Oys ‘R’ Us

Rhonda Lieberman on Maurice Sendak

New York

Left: Left: Members of the Young People’s Chorus of New York City (YPC) performing with Harrison Chad (center) as Brundibar. Right: Tony Kushner and Maurice Sendak. (All photos: The Jewish Museum/John Aquino)

Fresh from a productive (weepy) session on the old analyst’s couch, I schlepped across Central Park to check out “Wild Things: The Art of Maurice Sendak,” at The Jewish Museum, fully braced for even more primal soup to be stirred up. The legendary auteur of characters such as Little Bear and Really Rosie, and the 1963 book Where the Wild Things Are (yes, inspired by his Jewish relatives in Brooklyn) has a hotline to my kishkes. And who knew these kiddie classics were actually generated from post-shtetl Jewish angst? Add a performance of Brundibar (1938), a Holocaust-era children’s opera recently revived by Sendak in collaboration with Tony Kushner, and I knew I’d soon dissolve further into emotional chopped liver.

A large stuffed Wild Thing cutely menaced the entrance of the show, near early relics of that sacred text. A picture window framed a reading area covered with green shag carpeting where Sendak books were strewn about in inviting disarray. I couldn’t resist cracking open Little Bear (my favorite), and doing some discreet post-therapy-session whimpering. Nearby, a sixty-something woman was lying on the floor, just like a kid, in sneakers, with her head on a flower-shape pillow, reading away. It was like a page from Sendak come to life, with bemused Wild Things dwarfing and peering down at her. It was easy to understand Sendak’s comment that he “doesn’t write books for children” but for himself, even though “they seem to unite with the strange world of children. If I write a book about a pig that’s talking–-you don’t put it next to a book by Philip Roth in a bookstore. Or maybe you would…?” That got a big laugh from the audience that turned out for that evening’s conversation between Sendak and Kushner, which seemed, like most Jewish Museum audiences, to be composed of people who could either be my aunt or my shrink. Plus, tonight, Hilton Als.

“You write for yourself,” mused Sendak, “Who cares whether you write another book? Only you care. It’s your ambition, etc. When I ask myself, ‘What am I doing on this Earth?’ ‘Oh yeah,’ I say, ‘I write books. I draw pictures.’”

“Do you really believe nobody’s waiting for your next book?” marveled Kushner, who clearly adores him. “With Madonna you wouldn’t have to wait long. She writes six a week!”

“She’s enormously gifted,” deadpanned Sendak.

The performance promised to be über-poignant: the children’s opera by Czech-Jewish composer Hans Krasa was “performed more than fifty times by the prisoners of the Terezin concentration camp during WWII.” And tonight by the Young People’s Chorus of NYC. I feared I was in for a maudlin time. Oy, forty minutes of singing young people and none of the Sendak sets that I’d hoped for. (The new book version is illustrated by Sendak and translated by Kushner.) But wonderful direction enlivened the sad story—two children who need milk for their sick mother prevail against the local bully with the aid of friendly animals—with feisty performances by kids who were coached to emote with freakish conviction. And the adult “dog” deserves a nod for inspired barking. Considering the thing was originally performed at a “model” concentration camp—by doomed child performers—to put a good face on what the Nazis were doing for groups like the Red Cross, was devastating to contemplate.

Left: Linda Emond and members of the YPC. Right: Marva Hicks.

Sendak’s black humor was a relief: “I had to keep all these vendettas going,” he chuckled, “that’s what got me to [age] seventy-seven.” Now grey with a beard and cane, he resembled the roly-poly cook in The Night Kitchen, while the lean Kushner was as dapper as a bar mitzvah boy in a beautiful suit—and just as obliging. Sendak’s fan since childhood and a friend/collaborator for the past ten years, Kushner played straight man, both drawing out his pal’s curmudgeonly shtick and pedagogically serving him up to the Jewish Museum crowd with their favorite questions:“Is there Jewishness in your work? What does it mean to you?”

“To be Jewish is to be depressed—and if you’re not depressed, you better keep it to yourself!” Sendak shot back, to appreciative cackles from the crowd: “I’d tell my mother good news—shah!” He channeled his mother, superstitiously pointing upward: “He’s listening and he’s up to no good … and then you have Fiddler—Dreck!” It takes a brave man to diss Fiddler on the Roof in this room. Fiddler is the DNA of postwar American Jews: The feel-good shtetl version of “Father Knows Best.”

“I love Fiddler!” declared Kushner.

“OK, you don’t have perfect taste,” Sendak dryly pronounced, and went on about his Brooklyn childhood, which comes through his work and stories so palpably, I felt that I had lived it by the end of the evening: “Everything is bad,” the legendary author-illustrator reminisced. “When I’d be playing out late, my mother would shout ‘Children at the other end of the world have nothing to eat!’ I began to hate those children who had nothing to eat—and I hated what my mother cooked, too!” The ‘30s were an era of “children’s nightmares—the Lindbergh kidnappings.” Even rich gentiles weren’t safe. To protect young Maurice and his siblings from kidnappers, Sendak’s father slept in their room with a baseball bat. “Who’d want your kids?” cracked his uncle.

“And he’s the ugliest Wild Thing in the book!” crowed the artist, to applause from the crowd.

As I got up to leave, I overheard one lady say gravely to another: “This man is so scarred by his childhood…his parental upbringing…” Oy!