Rifka Takes a Bow – Betty Rosenberg Perlov and Cosei Kawa, Kar-Ben Publishing, 2013
Perlov died in 2016, although her passing attracted little notice in the press. As the afterward to Rifka Takes a Bow explains, Betty grew up a child of the famed Second Avenue Yiddish Theater, where her parents worked. In this once-thriving world, Jewish immigrants and their children produced and attended every type of play, from comedy to melodrama to Shakespearean tragedies, in their own language. Perlov’s book, with suitably dramatic illustrations by Cosei Kawa, draws young readers back into that world, one which historian and journalist Stefan Kanfer has called Stardust Lost.
I came across a review of Rifka Takes a Bow at Publishers Weekly, which, although largely positive, mentions that the book gives little information about Yiddish theater, focusing instead on the excitement and glamour of theater in general. That may be a fair criticism if the book’s purpose were principally to teach kids about a specific part of Jewish history, which is relegated to a brief afterword. In Perlov’s defense, the book is a warm, dream-like vision of the past, in which Perlov remembers her loving and supportive parents and her brief debut on the stage where they lived out their professional lives. From Rifka’s perspective, Yiddish theater is theater; it would be artificial and misleading for her to step out of the text and describe the background of this normal cultural experience.
Rifka’s childhood is filled with artifice. Her parents are not who she thinks they are, if only temporarily:
“Papa pastes on a brown, curly mustache and picks up a cane.
Mama puts on a white wig. She bends over when she walks.
Suddenly they are an old man and an old lady. I can
hardly recognize them.”
This situation is hardly frightening, or even confusing. Rifka’s parents’ shifting identities are no more nor less magical than her lunch at the Automat, where “There are little boxes in the walls with glass windows that let you see the food.” Eating there is as intriguing as her the actress’ dressing room, full of lights and make-up, even rabbits’ feet to use as powder puffs. When her father takes her on a tour of the prop room under the stage, he becomes a guide to an underworld, dark and a little off-putting. But he reassures her: “I’ll protect you. Come, Rifkeleh. Just look at those treasures.” One is a birthday cake, which seems so real that Papa has to warn her not to eat it, since it is only plaster.
Cosei Kawa’s pictures are fantastic images of a remembered world. There is an obvious allusion to Chagall’s flying people and angled buildings, and maybe Modigliani if his long, thin faces were stretched into expressive ovals. Rifka’s mother and her colleagues show a touch of Arthur Rackham’s Cinderella. Kawa’s pictures affirm that this is a work of fiction, or fictionalized memoir, not an overview of Yiddish Theater. When a bored Rifka stumbles onto the stage during a performance, she seems to be a character in a fairy tale, whose performance is meant as a lesson: “Not to worry. I am going to act on the stage when I grow up.” Perlov actually grew up to be a speech pathologist, wife, mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother. But all the world’s a stage, Second Avenue or elsewhere.