A white-haired woman standing with one arm raised as three figures in all black and stern expression stand behind her on chairs
Naomi Newman as The Poet in Between Worlds. Credit: Vaschelle Andre

After casting Naomi Newman in the widely watched online 2021 production of Sholem Asch’s God of Vengeance, the Yiddish Theatre Ensemble approached the renowned nonagenarian actor about performing in another vintage Yiddish production. “I was not interested,” said Newman, 92, co-founder of the Bay Area’s A Traveling Jewish Theatre, which shuttered in 2011 after 35 years.

The Marin resident had a much more ambitious project in mind, a work based on the life and poetry of child Holocaust survivor and lesbian Jewish activist Irena Klepfisz. She wasn’t just looking to act in the new play; she was going to create it from Klepfisz’s work. “I performed one poem of hers for them, they loved it and said yes,” she said. “I’ve been working on it for close to two years.”

The Yiddish Theater Ensemble presents the premiere of Newman’s Between Worlds at Live Oak Theatre next week. Directed and choreographed by Berkeley resident Bruce Bierman, the play also features Aviya Hernstadt, Diana Bukowska, and Ariel Luckey. Episodically biographical, Between Worlds traces Klepfisz’s extraordinary life from the time she was smuggled out of the Warsaw Ghetto before the uprising led by her father, who perished in the desperate fight against the Nazis. 

Toggling between English and Yiddish, which the actors immediately translate, the play “is told in her words with her poetry,” Newman said. “It has the flow of what went on in her life. Her father remains the unknown but totally present figure in her life, because he became a hero and she wants to know more about him. It really is the story of someone living a dreadful horrific trauma as a child, and having the good fortune of staying alive with her mother, coming to America and living a good life.”

Between Worlds, Live Oak Theatre. Wednesday-Sunday, Aug. 16-20. $30

Freelancer Andrew Gilbert writes a weekly music column for Berkeleyside. Andy, who was born and raised in Los Angeles, covers a wide range of musical cultures, from Brazil and Mali to India and Ireland....