Jewish Chronicles: J-Wire’s review

April 17, 2010 by Lloyd Bradford Syke
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Lloyd Bradford Syke reviews “Jewish Chronicles” for J-Wire – and gives it top marks. Read it here

Cainer performs

Poor old Daniel Cainer. Well, not old. Lower middle-aged. As he puts it, he’s having his midlife kosher crisis. In retrospect, I think I might’ve had mine, years back. I woke up one day and realised one side of my very nuclear family had completely blown-up. They were all dead. Sure, there were a few survivors, in the States. But my father, an only child, had long since passed. As had my grandmother. My grandfather died when I was two. They were Hungarian holocaust survivors who, basically, refused to speak of those days. So I didn’t know their stories. My stories. And I’d had no Jewish upbringing. So I set out on a concerted quest to explore my roots, knowing it’d tell me plenty about who I really am. It’s the world’s slowest epiphany, as it unfolds piece-by-piece. Who knows, one day, I might even be able to answer the question, ‘why am I here?’

Poor old Daniel Cainer. He deserved more your kosher theatresports crowd. But got more your Hakoah club set. By that, I’m not having a go at the cake ‘n’ coffee class. Hell, no! My grandmother could be seen doing laps in the club pool well into her 70s and, even, 80s, as I recall. I’m just saying a Jewdicious mix would’ve been ideal, with a younger demographic skew, and slightly more progressive politico-religious one, p’r’aps, chaps. Atmosphere is everything and it took most of his performance to warm up the conservative gathering. It’s hard to imagine how DC has wooed and wowed Edinburgh, London and the Melbourne International Comedy Festival, as he’s not what you’d call your natural-born performer. He is what you’d call your natural-born writer, composer, musician, singer and sensitive new-age Jewish, as opposed to goy, guy. His deeply-personal, revelatory songs put him, his life, his family and people he has known right out there; unexpurgated, it seems. That’s brave. And the raw, candid, naked authenticity of it has a way of making deep connections. The songs are comic, but don’t go expecting Seinfeld set to music. They’re also touching, tender and affecting. If you’re Jewish, or maybe even if you’re not, you’re likely to run into your relatives in his tunes. The tunes, as has been said, are personal, but the themes universal.

Many years ago, in the heyday of New York advertising, there was a very famous campaign, for Levy’s rye-bread, which ran the slogan, ‘you don’t have to be Jewish (to enjoy Levy’s rye). You don’t have to be Jewish to enjoy or appreciate Cainer’s comedy, or commentary. But it helps! Otherwise you might not get the self-deprecating humour of the waiter serving a group of Jewish women, asking, ‘is anything alright?’ This kind of quintessentially Jewish humour pervades the work and it’s this which makes the work, well, work! We recognise ourselves, or relatives, friends, and others.

I’ll betray my heritage, in complaining the sound production wasn’t up to scratch and the lighting was all over the shop. And a more intimate venue than the flea-bitten vibe of the Bondi Pav was in order. Even its limited capacity was too barn-like for the cabaret-style intimacy of his work. He’s not a ‘big’ performer, he’s an understated one, so he needs closeness. He seemed, astonishingly, nervous, uncomfortable and all at sea (well, the beach is right outside). He has that charming, but often hard-to-understand English propensity for talking way too fast, running words together, and stumbling over them: kind of like one of Colin Firth’s romantic comedy characters.

But his songs and stories are, essentially, brilliant. He shines light in lots of dark corners: family; Israel & Palestine; a coke-dealing, whoring rabbi. But is aim is not to mock, demean or ridicule, but to show that to err is human; to forgive, divine. He makes straightforward appeals to our better, higher natures, and to our hearts, whether in paying homage to his grandparents, or pleading to see the humanity on the other side of the wall, instead of just the propaganda on the more familiar side.

He writes, plays, and sings (beautifully, which goes for his pianism too) with conviction, impeccable comedic timing and sensitivity. There are no cheap shots, no blows below the belt, no stirring for its own sake. He seeks not to be the enfant terrible, but to reflect kindness, tenderness & goodness. Inasmuch, it’s a distinct kind of comic relief. Relief from the cult of cool which has often enveloped, pervaded, or poisoned, that form of entertainment.

