Romancing the cockroach: Play examines the many loves of Franz Kafka

It’s hard to picture Czech-born Jewish author Franz Kafka — whose most famous story, “The Metamorphosis,” is about a man who turns into a cockroach — as much of a ladies man.

He might not have had a waterbed or a ready snifter of Courvoisier, but it turns out the pioneer of modernist literature juggled a bevy of bachelorettes in his short life.

At least that’s the life presented in “Franz Kafka’s Love Life, Letters and Hallucinations,” a play by local author Mae Ziglin Meidav. The Brookside Repertory Theatre is presenting a new production of the play, now running at the Berkeley City Club through June 29.

Though she took plenty of theatrical license, Meidav drew on original sources, including extensive letters Kafka wrote to his several paramours, as well as his fiction writing.

The results are, well, Kafkaesque.

“The play approaches this inner turmoil he has,” Meidav says. “The love relationships could destroy or infuse [Kafka’s] writing. He never married.”

Her play also examines the rampant anti-Semitism of late 19th century and early 20th century Europe. Kafka, who was born into a middle-class Jewish family in the mid-1880s, was not spared those slings and arrows.

“Kafka had a dream of going to Palestine, of learning Hebrew,” Meidav says. “He was a German-speaking Jew, a minority in Czech-oslovakia, so he was doubly marginalized.”

Though Kafka, who was bar mitzvahed, shed the trappings of Jewish religious tradition, the author never lost his love of Jewish culture. Kafka might have even had a glimpse of things to come in his novel “The Trial,” which tells the story of an unassuming man arrested for no reason and tried for no crime.

“In ‘The Trial,’ he wrote prophetically

about the Holocaust,” Meidav says. “His narratives evoke a vision.”

Kafka died in 1924, just shy of his 41st birthday, but his sisters died in the Holocaust. He is buried in a Prague cemetery and is considered a Czech hero today.

This is not the first production of the play (an earlier incarnation premiered in 1997 with La Val’s Subterranean Theatre in Berkeley). Nor is it Meidav’s first play. The artistic director of Brookside Rep, she has written numerous full-length, one-act and solo performance works for the stage. She has also won a California Arts Council Playwrights Fellowship and a grant from the California Living History Center.

Somehow, with all that theater involvement, she also found time to raise a family, work as a systems engineer for BART and volunteer for the local Jewish community.

Oh, and organize a Bay Area belly dancing club, too.

Meidav suspects all that multitasking drew her to Kafka, who had a dreary day job working for lawyers involved in workman’s compensation cases.

“Most artists have to compromise and find that balance,” she says. “Support themselves, meet the demands of family life and squeeze in time to do art.”

Born in St. Louis, Meidav earned degrees in math and physics from Washington University in her hometown. She met her husband, native Israeli and War of Independence veteran Tsvi Meidav, at a Zionist meeting on campus. For several years they lived in Israel, where she worked for Israel Aircraft Industries.

The young family later lived in Canada and Southern California before settling in Berkeley in 1974. Meidav has three grown children and two grandchildren.

Throughout, Meidav found time for theater and art. Her fascination with belly dancing led to her forming her own troupe. She has also taught belly dancing.

Once, while visiting Egypt 15 years ago, she came upon a family celebrating in a park. She fell in with a little hippy-hippy shake.

“I joined in the dancing,” she remembers. “It was great sport for the American to make these moves and a good way to bridge the cultures.”

Theater remains her first love, and Jewish culture does seem to pop up frequently in her work. Over the years, her plays have covered topics ranging from the Jewish socialist chicken farmers of Petaluma to Israeli arms smuggling during the early days of the Jewish state.

Yet even in her Kafka play, Meidav teases that her passion for belly dancing background might have crept into the script.

Referring to the K-man, she says, “You might see him do a little dance in the play.”

“Franz Kafka’s Love Life, Letters, and Hallucinations” by Mae Ziglin Meidav plays 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, 5 p.m. Sundays, at Berkeley City Club, 2315 Durant Ave., Berkeley. Tickets: $16-$34. Information: (800) 838-3006 or

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.