Savyon Liebrecht’s Beautiful I’M SPEAKING TO YOU CHINESE

from Kristin Brey

One of the most important survival skills we have adapted as comprehensive thinking and feeling beings is the innate ability to “cope”. The psychological definition of coping is the process of managing taxing circumstances, expending effort to solve personal and interpersonal problems, and seeking “to master, minimize, reduce or tolerate stress”. I came away from Monday night’s reading of “I’m speaking to you Chinese” feeling as though it was an honest reflection of the numerous ways in which humans “cope” with their own tragedies and heartaches.

Whether is was memories of the holocaust, feuding family members, racism, or unattainable love, we watched each character seek a way to minimize their own pain and attempt to live the best life they could. Martha coped by remembering the dead; Carola coped by imagining lavish fantasies, Avraham coped by turning to communist politics; Mireleh coped by running away from her family; and Shimon coped by adopting a sick woman who had only ever been a cold bitter racist towards him.

It is too obvious and simplistic of a statement to say that in this play the characters’ humanity was portrayed through their coping. The concept in this play that I really think highlighted each characters’ humanity was that almost every character’s method of coping led them to behave in less than admirable ways. While I could sympathize with each character, I found it hard to really like any of them, besides Shimon. I found Martha to be miserably negative; Carola to be charismatically self-serving and Avraham to be timidly accommodating. Mireleh as a young woman was easier to have sympathy for since she was only a teenager, but an older Miri was also burdened with enough sadness to create a tainted woman with less than desirable coping mechanisms.

When the theme of “coping” really came to fruition for me though, was when Shimon, the Iraqi real estate agent explained his side of the story. He explained how Miri’s family and their home seemed like paradise. How he was in love with Mireleh. How her and her mother’s racism had made him feel less than them. How he adopted Martha after Avraham died and Mireleh ran away. His monologue at the end of the play served as such a prominent reminder of how, through our coping, we get wrapped up in the reality we create for ourselves and forget to acknowledge other people’s realities. It is hard to get past tragedy and pain, but I felt that this show played as a good reminder to not let our pain and our coping to consume the rest of our lives.


16 thoughts on “Savyon Liebrecht’s Beautiful I’M SPEAKING TO YOU CHINESE

  1. I thought that the reading of I’m Speaking to you Chinese was the best reading that I have been to so far. I thought that being at the embassy brought extra meaning to a play about two holocaust survivors and how they embraced life after the war. I felt myself connecting to Mirelah both as a young girl and as an older woman 20 years later. I think that she was always trying to connect with people but because her mother was closed off, she never really knew how to bond with her and this translated to other people in the play, especially Shimon at the end.

    I also felt myself being sympathetic to the mother, Martha, which I don’t think is a very popular reaction. She and her sister Carola dealt with being holocaust survivers in very different ways. Carola blocked it from her mind while all Martha did was remember. I found myself saddened by Martha’s view of the world and her obvious sadness after loosing most of her family. I thought that this was hindering her relationship with Mirelah and others throughout the play. I did enjoy most of how they rapped up her storyline. I liked that she befriended the Iraqi boy and opened up to someone about her stories.

    Overall I thought that this play brought its viewers into the lives of a family that was ripped from their homeland and had to learn to live with the situation that they were in now. It portrayed the different reactions that a person could have when put in this kind of situation. Besides the ending of Miri and Shimon I really liked the play

  2. While my classmates make interesting points about “I am speaking to you Chinese”, I am going to use this blog entry to respectfully, yet heartily disagree with them. Personally, I did not feel that the play showed the characters ability to cope with their demons, demonstrated how they functioned after the war, or showcased their strengths. Although I thought that the actors performed the piece well, I was not satisfied by the play or its message.

    For me, the play was about the inability of the characters to move on with their lives after the terrible hardships they had faced. The characters appeared crippled by their own weaknesses and were haunted by their pasts which caused all of them to be extremely dysfunctional. Moreover, I felt that many of their problems were self-inflicted, and consequently, I had little pity for them. This is not to say that the characters did not go through excruciating circumstances, but that wisdom and strength of character should be measured by the ability to deal with personal problems in place of ignoring them.

