“Old New Year” Young Russians, Lost And Found In Harlem

April 20, 2017

Looking up at the lit-up windows of apartment buildings and picturing the lives within is part of the New York imagination. The Russian Jews in the new play “Old New Year” project their views of typical urban lives in full color.

The play, created by the theater collective Lost & Found, has its premiere on April 26 in an East Harlem space being used as a theater for the first time. (It runs through May 13, 345 E. 104th St., [212] 213-2120, nytf.org.)

The play is presented in English and Russian by the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene, produced and curated by Anya Zicer, written in English by Boris Zilberman and directed by Israeli actor and director Gera Sandler.

The play’s title refers to the Jan. 13 celebration of the New Year in Slavic tradition, 10 days after the widespread celebration of New Year’s Eve. Probing questions of multidimensional identity, the play intertwines ideas about building new lives amidst old hopes.

In a joint interview, Zicer and Zilberman discuss the experimental company’s fifth production — without giving too much away — and the younger generation of Russian Jews they are depicting.

“We haven’t been exposed to Jewish tradition. All we have are stories and culture,” Zicer says. The founder of Lost & Found, Zicer moved with her family from St. Petersburg to Israel when she was 2, and came here as an emissary for Birthright almost a decade ago.

She and all members of Lost & Found are professionally trained actors, who either came to New York from Russia or were born to Russian-speaking parents.

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All of their work has been created as “verbatim theater,” a kind of documentary in which the spoken words of people interviewed in connection with the themes of the show are mined. Company members collect stories and characters, and Zilberman crafts them into a theater piece. Born in Kiev, he came to New York when he was 6.

“We are telling our own story in a way we hope is universal,” Zilberman says.

“Russian Jews don’t perceive of ourselves as immigrants anymore,” Zicer says, emphasizing that they continue to ponder their identity. “We are a product of the last generation that were immigrants. We are proud individuals who have a very rich culture to pass on. We didn’t make the choice of going anywhere. We have no choice but we live in it.”

Zilberman adds, “We are living out the consequences of our parents’ choice to come to New York.”

The unrelated strangers in the play are all looking for something better in their lives, propelled by dreams of moving ahead and slowed down by fears. One of the many strands woven into the play is a lab of happiness, where a mysterious benefactor offers to create happiness for the others, guiding the fates of those who sometimes feel hopeless – at a cost.

“One thing we knew was that the show had be raw, big, impactful,” says Boris Zilberman, who wrote the show. “Because the daily discourse of people on Facebook and other social networks is already so raw and powerful. We are telling our own story in a way we hope is universal.”

Zicer explains that they chose the theater space in East Harlem in part for its location outside of the Russian pockets of the city. “We try to engage people who are not engaged. A lot of our audience is unaffiliated young millennials, exploring their Russian Jewishness,” she says, and they seek a wider audience as well.

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