‘Parted Wa­ters’ ex­plores crypto-Jewish iden­tity through a gen­er­a­tional lens

Tempo - - CONTENTS - By Ari­ana Kramer

‘Parted Wa­ters” is a play writ­ten by New Mex­ico play­wright, re­tired physi­cist and sci­ence x, Robert F. Ben­jamin. The play cen­ters around three gen­er­a­tions of a crypto-Jewish fam­ily and ex­plores the cul­tural and his­tor­i­cal con­se­quences of hav­ing this iden­tity.

A staged read­ing, di­rected by Cindy Free­man-Va­le­rio, will be per­formed in Taos by Damien Fer­nan­dez, Cisco Gue­vara, Wil­liam Hall and Mikaela Martínez.

The Taos Jewish Cen­ter presents this spe­cial, live per­for­mance Sunday (April 15) at 2 p.m. Ev­ery­one is wel­come. Ad­mis­sion is $10, but no one will be turned away for lack of funds. Fol­low­ing the staged read­ing, the au­di­ence can talk with the play­wright.

Ben­jamin said his in­ter­est in play­writ­ing has been a call­ing. “I just woke up and said it’s time to do some­thing dif­fer­ent,” he told Tempo. He said he grav­i­tated to­wards play­writ­ing be­cause it’s dif­fi­cult.

“I tend to be the type to take on hard projects,” he said, not­ing that he can only use di­a­logue to move the story along. “That makes it re­ally hard,” Ben­jamin said.

Since quit­ting his “day job” at Los Alamos Na­tional Lab­o­ra­tory in 2004, Ben­jamin has been writ­ing plays.

“I did dab­ble a bit be­fore, in the mid-’90s, but I didn’t get se­ri­ous un­til I quite my day job,” he said.

Ben­jamin was asked to write a play about crypto-Jews in New Mex­ico for the Ari­zona Jewish Theatre

Com­pany. He took on the task as a chal­lenge, and the world pre­miere of “Parted Wa­ters” was pro­duced in March 2009.

“I’m not a crypto-Jew. I’m not Sephardic. I’m a very tra­di­tional Ashke­nazi Jew. So, I had the in­ter­est in Ju­daism but no back­ground in the Sephardic part of it. When I came home and told my wife … she said you don’t know any­thing about crypto-Ju­daism in New Mex­ico … I said I can learn.”

And learn, he did. Ben­jamin read his­to­rian Stan­ley Hordes’ ground­break­ing book “To the Ends of the Earth: A His­tory of the Cryp­toJews of New Mex­ico,” he went to crypto-Jewish con­fer­ences, and he in­ter­viewed peo­ple with a cryp­toJewish back­ground. He also had Hordes come to read­ings of his early scripts and of­fer sug­ges­tions.

Ben­jamin de­cided the best way to tell the story of a crypto-Jewish fam­ily was through the eyes of three gen­er­a­tions. Asked if he iden­ti­fies with his char­ac­ters, Ben­jamin said, “Yes. I iden­tify with all of the char­ac­ters in the play in dif­fer­ent ways.”

“The older guy, Reynaldo, I iden­tify with as an old guy try­ing to leave his legacy in the world. And, then the mid­dle gen­er­a­tion, Javier, I iden­tify with as some­one who has had to sep­a­rate from his fa­ther, so that he can be his own per­son. I iden­tify with the younger guy, Miguel, as some­one who wants to make the world a bet­ter place,” Ben­jamin said.

None of the char­ac­ters in the play are based on real peo­ple. They are all fic­tional although Ben­jamin said he drew char­ac­ter­is­tics from peo­ple he in­ter­viewed.

Ben­jamin said his plays are of­ten cen­tered around themes of iden­tity. He thought it would be in­ter­est­ing to write a play about Amer­i­can Ju­daism from the per­spec­tive of Reynaldo, some­one who prac­tices Ju­daism and lives in Amer­ica, but is not in­volved with main­stream Ju­daism.

The Taos staged read­ing of “Parted Wa­ters” will be di­rected and nar­rated by Cindy Va­le­rio and per­formed by an all-Taos cast: Cisco Gue­vara as Reynaldo, Wil­liam Hall as Javier, Darien Fer­nan­dez as Miguel (who, iron­i­cally, is a politi­cian like Fer­nan­dez), and Mikala Martínez who is Miguel’s cam­paign man­ager.

“I’ve tried to do as hon­est a job as a play­wright as I can do to try to por­tray a crypto-Jewish fam­ily deal­ing with the crypto-Jewish is­sue. I’ve tried to give it my best,” Ben­jamin said. “I have had peo­ple come up to me and say, ‘That is my story.’ I’ve had other peo­ple say, ‘I’m not crypto-Jewish, but that is my story.’ They re­late to the play emo­tion­ally and closely but not be­cause of the crypto-Jewish is­sue. The play is about a fam­ily strug­gling with their her­itage, their iden­tity col­lec­tively, as a fam­ily.”

“The play is writ­ten about cryp­toJu­daism but I be­lieve it’s also about how Amer­i­can Ju­daism sees it­self,” Ben­jamin said. “Amer­i­can Ju­daism has been trou­bled for decades now be­cause it has been in a sense try­ing to re­spond to the Holo­caust but not know­ing how to do that ex­actly. Also, as­sim­i­la­tion has been a big is­sue, and in­ter­faith mar­riage has been a big is­sue in Amer­i­can Ju­daism. So, I’ve tried to touch on all of those themes in a dra­matic way in the play, not to ex­press wis­dom about it … But rather to en­hance the con­ver­sa­tion around those top­ics.”

Ben­jamin has also pro­duced sev­eral full-length plays about ag­ing with grace, courage and hu­mor: “Time Enough,” “Salt and Pep­per,” “Still in the Game” and “Not Quite Right” (co-au­thored). He’s also had read­ings of a sci­ence play, “Galileo’s Foot­steps” and pro­duc­tions of 20 short plays, one of which was adapted into a short film and op­eretta. A Taos read­ing of “Still in the Game” is planned April 29 at Metta Theatre in El Prado.

For more in­for­ma­tion, visit taos­jew­ish­cen­ter.org or call (575) 7588615.


AC­TORS IN THE STAGED read­ing for “Parted Wa­ters” are, from left, Darien Fer­nan­dez, Mikaela Martínez, Cisco Gue­vara, and Wil­liam Hall.

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