in that famous to-camera piece he once did where he spoke about his father refusing to part with his car even when Springer senior was too old to safely drive – “He said it was in case we ever need to get away” confessed his son to the camera, his voice breaking.

And we feel that worry in Israel now, of course we do, even six months on. Our voices are also breaking, our chests are tight, our instincts threaten to veer as much to flight as to fight. But those Jews of earlier eras did not have the state of Israel, and Israel was created to protect its citizens (non-Jews as well, of course). And if we fly from here, where do we fly from next? And where the heck would we fly to?

Theatre reflects, and it questions. It doesn’t promise easy answers, or any answers. Lempicka found her own. So must we all.

About the Author
James Inverne is a playwright, cultural critic and the author of The Faber Pocket Guide To Musicals. He was formerly the editor of Gramophone Magazine, and performing arts correspondent for Time Magazine. He has written for many publications including the Financial Times, Wall Street Journal and Sunday Telegraph, and published five books. His play "A Walk With Mr. Heifetz" was premiered Off-Broadway.
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