    While it is import to stress that the hardships caused by the Holocaust should not be dismissed on any level, the characters of “I am speaking to you Chinese” either surrendered to their pain or attempted to ignore it which is equally destructive. They then were vaguely surprised when they could not have functional relationships, feel comfortable with their own lives, or even relate to the people around them on the most basic levels. It was for this reason that I thought the play was a depressing snapshot of a situation where no solutions were presented or attained.

  3. Response to “I’m speaking to you Chinese”
    Sara Darga

    While watching the reading of “I’m Speaking to you Chinese” my first thought was that it must be difficult for an actor to feel as if they have captured a character to the fullest extent without being able to move around in a space. I thought that I would feel frustrated performing a reading in front of an audience without being able to use motion, and interact physically with the other characters. However, after the first few minutes of the play I was able to get past my personal frustration that it wasn’t an actual production and appreciate the verbal interaction of the characters and their commitment to conveying the complicated feelings and emotions of this narrative. I must admit I did not fully understand the fact that Mireleh as an older adult could communicate with her younger self. I would have preferred if the older Mireleh could only see and observe her younger self as a memory without being able to talk to her. I just could not get past my disbelief that the older version of the same character could actually communicate and influence her younger self. However, it was interesting that Miri continuously tried to warn her younger self and prevent her from having painful and emotional experiences. I recognize that a suspension of disbelief is necessary to digest this complicated narrative. Also the actress that played Martha, the mother to Mireleh, gave a thoroughly convincing performance as a miserable cantankerous mother who has never resolved her painful past experiences from WWII and Auschwitz.

  4. “I’m Speaking to you Chinese” was an interesting snapshot of a family dealing with life after the Holocaust. While I respect the views Kristin and Emily, I have to agree with Kirsten that the characters’ inability to accept the past and move forward with their lives made it difficult to pity their situations.

    Although I did not agree with the characters’ choices, I thought that the play did a good job capturing the difficulty of moving beyond a tragedy. Martha was incapable of forgetting the dead. She let her devastating experience plague every relationship she had: poisoning her marriage, pushing away her daughter, and breaking apart ties with her sister. I felt it incredibly difficult to sympathize with Martha. I was never on her side and rarely felt that her reasons for treating others the way she did held any clout. I thought Jennifer Mendenhall portrayed Martha very well, capturing her bitterness and complicated past.

    I did feel like I could sympathize with the basic theme of wanting something you cannot have. Carola was pining for the man she loved and Shimon looked into Mireleh’s house and life wishing he could be with her and a part of it all. The different characters provided the audience with myriad perspectives and ways to look at life. Mireleh wanted to run away from what she thought was a terrible life when Shimon wanted nothing more than to have her and the life she left behind.

    Unlike some of the previous readings I have attended, I felt that this work was easy to visualize in a full stage form. The dialogue was expressive and filled with imagery (like the dirty water Martha spilled or the sexy dress Carola wore. These descriptors made the reading much more enjoyable even though the actors could not use much motion.

  5. I very much appreciated Kristen’s thoughts in that they deal with the fragility of our human psychology, and how life’s many and varied circumstances can permanently change us. Coping, then, involves how we manage to live on despite being emotionally/mentally/ physically harmed.

    However, i’m not sure I would consider some of the behaviors we saw ‘coping’ in that they were rather maladaptive. First, the performance depicted was largely the private life of the characters, which to me was a useful perspective in looking at the “meaning” of their dysfunction. For example, we did not see Avraham in any professional or social settings, so we can’t determine the full effect of his damage. But, for a man in his position turning to communism could have been risky. In the reading, it was implied that he received a great deal of criticism from the scholarly community; “avram the red”.

    In whole, I view story’s meaning in a similar light to Kirsten. I felt it was meant to show how an otherwise prosperous family came apart from the inside out due to a tragedy of the past; how destructive, and trans-generational the holocaust was for these individuals.

    Like Rachel, I enjoyed this reading more than To Pay The Price, because the charachters talked slower and seemed to be acting more than just reading with intonation. This allowed me to follow the story more closely, and gave me the time to think about the greater meaning.

