Jenni Frazer

Meeting a Red Sea pedestrian

For the JC Dec 2021

Anyone who has ever taken part in a Seder will be all too familiar with the story of how “we were slaves in Egypt”, but were led out of the country by Moses through a miraculous parting of the Red Sea, after a series of vicious plagues rained down on Pharaoh’s people.

Fewer of us, however, will be familiar with Jethro, otherwise known as Reuel, the Midianite priest whose daughter, Zipporah, married Moses.

Fans of the spectacular stage musical, The Prince of Egypt, however, will know all too well who Jethro is. And Oliver Lidert’s performance as Jethro is one of the delights of the show. Though its run finishes at London’s Dominion Theatre on January 8, the lavish stage adaptation of the Dreamworks animation movie has now been filmed live, allowing future audiences to share in the fun.

Lidert, it turns out, has an unguessed-at background which makes him ideal casting for the part: and he has dedicated his performance to his grandparents.

On first sight, in fact, it looks as though Jethro/Reuel is played by a Black actor. But Lidert comes from a mixed background, part Jamaican — his mother’s family — and part, intriguingly, Polish-Jewish. Added to that, his wife is half-Japanese and half-Ukrainian Jewish.

The amiable American-born Lidert, a familiar figure on the West End stage, (you might have seen him in Aladdin or the Carole King musical, Beautiful), has a complex history.

It begins with his father’s parents, Menachem Erlich, and his girlfriend, Rejla Liliensztejn, who were Polish Jews — the two families were friends — who lived in Warsaw before the war. “My grandfather escaped from Warsaw and left Rejla there and then returned for her. This would have been in 1939. My grandfather was conscripted into the Polish Army, but when it was disbanded and Poland was occupied, he came back and collected my grandmother. They weren’t married at that time”, says Lidert.

First, Menachem and Rejla escaped to Georgia in the Soviet Union, spending most of the war years there. “They didn’t enjoy talking about their experiences and it was very difficult to get them to relive what happened. I know the majority of the two families was sent to Auschwitz, though my great-grandfather on my father’s side ended up in a Siberian work camp”.

Post-war, the couple — now married with a daughter born in Georgia — returned to Warsaw, where Lidert’s father was born.

But the siblings were not told they were Jewish. Lidert’s grandparents, fearful of Polish antisemitism, changed their surname to Lidertz, an invented name with a nod to their previous names of Ehrlich and Liliensztejn.

By this time, the former Menachem Ehrlich was calling himself Mieczyslaw Lidertz and was working for the Polish Ministry of Culture, while his wife was known as Renata Lidertz. “But the rise in antisemitism in 1960s Poland was too much for them to bear, so they fled again and ended up in Sweden, as refugees. My aunt went to New York and my father went to Sweden with his parents”. And this led to a third name change, to Mietek and Renia.

“The way my father tells it, though they didn’t leave Poland until he was 18, he began to realise about the age of 13 that he was different. The family wouldn’t go to church, for example, and obviously Poland was extremely Catholic. There was never a point at which my grandparents sat down and said, you are Jewish; but actually there was a very tight-knit group of Jews in Warsaw who had survived the war — I have this whole group of ‘aunties and uncles’ who were not blood relations, but who were that community, who became family.”

His family’s Jewish traditions were built on this complicated and delicate structure, Lidert says: “an ethnic make-up, not necessarily a religious practice. So the discovery of my Judaism is actually a personal exploration rather than being supported by a community — an active search for who I am. And that has led back to the show, an opportunity to explore a major part of myself”.

Though he is comfortable in his Jewish identity as far as his family goes, Lidert says it’s not been so easy with the wider Jewish community — “they don’t always see me as being Jewish. That is a reality, which in some ways is deeply painful”. During rehearsals for The Prince of Egypt, he says, his parents would talk about his twin heritages: “the terribleness of the Holocaust and the terribleness of years of slavery. I am born of both”.

Lidert’s not just a singer and musician, he also writes and directs. I tell him I can easily see him as a Black Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof and he roars laughing, saying it’s one of his favourite musicals. “That would be a joy.”

As for Jethro and The Prince of Egypt, Lidert says: “It’s an essential human story. When I was a kid I was the youngest at Seder and I would ask the questions and then wait for hours for a meal. Now I get to do that eight times a week!”

  • 15 December, 2021
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