I doubt that any of you have ever channeled a dead person, or even had the opportunity….or ever gave it a thought. Well, read on because I did it. And now I invite you to learn all about my weird experience. But first, I have to say that the line between comedy and tragedy can be very narrow. And this was the kind of event that could prove it.
Looking for Help
Back in 2001, I was still feeling like the new Jew on the block, (see “The Day I Learned I was a Jew“) while continuing to look for help with all the family photos that my mother left me, after she passed away. I still had no idea what I could do with them. The “Jewish Documentary” class that I’d already taken two years earlier at the University of Judaism didn’t help. While I loved the films they showed us, they just left me confused. The thought of creating my own documentary was out of the question. No way was I prepared. I hadn’t a clue as to how or where to even begin one.
So, armed with the latest UofJ catalog, I began searching for something similar, or maybe even another documentary class. But it wasn’t going to happen. All I found was a class called “What’s the Story”, which the catalog described as a class that would help me find compelling events in my family’s history and learn how to present them in an entertaining way.
What’s the Story?
I wasn’t sold. I needed to know more. But the UofJ office was no help, and could only suggest that I call the instructor at home. That sounded like a good idea…! The catalog had her listed as Stacie Chaiken – Actress/Writer and author of her one woman show, “Looking for Louie”.
They gave me her phone number and I placed a call. When I finally reached her, I explained that I was just beginning to research my family, and asked if my situation seemed to fit the parameters of her class. “Yes!”, she said without hesitation. So, I enrolled, and thus began a relationship that continues today.
After adding two more members to our small collegial group, we left the confines of the UofJ, and began to meet in our own homes. Now twelve years later, we still meet on a semi-regular basis with Stacie our Guru
After my earlier frustration with my mother’s family photos, I have to credit our group as the inspiration that got me to use those photos to tell my story, and make it into a documentary. That’s how “For the Life of Me’ was born. It was their continuing support, and Stacie’s motivation that got me to make it, and then got me through it.
But I digress…
The class was scheduled for four meetings at the UofJ. But only four of us showed up for the first one. There was Tobie, woman about my age, who I already knew from my Jewish Documentary class. Then Monica, a bright, and articulate young gal who was interested in writing about her estranged father. In addition to me, our fourth classmate – whose name escapes me – was a young woman interested not so much in her family’s genealogy, but in its history from a journalist’s point of view – whatever that means. While she seemed quite enthusiastic, still she wasn’t quite sure if Stacie’s class was right for her.
We each began by telling our own disjointed stories, trying to parse from them something profound – a unique direction that we could call our own. After each presentation, Stacie gave us instructions on how to proceed. We quickly learned that she had unique ways to find what our focus was, and how to expand on it.
When it was my turn, I talked about my fairly recent discovery that I was Jewish, and about the pictures I’d discovered of my German/Jewish relatives. But I was mainly interested in figuring out the mystery of my grandmother Gertrude who committed suicide in 1933, shortly after Hitler became Chancellor, before I was even born. The idea that my paternal grandmother took her own life seemed so lurid and sensational that I decided, with Stacie’s urging, that I really wanted to focus on why she did it.
Some of the techniques that Stacie used to get us in touch with our stories were unusual, but the assignment she gave me still has to be the all time winner.
You Want Me to Do What….?
Her instructions were, “For next week’s class, I want you to bring in a tape recorder, and I want you to have a dialogue with your dead grandmother!!!”
Of course, I laughed because I knew she couldn’t be serious. But she was. She wasn’t kidding at all.
So, when week number two came around, I showed up for class with my little cassette recorder, a mike, some notes and a couple of pictures of Gertrude just to help me along.
I knew this couldn’t turn into a seance, but could easily evolve into something absurd. Yet, I was willing to give it a go because, who knows? Maybe I would learn something meaningful from the experience.
Nervous? Yes, I was nervous because I was getting ready to make a fool of myself.
Then, when my turn came, I tried to ease into it by being me first – then introducing myself to my dead grandmother. When it came time to become Gerturde, I began talking with a German accent. But it came out sounding awful – to my ear at least – like something from a bad vaudeville act or the way Sid Ceaser used talk when he’d do his fractured German. Absolutely hokey!
Striving for Gravitas
Yet, there I was earnestly straining to sustain the solemnity of the moment, trying to reach a level of gravitas, while hoping it would overcome my cornball accent. Alas, that Germanic edge that I knew so well from my parents – that accent that I grew up with – no way could I reproduce it, nor make it sound natural.
Nevertheless, I persevered with the task in all its hokiness. After I had introduced myself to me – as my grandmother – and answered her dumb questions about being Kurt’s son – as the real me – I continued to ask her more questions based on what little I knew about her. But sadly – or maybe not so sadly – I can’t really remember what all she said.
Yet, somehow, I got through it, relatively unscathed, with my ego shaky but intact.
Did I learn anything from the ordeal, you ask?
Yes, I did! Even though she couldn’t tell me, I realized that there really were many compelling reasons why Gertrude did what she did. I can pick any one, or any combination of them. Unfortunately, we can never really know the answer.
Stacie, Tobie and Monica really seemed to get a kick out of it. My performance that is. But our fourth classmate, not so much. Our poor journalist friend was quite shocked and voiced her disapproval, questioning our veracity and morality for indulging in such a shameful spectacle.
We apparently scared her off, because after that second meeting, we never saw her again!