  6. After reading Kristin Brey’s response I would have to agree with a lot of her assessment about “I’m Speaking to you Chinese” focusing on coping and the various ways people cope. Like her, I found it hard to relate, or even agree with, any of the characters. I want to address a point Kristen Meeder made about the characters. I agree that the Holocaust was one of, if not the worst events in the world’s history. I couldn’t imagine trying to cope with the tragedies during the Holocaust and balance a “normal” life afterwards. I understand that it would be extremely difficult.

    However, I feel the characters in the play put exceeding pressures on each other that were unnecessary. Martha was always stern and trying to be a stoic force, unrelenting to anyone. Carola continued to be a presence (more of a burden) on her family. Avraham still had feelings for Carola, but did not more forcibly remove her from the home; although, I do admit he tried at times but Martha was stubborn about the matter. Mireleh seemed to me to be somewhat of a drama queen and always had to cause a scene, especially with her mother.

    I had trouble accepting that any family, especially one where two sisters survived the Holocaust, would have such disregard for each other. Carola and Martha, in my eyes, should be closer than most sisters with what they endured together. I can’t believe a man and sexual tension could ruin sisterhood bonds like that. Furthermore, the way Mireleh abandoned her mother is despicable to me. Yes, her mother was hard on her but she still was her mother and provided for her. I see where the anger and frustration would set in but to me her behavior was inexcusable. It took a stranger (Shimon) to step up and do a good deed because the family members were too dysfunctional to help themselves.

    I enjoyed the reading and thought it was pretty unique going to an Embassy, which was another new experience for me. I did leave frustrated because I am close with my family and found it hard to believe that a family could implode like the one in the play. I felt sorry for them while also being anger at them for not helping each other. Family is about love, kindness, and caring for one another; not abandonment, deception, and fighting.

  7. People adapt to challenges and progress through life. We are expected to face things head on while strengthening our mind and emotions. If we fail to cope in an appropriate manner than we hurt those closest in our lives. Such is the case in “I’m Speaking to You in Chinese.”

    With Martha, Carola, and Avraham surviving the most devastating holocaust in modern history and losing family members in the process, it is completely understandable and expected that Martha and Carola to cope in ways that block out the nightmarish memories of laboring in concentration camps, but the play is set 20 years later, and Martha and Carola have seemed to make no progress in their response to the horrors they went through. Martha is a cynical, depressed individual, and her lack of proper response treatment has allowed a buildup of feelings and emotions that could be argued are contributing to her illness. Carola lives in a fantasyland where she goes to movies everyday and uses Martha’s husband as a pipedream that blinds her to any sense of reality.
    These two are detrimental to the wellbeing of Martha’s daughter, Mireleh. She’s the biggest loser in their inability to respond to their past in a healthy way. Her life is constantly in turmoil as she is always in the middle of her mother and sister feuding and there is no strong woman in her life to look up to.
    I felt bad for Mireleh because of the burden she had to carry because of her mother’s and sister’s lack of healthy response to the horrors they endured , and it’s a shame for any child to have to be placed in a poor situation that they have no control over.

  8. As a student of Psychology at the University of Michigan, I found the relationships of the characters and the differences of the characters themselves in “I’m Speaking to you Chinese” to stand out above all other aspects. As I watched the reading, I felt challenged to side with some characters over the other, because the piece seemed to consist of several smaller conflicts between the characters, as opposed to a central conflict. Due to the numerous conflicts, I was unable to relate to a single character or choose their “side.” Instead, whenever a single character expressed their argument, I found myself thinking to myself, “that makes sense.” I related to all of them. I sided with each of them.

    Because of this aspect of the play, I think that it demonstrated that human interactions are not always clear, and that nothing is black and white. As humans, we are all similar, but we are also all different. That statement sounds like some sort of cheesy quote from the internet, but I use it due to a lack of better words in my vocabulary. I feel that the differences of humans were portrayed by the characters, because they were all very distinct. This was especially evident in the relationship between the two sisters—one who chose to always look to the atrocities of the past, while the other always looked to the opportunities of the future. However, the similarity of humans was demonstrated by the play because of my internal dilemma of not being able to strictly relate to one character, but instead with all of them.

