Category Archives: On Jewish American Culture

Rosh Hashana Talk on Judaism and The Arts (and…)

A “drash” given this morning at GWU Hillel, Lisner Auditorium.  Wishing everyone a very happy new year. 

Art and Judaism and the Case for a Holy Fusion

It’s wonderful to be with you today, to pray and sing and usher in the new year with family, friends, and this new community for us here at George Washington University. UnknownLet’s appreciate the intimacy of what’s to come (even the irony) of me standing before you, fresh off the plane from Israel and Italy – where my daughter and I joined a mostly-fully-represented extended family  to the scene where my mother, her sister, their mother and 1000 other Jews trekked into the Alps of Italy in early September, 1943 to escape deportation from Southern France. We were re-enacting their trek in a Memory March (our “legs were praying” indeed, just as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said in 1965 when he joined with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and other religious and political figures in a third—and finally successful—attempt to march from Selma to Montgomery, AL, to demand voting rights for African Americans at the Alabama state capitol;  and my heart was full of inspiration from  the fellowship with church-affiliated citizens of Saluzzo who hosted us); a weekend’s worth of ceremonies, all of which followed a three-day jaunt through Israel joining the tour of WOODY SEZ: THE LIFE AND MUSIC OF WOOD GUTHRIE… It was a whirlwind Jewish week synthesizing art and family, memory and present-day consciousness; strengthening old bonds and forging new ones.

Today I come before you, a tad disoriented, publically worshipping for the first time in months, which feels momentous, to have been away from a prayer service (if not a synagogue—we toured several in Italy) and then be bestowed with this honor—the qualifier being that although I immerse myself in the world of Jewish drama—and I work in a Jewish Community Cultural Arts Center everyday—perhaps I don’t spend a deep enough time meditating on the full meaning of the spiritual component I’m immersed in—I’m so focused on the craft, the sustaining of the art—but what of the “J” in Theater J? Can I find it in the art I help produce? I’m going to reflect on that, as we consider the assigned topic—what Cantor Mishkin has charged me to address: “Art & Judaism,” to which I’ll add the sub-title: “A Dialectical Dance (or Holy Fusion).”

Doug Mishkin is a new friend. We bonded last fall over our common debt to Woody Guthrie. I fell in love with Doug’s great song, “Woody’s Children” and the amazing video of it which was released last year in celebration of Woody’s Centennial. We realized that the love of one artist bespoke a lot of other common passions (a kind of Jeff-Bezos/Amazon.com affinity match, “If you liked this, you might like…” only without the diabolical algorithms). Doug and I discovered connections ranging from youth group song-leading, to civil rights history, to the lyricist who wrote “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” There’s something to this: If you’ve got a work of art in common, you might share other things—values, ethical principles—and through the love of a single piece of art you forge relationship, and as that extends to others, community is assembled; and the structure of our religion–with its cyclical rhythms and rituals, sustaining the community, year after year, ritual and repetition bound by passion and deep feeling–is fortified. Without deep feeling, intentionality, or kavanah, there is only law; only compulsion; practice devoid of light. The Arts have been a gateway for bringing light and repetition together; a portal through which we can connect to our heritage and have it resonate musically in the modern world.

And yet “The Arts as a Gateway” has become a familiar trope. It’s “The Spoonful Of Sugar” Approach; Sweeten things up with story, a melody or a decorative aesthetic. But to others, the arts are an end to themselves—not just additive—but a sustaining framework of meaning extolling the miracle and relentless fury of creation (natural and human). There are atheists for whom Art is their religion; for whom the theater, or the concert hall, is The Temple. I’m here to fuse the  notions; that the arts lead us back to more meaningful Jewish engagement (back to the synagogue, even), yet are to be understood (and respected) as more than a mere stepping stone. Jewish arts provide continuity and community; literacy and regenerative vitality. And in that word vitality, we see a material and spiritual life-line; an instrument for keeping our Spirit Alive.

So then don’t we adequately fund it?  Why don’t we make the arts a communal priority? Why doesn’t a new generation of donors and daveners give a darn about Jewish Arts? Because there is evidence suggesting that they don’t. There’s even a rare few who feel some Jewish arts should be de-funded!  Specifically, that the theater I run should be de-funded! Or that I should be. But we’ll get to that…

Let’s pose some more specific questions and ask if it’s really so important; this marriage of Judaism And The Arts.  Compared to, what?  Bible Study?  Meals on Wheels?  Financial support for the state of Israel?  Synagogue building maintenance? All of these are important too. What’s so special about Art?

