The Arty Semite

French Actor Sami Frey: or 'Beckett Judaizing Beckett'

By Benjamin Ivry

  • Print
  • Share Share
Photo by Helene Bamberger-Cosmos

The other evening, a solo performance of Samuel Beckett’s “First Love” (Premier Amour) at New York’s French Institute Alliance Française had an unexpected Jewish aura to it.

The French Jewish actor Sami Frey, born Samuel Frei in 1937 to Polish Jewish parents deported from Paris and killed during World War II, will also perform it April 14 to 16 at La Maison Française, Washington, D. C., interpreting a different text by Beckett, “Worstward Ho” (“Cap au Pire”) on April 17.

Frey has investigated heritage and history in plays like “I Remember” (“Je Me Souviens”), a 1989 staging of a text by French Jewish author Georges Perec, whose parents were murdered at Auschwitz. In 2009, Frey portrayed the patriarch of a Montmartre Jewish family in the French crime film “Mensch.”

Beckett’s text itself has an aura of recent Jewish history. “Premier Amour” was written in 1946, just after the war in which Beckett was active in the French Resistance. As he told a biographer: “I was so outraged by the Nazis, particularly by their treatment of the Jews, that I could not remain inactive.”

Beckett’s close Jewish friends included his assistant Abraham Jacob Leventhal and Barbara Bray (born Jacobs), daughter of Jewish immigrants from Holland and Belgium.

The Forward’s Philologos has written about metaphorical references to Judaism in Beckett’s later work, but his 1947 play “Eleutheria” already has a line in which his name, pronounced French style as “Samuel Béké” is described as a “cross between a Jew from Greenland and a peasant from the Auvergne.”

An academic article, “Beckett Judaizing Beckett: ‘a Jew from Greenland’ in Paris” by Jackie Blackman, investigates Beckett’s attachment to other Jews like his former professor Alfred Péron and like Paul Léon, a Polish-born friend and assistant of James Joyce who was deported to his death. These and other alliances are detailed in the fascinating “Letters of Samuel Beckett, Vol. I, 1929–1940” (Cambridge University Press).

Postwar Beckett characters like the narrator in “Premier Amour,” homeless after his father’s death, wandering through cemeteries, confront annihilation and find a measure of laughter, as Sami Frey told one interviewer. Beckett’s subtext of bemused, and sometimes even amused, survival in the post-Holocaust world has duly inspired Jewish creators like sculptor Eva Hesse and choreographer Anna Sokolow.

Watch below as Sami Frey gravely dances the Madison in the 1964 film “Band of Outsiders.”

Watch a promo below for a 2004 short film, “Waiting for Woody Allen,” a parodic appropriation of Beckett “about two quarrelsome Hasidic men.”

Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Samuel Frei, Samuel Beckett, Sami Frey

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • This guy skipped out on seder at his mom's and won a $1 million in a poker tournament. Worth it?
  • Sigal Samuel's family amulet isn't just rumored to have magical powers. It's also a symbol of how Jewish and Indian rituals became intertwined over the centuries. Only three days left to submit! Tell us the story of your family's Jewish heirloom.
  • British Jews are having their 'Open Hillel' moment. Do you think Israel advocacy on campus runs the risk of excluding some Jewish students?
  • "What I didn’t realize before my trip was that I would leave Uganda with a powerful mandate on my shoulders — almost as if I had personally left Egypt."
  • Is it better to have a young, fresh rabbi, or a rabbi who stays with the same congregation for a long time? What do you think?
  • Why does the leader of Israel's social protest movement now work in a beauty parlor instead of the Knesset?
  • What's it like to be Chagall's granddaughter?
  • Is pot kosher for Passover. The rabbis say no, especially for Ashkenazi Jews. And it doesn't matter if its the unofficial Pot Day of April 20.
  • A Ukrainian rabbi says he thinks the leaflets ordering Jews in restive Donetsk to 'register' were a hoax. But the disturbing story still won't die.
  • Some snacks to help you get through the second half of Passover.
  • You wouldn't think that a Soviet-Jewish immigrant would find much in common with Gabriel Garcia Marquez. But the famed novelist once helped one man find his first love.
  • Can you relate?
  • The Forverts' "Bintel Brief" advice column ran for more than 65 years. Now it's getting a second life — as a cartoon.
  • Half of this Hillel's members believe Jesus was the Messiah.
  • Vinyl isn't just for hipsters and hippies. Israeli photographer Eilan Paz documents the most astonishing record collections from around the world:
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.