A 'Yidlife crisis' and a hit show about Jewish identity

Daniel Cainer on Gefilte Fish and Chips at the Galway Fringe Festival

Daniel Cainer.

Daniel Cainer.

GEFILTE FISH and Chips, the award winning show by theatre maker, songwriter, producer, and broadcaster Daniel Cainer, opens tomorrow in The Cellar Bar, as part of the Galway Fringe Festival.

Smart, funny, timely and only slightly irreverent, the show shares tall tales of family and folklore, of raunchy rabbis, feuding tailors, saucy shenanigans at the local laundrette, growing up, growing old, love, loss, and of celebration, as he brings the characters in his family tree to life.

While inspired by Cainer's own life in a Jewish family, the show, which has already enjoyed success in New York and Edinburgh, features brilliant rhyming and wordplay, great musicianship, and is for anyone who has ever wrestled with their home, heritage, and heart, and who is also partial to bagels.

From England, Cainer has produced music for documentaries and dramas for all major UK networks and written and performed weekly topical songs on LBC, ITV, and BBC radio. His late brother Jonathan was the astrologer for The Daily Mail and Daniel’s son Oscar succeeded him in that role. Over a morning phone interview he tells me how Gefilte Fish and Chips came about.

“It started from a midlife crisis or, as I call it, a Yidlife crisis, in that I rediscovered my roots which I’d had very little interest in previously," he says. "I was going through a difficult divorce and went to a therapist who said I couldn’t look at who I am now without recognising where I had come from. That precipitated it and all this stuff started tumbling out. All these stories were there and I seemed to be a natural storyteller in this context. The stories are all part of my family folklore but everyone recognises their own family in it. I’d emphasise that my show has very little to do with religious practice, it’s more about celebrating Jewish culture and tradition.”

We are all familiar with the figure of the Jewish entertainer from American stage and screen, so I ask Cainer are there any notable differences in being an English Jewish performer?

“I’d say the main difference is our proximity to Europe and the Holocaust,” he replies. “There is always that sense somewhere among Jews in the UK of ‘When are they coming for me?’ whereas in the US there’s more distance and there was more freedom there to be more overt and unashamedly Jewish. There are a lot of Jews in the entertainment industry here but they are less likely to stand up and make their Jewishness part of their act. That is starting to change now though, with people like David Baddiel, and Simon Amstell who is out as being both Jewish and gay.

“I do a lot of work in the US, and New York to some extent is almost a Jewish town, Yiddish is embedded in the language and the phrasing,” Cainer continues. “Their immigrant story is very similar to that of Irish immigrants. I begin the show with a song called ‘God Knows Where’ about that 19th century journey and people find that moving. In New York, a lovely Irish couple in the audience were absolutely bawling at it because it was their story too.”

Cainer’s songs also display an English comic sensibility in the vein of Victoria Wood. “I have been called the Jewish Victoria Wood,” he laughs. “There is that sort of double self; there is self deprecation in the Jewish tradition to which I add to that wry English thing. The Jewish Chronicle newspaper here called me ‘the comic bard of Anglo-Jewry’ a phrase I’d not heard before because I’d had nothing to do with the Jewish world, so I’ve been introducing myself to all these phrases and bits of culture.”

One of Cainer’s songs is ‘Bad Rabbi’ which recounts the tale of a rabbi who indulged in cocaine and prostitutes. “‘Bad Rabbi’ was a true story and was reported in the newspapers,” he reveals. “I had a lot of fun with that because there was a lot of comedy to be found in it. As well as the comedy it’s also about how even the religious pick and choose which bits they want to follow and how they rationalise rejecting the bits they don’t – and that trait isn’t exclusive to Jewish clergy.”

‘Surbiton Washarama’ relates the story of his father’s adulterous affair and his mother’s subsequent elopement with another man. Did he find it difficult penning such a candid song? “That’s always a question when you are writing personal stories, what will the reaction be from the other people you are writing about,” he notes. "My dad has no problem with that song at all and it does touch on the reasons for my parents’ divorce but my mother is not so keen on it. I try and tell the stories without malice and there are certain things in my family which I wouldn’t write about.”

As he delved into his family history were there any surprise discoveries? “One story that surprised me is the one in the song ‘Two Tailors’," he says. "It’s about two immigrant tailors from Hamburg, one of whom was my great-grandfather and the other his friend who came over on the boat with him. There was some double crossing involved and the villain was Montague Burton, founder of the Burton tailoring empire. My great-grandfather refused to hear the name Burton ever spoken in his house. But there were a lot of disgruntled tailors around Leeds and Bradford who were jealous of Burton. Either way it made a good story.”

Cainer has even performed his show in Germany, an experience he describes in ‘There Are No Jews in Recklinghausen’. “It’s like a rotary club town, it has an intact 1930s Albert Speer department store,” he tells me. “They invited me over after seeing my show in Edinburgh. Nowhere in our correspondence/emails did they mention the title of the show so I was wondering were they booking the right guy.

"For them it was considered edgy programming but what was interesting, apart from having a roomful of Germans singing ‘Oy vey!’ at the top of their voices, was because there was no direct reference to the Holocaust a lot of them came up afterwards and said how grateful they were that these were just stories about ordinary people with all their flaws. They get bombarded with holocaust drama and feel terribly guilty all the time, so it was a relief to have a show where that point isn’t laboured, even though it is implicit in the material.”

I conclude by asking if, having started out as a lapsed Jew, his exploration of his roots has deepened his own sense of Jewish identity? “The two have gone hand in hand and also just getting a bit older you start considering religion, like an insurance policy,” he responds wryly. “I suddenly find myself visiting synagogues which I never did before.”

Gefilte Fish and Chips runs at The Cellar Bar from Friday July 21 to Sunday July 30 at 3pm daily. Tickets are €10. See www.galwayfringe.ie

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