Has a work of art ever led us to a more Jewish sense of self? We’ve all been moved by art, sure. But the question is, in what ways does loving Woody Guthrie lead to my praying here in Lisner? Which artists have left us spiritually elevated? Gerswhin? Copeland? Bernstein? Rothko? The bittersweet laughter of Wasserstein…? And as I’m listing and thinking about the importance of art in our lives, I’m reminded of another Woody—Woody Allen—and his famous list uttered into a tape recorder just before the end of his 1979 movie “Manhattan.”

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The Sounds of Sephardic Identity

Shirley here.

Last Sunday we hosted the fabulous musician and musicologist Ramón Tasat for a Post Show Panel Discussion titled: Sephardic Identity–An Encounter through Music. Stephen Stern, Theater J Council Member, led the conversation. We’ve posted some highlights (including several incredible musical excerpts) on Vimeo.

Sephardic Identity – An Encounter Through Music from Theater J on Vimeo.

And speaking of Vimeo, I’ll take this opportunity to point folks towards some of the discussions we recorded and posted earlier this season, during the run of OUR CLASS. The first was a pre-show talk that Jan Gross gave (author of the book Neighbors–which inspired the play); the second is a panel co-sponsored by the Polish embassy with esteemed guests:
• Tadeusz Słobodzianek, playwright of OUR CLASS
• Mr. Krzysztof Persak, Ph.D, Director of the Institute of National Remembrance President’s Office
• Derek Goldman, Director of OUR CLASS
• Allen Kuharski, Chair of the Department of Theater at Swarthmore College and an authority on Polish theater and drama

We love continuing the conversation beyond the stage, and this play gave us much to discuss. Follow us here on the blog and on Vimeo to keep up with the latest discussions!

Our Class Pre Show Discussion with Jan Gross at Theater J from Theater J on Vimeo.

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THE WHIPPING MAN Field Trip to Richmond

As THE WHIPPING MAN finished its first week of rehearsal, director Jennifer Nelson and stage manager Karen Currie scheduled for a cast field trip to Richmond, Virginia–where the Civil War drama takes place.

The trip included a drive along Monument Avenue–where the city honors its Confederate heroes;  a tour of downtown Richmond, past the current Capitol Building; and of course, a visit to Richmond’s Museum of the Confederacy.

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Actor Mark Hairston reads about the build-up to the Civil War

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Staging Dialogue at Theater J (Part 3) – The Community Conversation About Israel Outside the Cultural Sphere

from Staging Dialogue at Theater J: Negotiating Israeli Politics in Jewish Communal Encounters  by Elliot Leffler, University of Minnesota

(the essay starts here, and continues with part 3 below)

The Current Conversation (Or Lack Thereof)

In a 2010 article in The New York Review of Books, Peter Beinart argues that the major institutions that shape public opinion in the American Jewish community have actively discouraged an open conversation about Israeli politics.  By “defending virtually anything any Israeli government does” and publicly discrediting the human rights group that critique government policy, organizations like American-Israel Public Affairs Committee and the Anti-Defamation League set a tone for Jewish-American rhetoric that elides critical thought and nuanced conversation.  They have created a dogma for the Jewish community of what it means to be pro-Israel – a dogma which allows for little dissent (Beinart np).

Inside the primary local institutions of Jewish life in the US – synagogues – Jewish communities often speak the tropes that are modeled by the national organizations, or elide the conversation entirely.   In part, this is because we think of the synagogue primarily as a space for prayer.  When we pray, we speak in unison, move in unison, and refer to ourselves in the first-person plural, nurturing a sense of one-ness or communitas.[1]

([1] “Communitas,” according to anthropologist Victor Turner, is a sense of invigorating, inspiring unity catalyzed by community ritual (Turner 1982 47-48).)

As we do so, we inherently discourage dissent.  (The same resistance happens at other ritual gatherings, in which the ritual event also promotes a sense of communitas: Shabbat dinners, Passover Seders, family reunions, etc.)  Moreover, the pro-Israel symbolism within synagogues (flags in the sanctuary, Israeli art in the lobby, prayers for the State of Israel, etc) enables us to avoid an explicit conversation of how we differ in our feelings about Israel.  These symbols preserve a sense of peace and cohesion in the congregation, as they allow members of a wide variety of ideological stances (left-wing Zionists and right-wing Zionists, for example) to adopt the same symbolism.  We foreground that which we have in common, and privately, we nuance those similarities in very different ways (Cohen 18).