His melodies interpolate the traditional: the stirring sound of the shtetl. But don’t be surprised to hear a remarkably Celtic melody. The man has range. And depth. His preparedness to regale with tales from his own life, even ones that might otherwise be seen to embarrass or compromise his relatives, are completely disarming. That he can sing about his father shtooping a woman in the laundrette while he learnt his Hebrew alphabet, without bitterness or malice, is something. he comes across as warm, kind and very, very clever.

The Telegraph (UK) said he has a gift ‘for walking the line between heartbreaking and heartlifting’. That’s pretty true. He has heart. And he reminds us, many time over, that we do too. (Somewhere in there, behind the iPhone, or Blackberry, in the breast-pocket, I suppose.)

Cainer opens with God Knows Where, a heartrending homage to the diaspora, and its scattered-to-the-four winds members, locked in constant struggle, individually and collectively, to discover identity and meaning. This is the quintessential narrative of every Jewish existence. With an almost classically liturgical, and very Ashkenazi melodic sensibility, its melancholy intro segues into ‘my father’s father’s father’s father’s father before him’, in that very phrase paying deep respect to the songlines, oral & written history, culture, pain and joy that is the resonating province of every Jew, and every non-Jew. It’s a fragile piece that stirs the soul.

Tale of Two Tailors is cast from the die of life: real characters well-known to their author. ‘Maurice Green, was fast and mean, with a sewing-machine; there was noone better’. Again, rhythmically and melodically, there’s an intrinsic Jewishness to the song, which goes on to tell of Maurice’s partner’s unforgivable treachery.

Here With Me Tonight could be melodically mistaken for an Irish lament, and its arrangement takes the impression further. Lyrically, however, there’s no mistaking it: ‘if grandpa Isaac could see me, I wonder what he’d say; perhaps he is the voice behind these songs I sing and play’. Does it come any genuinely sweeter?

Despite his apolitical vows, Wrong Side Of The Wall encourages every one of us to question what we’ve been told and the wisdom in dialectic polarities. ‘We’re all human’ might be a cliche, but it’s no less true or poignant as a result. Cainer’s simple appeal, to reason and compassion, is far more powerful and persuasive than the ‘peace process’ itself.

We’ve spoken already of Bad Rabbi, which centres on the tragic fall from grace of Baruch Chalomish. Oi weh!

Surbiton Washarama is tells the story of Cainer’s own childhood: his parents’ respective infidelities, and the earth-shattering effect it must’ve had on him, as a boy. His gentleness in relating it, the absence of resentment, is astonishing. He ekes out all the sadness, desperation, disappointment, disillusionment, heartache, and even pragmatism, in losing one’s father and gaining a stepfather overnight.

Doing The Best I Can is a finger-snappin’ ode to his ex-wife; another lengthy narrative told with disarming generosity and and amazing self-awareness.

Jewish Man opens with a pseudo-classical piano refrain reminiscent of Barry Manilow and is another testament to Cainer’s considerable capacity for introspection: ‘I am a Jewish man, my skin and bones, my chromosomes; ‘though I don’t choose to be, one of those Jews you see, every Saturday morning, in their Shabbos best’.

How We’re Blessed opens with klezmer-style clarinets and, for a secular Jew especially, exhibits a profound quotient of spirituality and a deep respect for God & Torah urging consideration of ‘the light that guides you’. In terms of examining & embracing the totality of the human condition, with humour, courage and empathy, Daniel Cainer is pretty illuminating in his own right.

The “Jewish Chronicles” show will be performed this evening [Saturday] at Bondi Pavilion at 8:00 p.m.

The final two performances are tomorrow Sunday at 5:00 p.m.and 7:30p.m.


2 Responses to “Jewish Chronicles: J-Wire’s review”
  1. Natalie Shulman says:

    Sounds like an interesting show, not to be missed.

    Great piece of writing, Lloyd! Worthy of a wider audience, perhpas more international.

    Natalie Shulman.

  2. David Cainer says:

    I should like to thank Lloyd Bradford Syke for his astute, perceptive, well-written, complimentary comments on Daniel Cainer’s show. It is a credit to Australian journalism.
    Best wishes
    David Cainer (Daniel Cainer’s dear old Dad)

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