Play exposes family truths

'Parted Waters' explores crypto-Jewish identity through a generational lens


'Parted Waters" is a play written by New Mexico playwright, retired physicist and science x, Robert F. Benjamin. The play centers around three generations of a crypto-Jewish family and explores the cultural and historical consequences of having this identity.

A staged reading, directed by Cindy Freeman-Valerio, will be performed in Taos by Damien Fernandez, Cisco Guevara, William Hall and Mikaela Martínez.

The Taos Jewish Center presents this special, live performance Sunday (April 15) at 2 p.m. Everyone is welcome. Admission is $10, but no one will be turned away for lack of funds. Following the staged reading, the audience can talk with the playwright.

Benjamin said his interest in playwriting has been a calling. "I just woke up and said it's time to do something different," he told Tempo. He said he gravitated towards playwriting because it's difficult.

"I tend to be the type to take on hard projects," he said, noting that he can only use dialogue to move the story along. "That makes it really hard," Benjamin said.

Since quitting his "day job" at Los Alamos National Laboratory in 2004, Benjamin has been writing plays.

"I did dabble a bit before, in the mid-'90s, but I didn't get serious until I quite my day job," he said.

Benjamin was asked to write a play about crypto-Jews in New Mexico for the Arizona Jewish Theatre Company. He took on the task as a challenge, and the world premiere of "Parted Waters" was produced in March 2009.

"I'm not a crypto-Jew. I'm not Sephardic. I'm a very traditional Ashkenazi Jew. So, I had the interest in Judaism but no background in the Sephardic part of it. When I came home and told my wife … she said you don't know anything about crypto-Judaism in New Mexico … I said I can learn."

And learn, he did. Benjamin read historian Stanley Hordes' ground-breaking book "To the Ends of the Earth: A History of the Crypto-Jews of New Mexico," he went to crypto-Jewish conferences, and he interviewed people with a crypto-Jewish background. He also had Hordes come to readings of his early scripts and offer suggestions.

Benjamin decided the best way to tell the story of a crypto-Jewish family was through the eyes of three generations. Asked if he identifies with his characters, Benjamin said, "Yes. I identify with all of the characters in the play in different ways."

"The older guy, Reynaldo, I identify with as an old guy trying to leave his legacy in the world. And, then the middle generation, Javier, I identify with as someone who has had to separate from his father, so that he can be his own person. I identify with the younger guy, Miguel, as someone who wants to make the world a better place," Benjamin said.

None of the characters in the play are based on real people. They are all fictional although Benjamin said he drew characteristics from people he interviewed.

Benjamin said his plays are often centered around themes of identity. He thought it would be interesting to write a play about American Judaism from the perspective of Reynaldo, someone who practices Judaism and lives in America, but is not involved with mainstream Judaism.

The Taos staged reading of "Parted Waters" will be directed and narrated by Cindy Valerio and performed by an all-Taos cast: Cisco Guevara as Reynaldo, William Hall as Javier, Darien Fernandez as Miguel (who, ironically, is a politician like Fernandez), and Mikala Martínez who is Miguel's campaign manager.

"I've tried to do as honest a job as a playwright as I can do to try to portray a crypto-Jewish family dealing with the crypto-Jewish issue. I've tried to give it my best," Benjamin said. "I have had people come up to me and say, 'That is my story.' I've had other people say, 'I'm not crypto-Jewish, but that is my story.' They relate to the play emotionally and closely but not because of the crypto-Jewish issue. The play is about a family struggling with their heritage, their identity collectively, as a family."

"The play is written about crypto-Judaism but I believe it's also about how American Judaism sees itself," Benjamin said. "American Judaism has been troubled for decades now because it has been in a sense trying to respond to the Holocaust but not knowing how to do that exactly. Also, assimilation has been a big issue, and interfaith marriage has been a big issue in American Judaism. So, I've tried to touch on all of those themes in a dramatic way in the play, not to express wisdom about it … But rather to enhance the conversation around those topics."

Benjamin has also produced several full-length plays about aging with grace, courage and humor: "Time Enough," "Salt and Pepper," "Still in the Game" and "Not Quite Right" (co-authored). He's also had readings of a science play, "Galileo's Footsteps" and productions of 20 short plays, one of which was adapted into a short film and operetta. A Taos reading of "Still in the Game" is planned April 29 at Metta Theatre in El Prado.

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