Judith Malina ~ A Reminiscence

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by Elena Reznikov

Late Monday night, I stumbled upon the notice of the death of Judith Malina, the co-founder of The Living Theatre.  I had not seen Judith since my last visit to New York in 1995, almost 20 years ago.  I had not kept in touch.  I do not pretend to have been close to Judith in her last years.  I met Judith in Paris in the spring of 1979 at a party given for writers and performers at a Poetry Festival at the Centre Americain.  I was not long in Paris and was brought to the party by a musician I had met at the home of some of the musicians who played with Steve Lacy.  Judith was there with her husband, Julian Beck and Allen Ginsburg.  Judith lit a joint and passed it to me, casually.  I accepted it happily and was awed that this famous woman would bother to talk to me.  As we smoked, the group around us grew and our conversation moved from why I was in Paris (to sing jazz) to the long exile of TLT, currently living in Rome.  The conversation moved to Italy and its fascist past.  It was Judith who explained the meaning of fascism, using her elegant long fingered hands to demonstrate the wrapping of all the sticks together, to make a more powerful weapon.

Until then fascism was a word that I knew only as an historical movement but never understood the actual meaning of the word.  That evening was the beginning of a friendship that would last through the early 1990’s and move from Paris to New York.  A few months later, Jim Haynes, who held the best Sunday night dinner/salons for American ex-pats and miscellaneous artists visiting Paris, mentioned that TLT was coming to Paris and had agreed to come to one of the dinners.  He was a bit preoccupied because they were Vegetarians – I immediately volunteered to cook – and that was how I met Judith and Julian the second time.

I made a pseudo Indian dinner with curry, rice and dal – but it turned out to be a fortuitous evening, as Judith and Julian were quick to explain when they arrived.  That afternoon a kosher restaurant in the Marais district of Paris was bombed.  Judith explained that when they were in Paris they often ate there.   She said that because they knew they were coming to a vegetarian feast at Jim’s, that day they skipped going there.  She looked me directly in the eyes and said that the dinner may have saved their lives.  Judith was putting together her volume of poetry, Poems of a Wandering Jewess and I volunteered to type it up.  At the time I was also working for translators and had use of an Olivetti electronic typewriter – it was before everyone had computers.

Jim published the book through his small editorial, Handshake Editions, and Judith and I stayed in touch.  I returned to the states in the summer of 1984 and knew that Judith and Julian had returned to New York.  Julian had been diagnosed with cancer.  The first time I saw them in New York was at Mount Sinai hospital and it was where I met their son, Garrick, just back from the Rainbow Gathering.

It was in New York that I became closer to Judith and Julian, in the last year of his life.  I met many of their old friends from long years of activism and heard more and more about the significance of Anarchist thought in their work. Judith introduced me to Mel Most, the nephew of Joachim Most.  I joined Mel sometimes for martinis and blintzes on the Lower East Side.  He told me of coming down to the breakfast table as a child and sitting on Emma Goldman’s lap. 

Judith also spoke a lot about Emma Goldman.  I know she visited her grave in the Workman’s Circle section of the Waldheim cemetery in Chicago.  It was before that trip that I shared that my maternal grandparents were buried a few yards away and how my father had brought me to her grave.  My father didn’t want me to see my bubbe, Esther, being lowered into the earth and took me to Emma Goldman’s gravesite to distract me from my grief.  My father told me things that my ten year old self couldn’t understand – but later resonated when Judith spoke about her.  Not long after I bought a second hand copy of Living My Life from someone selling books on a street corner on Upper Broadway.  For me, my grandmother, Emma Goldman and Judith Malina are all connected in some way that Marquez would have understood.

From 1984 until 1987 I lived in NYC and while I was singing and doing lots of different jobs to survive, I helped transcribe Judith’s diaries.  I wonder when the final volume will come out.  Judith was a dedicated diarist.  Her desk on West End always had her most recent volumes at hand.  She prepared the diary entries carefully and to my knowledge, never missed a day.  When I was accepted into Smith College’s program for “returning women students” Judith was supportive, even though it meant I was leaving NYC for Northampton.  She once told me that she regretted never having gone to University. 

I was able to bring Judith to Smith once, sponsored by the Women’s Resource Center and we had a fine time.  When I graduated in 1991, it was to her home on West End that I went first.  We had a bittersweet conversation when I told her I was going out to California, that I needed a change from the East Coast.  She told me that she had hoped I would join the group after graduation.  Somehow I knew that wasn’t my path.

And yet I know that she influenced me in much of the work that I do now.  Judith often spoke of how as a child she was called to recite poetry in German, as her father, a Rabbi, spoke about the horrors that were coming; they were raising funds to get Jews out of Europe.  Judith often said that was when she began to understand the power of poetry and truth to move people.  Judith Malina taught me something about courage and being fearless when speaking about that which is important.

TLT was performing Antigone in Paris when I first knew Judith Malina.  She transformed herself into a young girl, fighting to bury her brother in spite of Creon’s orders.  The value of civil disobedience – to defy the ruler and rule of law was at the core of Judith’s Antigone.  Although I saw her in other productions, in other films, it was as Antigone that Judith’s Anarchism shone.  It was as Antigone that I will always remember her.

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