  9. The relationships between Martha, Carola, Avraham, and Mireleh were surprising and at times unbelievable in the reading of “I’m Speaking to you Chinese”. To begin, I found Martha and Carola’s love-hate relationship to be very interesting. At first, I felt that two sisters who had survived a tragedy as great as the Holocaust would be able to overcome tensions due to Carola’s interest in Avraham. Upon further reflection I began to think that Avraham was simply a focal point used to build upon decades of resentment accumulated through their time in the labor camp. This is further supported by the brevity of time given in the reading where Martha confronts Carola’s flirtation with Avraham. The sisters only touch upon the fact that Carola had initially been in some sort of relationship with Avraham. I would have liked to see the characters delve deeper into why Martha and Avraham ended up in marriage rather than Carola and Avraham.

    A relationship in the reading that I found unbelievable was between Martha and Mireleh. I can understand that a young daughter oppressed by her tormented mother would wish to run away following her father’s death. However, I do find it surprising that Mireleh never once visited her old house to see what happened of Martha. The reading quickly mentioned that Mireleh had lived in Buenos Aires for a time, but I left the reading wanting to know more of why she never thought to come back.

    Overall I found the reading of “I’m Speaking to you Chinese” mysterious, confusing, and sad. This is not to say that I did not enjoy the reading. I found the work to be a creative perspective of the Holocaust that I have not seen before. “I’m Speaking to you Chinese” explores the secondary consequences of genocide. The reading looks into the ways tragedy warps individuals to ultimately test the strength of friendships and blood ties.

  10. “I’m Speaking to you in Chinese” was an exceptional performance. The story and relationships within the story were complex and compelling. However, I agree with Soumya that the play did leave a lot of mystery. I was confused by Martha and Avraham’s introduction. I couldn’t stop asking myself throughout the performance, how exactly could it be that they ended up married if Avraham had first been with Carola? Maybe it was just because I didn’t get the full story, but I wasn’t really convinced by this plot line. It just seemed really strange to me that Avraham knew Carola’s free spirit first and then chose to marry the uptight and difficult Martha.

    I was most surprised that Mireleh didn’t ever return to her mother. When she confessed that to the audience, I actually felt sorry for her mother. Even though she was closed off and they didn’t have a good relationship, the fact that her daughter left and simply never returned was really sad and even a bit unbelievable.

    I thought the sisters’ different reactions to the Holocaust experience were representative of the different ways people cope with tragedy. Carola’s sexy dresses and outgoing personality acted as such a contrast to Martha’s bitterness, strictness, and unwillingness to let others in.

    The strained relationship between the sisters was really sad for me to watch. They had endured such tragedy together, and for many that would be a relationship strengthener. I saw Martha’s loyalty to her sister when she insisted to Avraham that she stay in their house, but I felt that was forced and just to test her husband.

    Overall, I enjoyed the reading. The interaction between the dynamic characters of “I’m Speaking to You in Chinese” was very interesting and fun to watch.

  11. Last Monday I was honored to attend the play, “I’m Speaking to You in Chinese” at the Israeli Embassy. This play has been one of my favorites thus far. I believe it contained some very dramatic scenes and tried to keep “politics” out.
    The contrast between the two sisters Martha and Carola was alone enough to play the interesting. Martha was the older sister and she was still stuck in the Holocaust era. I believe her inability to move on really made her life miserable. Her past over shadows her present and her future.
    On the other end of the spectrum, Carola was trying to forgot the past and live in the “now.” Unlike her sister, Carola dresses with much flair and is extremely social. She flirts with men and is very daring.
    Both do lack the ability to maintain a family, however. Martha’s nature makes her far too miserable to keep up her daughter, Mirelah and her husband Avraham. Both are constantly affected by the unaffectionate and unattractive nature of Martha. It really looms over the entire family.
    At first, I believed that Mirelah would be the difference maker and would be the one who would help change her family situation and improve it. But it turns out she totally ignores her mother after the death of her father.
    Martha dies alone and only taken care of by Arabs that she hated the most.
    With all things considered this would solid play showing the interaction of the two sisters and how that helps shape both their outlooks on life.

