August 12th 2013 12:53:43 AM
I recently wrote this piece for “Blueprint,” a website geared toward Jewish singles and run by New York Jewish Week. It’s an interview about a new play called “Einstein,” whose official Off-Broadway opening in New York is tonight, August 12th.
As often happens when I stray from the subject of the Balkans, the Balkans finds me in whatever seemingly unrelated task I’m doing. And so it was that in the course of the interview I discovered that Einstein’s first wife was Serbian. This may be old news to some Serb readers, but her name was Mileva, and somewhere out there are two Serbian sons of Einstein (Mileva had them baptized Orthodox).
But I need to dwell for a moment on this confounding pattern in which every time I try to do something to branch out, something mentally and professionally constructive, something in tune with my pursuits before Kosovo and Bosnia took over my life, or even something recreational, the very diversion harkens back to the Balkans. Below are a few examples.
In 2007, when the producer of the hit Fox show “24″ asked me to try out for the writing staff of his conservative version of “The Daily Show” (”Half Hour News Hour”), I thought it would be a good idea to at least rent the first season of “24,” so I wouldn’t be going in completely ignorant of producer Joel Surnow’s credits. I spent the week before my (ultimately unsuccessful) trip to L.A. watching the first season of “24,” which starred Kiefer Sutherland.
And what do you think the first season was about? Well, Sutherland’s character, the maverick CIA agent (”CTU” in the show) Jack Bauer, faces off with an old nemesis from…Kosovo. Naturally, a Serbian “war criminal,” played by Dennis Hopper and now plotting terrorism in America. So there I was, trying to get away from the Balkans by focusing on comedy writing, and yet being somehow dragged back in. (While unavoidably losing a bit of respect for the show.)
Then there was the time two years ago, when we put a small TV in our bedroom and I did something I never do: watched TV in bed before going to sleep. I turned on a Tru-TV program I’d never watched before, “Hardcore Pawn” (about a pawn shop in Detroit), and who walks into the pawn shop on the day I decided to watch? An Albanian making a scene and getting kicked out, professing the greatness of his Albanianism on the way out.
Earlier this year I changed gyms. The blonde, blue-eyed lady from Kansas who was signing me up asked what I did for a living. I told her “nothing,” as I was a blogger on a rather specialized issue that no one wanted to be reminded of and rarely paid anything for. She asked what it was and as I was assuring her it would be of no interest to her, I said it had to do with the place where jihad had its first modern victory in Europe: the Former Yugoslavia. At which point she told me her family background was Croatian and her grandfather went to art school with Hitler. (He became a stone mason and went on to build cathedrals.)
Another time, in the fall of 2010, I went to do a comedy in a variety show at a local theater. The Monday night show was run by a drag queen, who after your set would come up on stage with you and have a conversation so as to let the audience know more about you, and to promote your website or whatever other shows you had going on. But I told her and the audience that my site had nothing to do with comedy, but rather the Former Yugoslavia, and professed that the Serbs were framed. (It was a bit more verbose and funny than that.) Somehow the juxtaposition of comedy and the Balkans worked, and I was a big hit. Two acts later, a young magician came up on stage and said he could turn on a light bulb that was contained in a Ziploc bag, by sheer force of will. It was a tribute to his inspiration, Nikola Tesla, a name he introduced the audience to that night for the first time. I couldn’t believe Tesla’s name came up at a drag queen’s variety show, and — emboldened by the free drink I’d consumed by that time — I stood up and yelled, “SERB! He was a SERB!” The audience snickered at the Yugo-obsessed comedienne yelling from the audience.
Then there was last September, when we traveled to Baltimore for my husband’s cousin’s daughter’s Bat Mitzvah. The reception took place at a popular Russian night spot called Europa, which always had the “newer” Russians for waiters. But by 2012 there wasn’t a Russian to be found among the wait staff, most all of them Hispanic now. One waiter in particular seemed to take a liking to me and paid special attention to me (which I’m not used to anymore since gaining a thousand pounds after marriage). He spoke softly, so I couldn’t make out his accent, and was trying to figure out if he was also from a Latin-American country, or if he was the last vestige of the days of Russian waiters at Baltimore’s Russian restaurants. Only as we were leaving did I venture to ask where he was from, and he answered, “Serbia.” He was the only Serbian waiter there, and he happened to be assigned to the bank of tables where I was seated.
I was thinking about these weird coincidences last week as I walked my dog, when we came upon a puddle that looked like Kosovo.
My dog drinking Kosovo
Kosovo may be 95% Albanian, but this albino is leaving Kosovo.
OK, so maybe that one was a stretch (my geographic memory isn’t good). But the next day I was watching History Channel’s classier version of “Hardcore Pawn” — “Pawn Stars,” about the Gold & Silver pawn shop in Las Vegas — when lo and behold, a man walks in with a framed poem written in Nikola Tesla’s hand, alongside a photo of him. I was surprised to learn that Tesla is a hero to shop owner Rick Harrison, and to actually hear some of the dirt (on a mainstream TV show) on how Edison screwed over and stole from Tesla. The American and the Serb. A tale which itself is a microcosmic parable for the dynamic between the two countries. There was one thing Rick said that I would adjust, however. In trying to convey the greatness of Tesla’s mind, he said, “He was like an Einstein.”
As the actress I interviewed about the “Einstein” play told me: “Einstein’s science was big and rather singular, and from his science sprang many different major discoveries and understandings of the physical world. But his one contribution, if you set it aside, was rather limited in and of itself.”
Tesla, on the other hand, was infinite. The compliment would have been more proper in reverse.
But Einstein did well to mix his Jewish genes with Serbian ones. Consider that somewhere out there could be a future Einstesla. Or Teslastein.