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Arts and Culture: Italian Singer Uses His Noodle in Show About His Jewish Roots

April 25, 2000
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“Lokhshen” — noodles — is also the Yiddish word for spaghetti. It is the name Italian singer and actor Enrico Fink has given a new stage production and CD based on his search for his own Eastern European Jewish roots.

The title is deliberately ironic.

“Lokhshen is how Jewish immigrants on New York’s Lower East Side used to call their neighbors in Little Italy,” says Fink, a tall, thin 31-year-old with a reddish beard and long reddish hair pulled back in a pony tail.

“But then, like many Yiddish words, lokhshen has another meaning, too,” he says. “It means petty stories, anecdotes. And such may well be the story told in the show.”

Fink’s “Lokhshen” relates the saga of a Russian Jewish refugee who arrives in Italy in 1905. He becomes the cantor at a synagogue in the Italian town of Ferrara, near Venice, before being deported to his death in the Holocaust along with most of his relatives.

Backed by three musicians, Fink uses narrative, song and poetry to tell the tale.

He employs klezmer tunes, Yiddish songs and Ferrara’s specific Jewish liturgical melodies. He also uses the chilling poem “Gute Nakht Velt,” or “Goodnight, World,” by poet Yakov Glatstein, set to Fink’s original music, which was written in 1938. That was the year Italy’s fascists introduced anti- Semitic racial laws.

Fink plays the role of Riccardo Rotstein, a young Italian Jew trying to reconstruct his great-grandfather’s life beginning with little information: his own name, a photograph depicting a 1930s Jewish wedding in Ferrara, a coat, a document certifying the arrest of the great-grandfather’s family in 1943.

Rotstein is a fictional character, but the outline and many of the details of his story are taken directly from Fink’s own family history.

“In many ways, it is totally autobiographical,” he told JTA. “My great- grandfather, Benzion Fink, was born in a shtetl near Zhitomir in Ukraine, and he did become cantor in Ferrara. My great-grandmother came from a shtetl nearby. Before I had even had an inkling that this would become a show, I had spent many weeks doing research on the Eastern European side of my family, and my initial data were really small — name, photo, coat, document and a few other things, but not much.”

He chose the name “Rotstein” for the character he plays in “Lokhshen” in tribute to famed Jewish writer Giorgio Bassani, whose books, including “The Garden of the Finzi-Continis,” recounted the world of Ferrara’s Jews.

Bassani, who died just before Passover at the age of 84, was a close friend of Fink’s family and based fictional characters named Rotstein on family members.

His own interest in family history, Fink says, came at a turning point in his life.

“Even though my mother is not Jewish, Judaism was always the reference religion in the family,” he said. “Since I was a child, I would go to the synagogue for Yom Kippur, participate in an occasional seder. My mother would sometimes organize a seder for Jewish friends passing by on Passover. I considered myself pretty much a non-religious Jew, but a Jew nonetheless.

“What left the strongest mark on my imagination, though, was the unspeakable memory of the Shoah,” he said. “My father’s family was utterly destroyed during the war. My father and his mother survived, but almost the whole of the rest of the family was taken — 12 people in all of my father’s close family died in Auschwitz.

“So when my father’s mother died in 1994, and I felt the last strands of that memory dying with her, I could not help but start collecting all I could of that story,” he said. “It was at first only a very personal effort; but I have always known that I would want to bear testimony in some way, sooner or later.”

Fink, whose father, Guido, is a well-known Italian Jewish writer and critic who today is director of the Italian Culture Institute in Los Angeles, began singing Jewish and Yiddish songs in the mid-1990s.

He was part of a wave of interest in Jewish culture, among Jews and non-Jews alike, that has developed in recent years in Italy and other European countries.

“I regarded it at first as an interesting experience, one of the many I was going through in my struggle to become a professional singer,” he said.

The other three members of his group include two Italians and a young Israeli.

“We played klezmer and liturgical music, at festivals throughout Italy,” said Fink. “But we decided not to record since, well, what could be the interest in klezmer played by lokhshen such as ourselves?

“But eventually, our specific viewpoint as Italians and Europeans started to seem relevant; and the story of my great-grandfather sprang to mind as a perfect means through which to tell our story,” he said.

Fink’s performances are directed at both Jewish and non-Jewish audiences. Both the stage show and the CD, which includes the entire text and music, have received wide coverage in major Italian publications and on television.

“Lokhshen” is intended for “an Italian audience, which does not know much about Eastern European Judaism, but has recently begun to hear a lot of klezmer in cinema, TV shows and CDs,” he said. “So I use that material but I also tend to be ironic about it being hip and so on.

“Usually, Jewish audiences are somewhat diffident at first, because they rightly prefer to hear something that relates more to Italian Judaism,” he said. “But when they hear the show, the reaction is — by what I can gauge – – very positive, and often very much moved.”

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