  12. The blog responses thusfar to Savyon Liebrecht’s I’m Speaking to you Chinese all use the term “coping” to describe the mechanism each character employs to overcome the Holocaust. This mechanism, however, is often strange and not easily understood, if not plain confusing. Granted, this was a reading and not an action play, but with such little preparation (follies were made during the reading) and the only action consisted of stepping up to a microphone, I cannot say I fully enjoyed the reading. Nonetheless, I think I understood the underlying message.
    Some of the family dynamics in I’m Speaking to you Chinese were on the strange side; I remember a scene where Martha and Carola were in a heated argument, which was quickly quelled when Carola started singing a song from the concentration camp. Martha was always hostile and uptight to Carola until that point, when everything reversed. I suppose this is to represent the struggles they faced together during the Holocaust, and maybe it was poor acting transition, but it just struck me as unnatural.
    I wanted to agree (to a degree) with a few of my classmates regarding pity—it was indeed difficult to sympathize when the characters were so caught up in coping mechanisms. However, this was the Holocaust, you know! It is difficult to tell a survivor to move on, just as you cannot tell a solider returning from Afghanistan to recover from post-traumatic stress disorder.
    I would certainly like to see a live-action version of this play, as I think it could lend a lot of credibility to the theme and would be more entertaining/easier to understand the dynamics when there is body language and movement involved.

  13. I’m Speaking to You Chinese reminded me of The Reader by Bernhard Schlink. Both stories survey the difficult terrain that survivors of the Holocaust navigated without historical precedent. I found it interesting that Stockman used Chinese not only as a way to tackle this generation-specific struggle but also that of the newly situated Israelis and their disputed terrain.

    I can’t decide if the balance Stockman attempted worked brilliantly or not at all. For example, no one character is more deserving of our sympathies: All have experienced horrific incidences. All have baggage. Martha and Carola assume the two stereotyped, reactionary personalities to grief: callous and careless respectively. I thought these characters were written very simplistically and showed little dimension beyond their responses to grief. This could either be categorized as a lack of writing or a deliberate juxtaposition of two emotions and how they collide. I was very impressed with both Jennifer Mendenhall (Martha) and Helen Pafumi (Carola), and clearly they had material to mine to give such rich interpretations of what otherwise would’ve been a one-note performance. Nevertheless, because grief was archetype in this manner, it was hard to sympathize or empathize with either character. Instead, the demise of relationships and stability was viewed from a distance; Instead, I think a play like this should invite empathy and community, not deprive it of intimacy.

    While I’m tempted to believe that Stockman tackled too many issues (the Holocaust and the Arab-Israeli conflict) in one play, I believe that the juxtaposition made each issue vital in its own capacity; I do, however, think she tackled one too many characters. I would have much preferred to see the relationship of Martha and Carola fleshed out in full detail. I found the relationship between Shimon and Miri to be an adequate story on its own but the two taken together ultimately came up short for me. Nevertheless, Stockman found riveting threads between grief of the past and disillusionment with the present, handily forcing two polarizing issues to confront each other within the boundaries of one family.

  14. In many of my peer’s responses, they touch on the notion that family ties should be a compelling force that is able to ultimately overcome struggle and hardship. While ideally I would agree, I was less surprised than my peers that the constant tension between Carola and Martha, Carola and Mirelah, and Carola and Avraham, were enough to break the familial bond for good. I am also seeing the common trend that Martha is the antagonist in almost every relationship. I found her character to be pitiful, and the only way that I am able to sympathize with her maladaptive coping mechanisms is to regard her as sick-emotionally paralyzed and bitter. I do not mean to discount the insurmountable hardships she faced during the Holocaust, or to condone Carola’s delusional avoidance of the pain, but I do feel that Martha’s reactions toward her husband, sister, and daughter were a choice. A bad one.
    I find it difficult to believe that Martha’s relationship with Avraham was ever healthy. As I imagine it, she originally took Avraham from her sister because he was the first sign of good and happiness after the war. He represented an ideal love that had been lost, and she wanted him for herself, hoping that he could assuage her aching heart. I think that the bread is a symbol for Avraham, as the sisters continually tell opposing stories of how Carola gave Martha her bread to survive/how Martha stole it from Carola because she thought she was dying. Regardless of which story is true, Avraham isn’t enough to “feed” Martha. Her pain runs too deep and she is too emotionally cut-off to recognize the nourishment that his love could provide. She instead continually tries to push him away and test him, using Carola as the bait.
    In terms of Martha’s relationship to her daughter Mirelah, I believe that it was doomed from the start. I know that we have a cultural notion of family as inherently important, but from what we witnessed, there was never a speck of the warmth that a normal mother-daughter relationship would provide. I don’t think that the sick Martha was ever capable of being a true mother. For this reason, I do not blame Mirelah for her choice to run away and not return until after her mother’s death. Although Shimon criticized Mirelah for it, I imagine that by the time he came into Martha’s life, she was too old and weak to put up much of a fight. He did not know the same person, and certainly not in the same capacity.

  15. “I’m speaking to You Chinese” had the feel of an entertaining, strange Israeli soap opera. With love triangles that spanned timelines and blurred family lines, the play tried to entertain while still presenting a message to the audience in a receptacle manner. Watching the reading at the Israeli Embassy also helped to increase the excitement, and kept my attention the whole way through. Mirileh struggles under a harsh, cold mother, while seeking refuge in the arms of her happy go lucky aunt. What she does not fully understand is that these two characters embody the warring psychologies of the Jewish people following the Holocaust.

    Martha is obsessed with remembering the dead, and the horrors of the Holocaust. She is emotionally crippled by her experience in the concentration camps, while her sister Carola is the exact opposite. Carola is vibrant and full of life; she is the ray of sunshine that perfectly contrasts to the pale shade that is the only remaining piece of Martha that we see. Her ability to overcome or ignore the horrors of the internment camps has allowed her to connect with the new world in a way that Martha never could. Martha is so busy grieving for the dead that she is unable to recognize and appreciate the ways in which the world is changing around her. Her grief seems to have turned her inward, as she seems to be extremely selfish and self-possessed when compared to the other characters in the play. Carola tries again and again to bring her out of her shell and experience the love and affection of her family, yet she resists and retreats back into her depressed corner of her mind.

    Carola’s joy and vibrancy is tempered every time she enters her sister’s home, yet she keeps coming back. This is because even after all they have been through, (or perhaps because of it) Carola feels most at home when she is with her sister. Even though Martha’s predilection for being a morose buzz-kill is maddening to her, Martha also represents a link to the past that Carola must remember. The two sisters help try to balance the dark past and the bright and vibrant future. While they do not succeed in creating an equilibrium between the two, the play offers us valuable insight into the struggles of a nation coming to grips with its past and future at the same time.

  16. “I’m Speaking to You Chinese” portrays the struggles of a Jewish family as they try to move past their experience during the Holocaust. The play presented unconventional family dynamics, such the presence of an aunt who is in love with her sister’s husband. However, what struck me most about this performance was how several of the characters perpetuated their unhappiness by holding onto the past and making sacrifices.

    Martha is perhaps the most miserable character in the play. Although she survived the Holocaust, she is haunted by the ghosts of those who died. She constantly thinks about the dead, and this determines her attitude and life outlook. She lives a somewhat isolated life in which her family takes care of her and she cannot appreciate gestures, such as her husband buying her flowers. Although her family tries to make her happy, Martha cannot escape the horrors of her past and prefers to remain unhappy.

    What is more disturbing is how Martha causes her family, particularly her husband, Avraham, to bear the burden of her unhappiness. Out of a sense of duty, Avraham takes care of Martha despite feeling unfulfilled. Although he has the option of running away with Carola, whom he loves, he decides that his roles as husband and father are more important than his happiness. Avraham’s situation shows that people cannot always determine their own happiness and that they must compromise to accommodate others.

    The play offers a look into Mireleh’s adulthood as she tries to cope with her past. She develops feelings for her real estate agent Shimon; however, upon discovering that he is the Iraqi kid from her past, she pushes him away. The audience saw, in earlier scenes, that Martha forbade Mireleh from playing with the Iraqi boy when she was young. Although Mireleh tried to resist her mother’s comments, Martha’s rules continue to influence her. By letting her mother continue to rule her life, Mireleh creates her own unhappiness, which she could otherwise escape.

    Through this theme, “I’m Speaking to You Chinese” shows how the past influences the present.

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