Anthony Cohen suggests that this ability of community to contain discordance is its “great triumph.”  This allows community members to establish a commonality that need not amount to a uniformity (20).  But, if there is no opportunity for community members to discuss, challenge, and refine their ideas, then Zygmunt Bauman argues that community becomes an oppressive place, in which we sacrifice freedom (to think independently) on the altar of communal security (4-5). As I argued in the previous section of this paper, the individuals who comprise the American Jewish community feel an increasing need to discuss and to question Israeli policy.  The emergence of more and more explicitly political plays about Israel throughout the past three decades attests to that need.  But rather than developing this dialogue in institutions that might accommodate a range of opinions, the Jewish community has largely splintered into opposing publics: a right-wing public that circulates its ideas through AIPAC, the ADL, the magazine Commentary, and other institutions, and a left-wing counter-public that circulates its ideas through the NIF, Americans for Peace Now, J Street, and the magazine Tikkun. This bifurcation into separate public spheres has impoverished the Jewish communal dialogue, creating a dual set of dogmas rather than establishing a dynamic space of open conversation and questioning.[2]

([2] A public, according to Michael Warner, is a space of discourse that organizes itself around an uptake of texts and a circulation of responses to those texts.  For instance, the right-wing Jewish magazine Commentary has a readership that engages with each other, through Commentary (and perhaps also through press releases from the ADL, AIPAC, and other Jewish organizations).  This readership constitutes a public.  I’m suggesting that left-wing Jewish organizations and publications, such as Tikkun, have created a counter-public – a public with a subordinate power status that organizes itself in opposition to a dominant public (Warner 2002).  Thus, the discourse largely takes place in two separate spheres. )

Theater J’s programming suggests that perhaps theatre can succeed where other institutions have failed. Plays that express a political opinion – or a number of conflicting opinions – engage audiences in a version of the dialogue that generally seems elusive within the American Jewish community.  Daniele Klapproth argues, after Deborah Tannen, that the process of watching a play is cognitively an active process of narrative involvement: as audience members make sense out of the images and sounds that originate on stage, they participate in a joint interactional achievement with the performers.  They engage in a silent conversation on issues they have been unable to discuss at their synagogues or their other Jewish gatherings.  In producing plays like Pangs of the Messiah and Return to Haifa, and staging readings like Seven Jewish Children, Theater J stimulates this nonverbal “conversation” with its audiences.

Yet Theater J also goes a step further than this silent conversation.  It has structured its programming to include extensive post-show discussions after every production of controversial plays like Return to Haifa and every staged reading of plays like Seven Jewish Children.  The theatre then supplements these conversations, which often last an hour or longer, with periodic “Peace Café” programs in which patrons gather with drinks and snacks to discuss the issues further.  Afterwards, the interactive Theater J blog is available for a continued conversation.  Thus, audience members can extend the conversation – a conversation which began as a tacit but active cognitive interaction with the performers – into a verbal and written engagement with other members of the Washington, DC Jewish community.  Continue reading

WHY I SUPPORT THEATER J

Dear Ari,

This email is in response to the “Citizens Opposed to Propaganda Masquerading as Art” (COPMA) letter attacking Theater J. The reaction of some in our community to Obama’s Middle East speech suggests that we need Theater J now more than ever.

It saddened me to see the COPMA letter. It is yet another example of the closed-minded fear to which our community is vulnerable. I write as as someone who was mentioned in the letter along with all the other panelists who participated in post-show discussions after the play, “Return to Haifa,” and as someone who has always been proud of my Jewish heritage. An active member of my synagogue, I have long been involved in the greater Jewish community, working as far back as the early 1980s for the Jewish Agency, the Joint Distribution Committee, and the National Conference on Soviet Jewry. I am also raising my children to be proud that they are Jewish and over the past several years our family has celebrated both our sons becoming bar mitzvah.

Those who wrote the letter think they are helping Israel and the Jewish people. The opposite is true. They are hurting the prospects for a peaceful, 2-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict and trampling on the values that define us as a people.

Theater J, with you as its courageous and creative artistic director, advances prospects for peace and understanding through the Voices from a Changing Middle East series of performances and after-show discussions. Is it anti-Israel to bring to a U.S. Jewish community stage the work of an Israeli artist, like the playwright who adapted, with some significant modifications from the Palestinian novella, “Return to Haifa” ? Is it anti-Israel and anti-Semitic to be open and honest? This play explores difficult issues for both Israelis and Palestinians. Some Israelis and American Jews may not want to hear that Israel has faults and that there were Jewish actions in 1948 that terrorized Palestinians and forced many of them to flee. And some Palestinians may not want to hear that Jews, like the holocaust survivors portrayed in the play, are unwilling to abandon the dream of a Jewish state.

The only way forward is to understand that the people on the other side are human beings who want the same things we do – a good life for themselves and their children. Demonizing them as a monolithic force bent on our destruction gets us nowhere. When we label another group as the cause of all that is wrong, we box ourselves into a corner by creating a circular argument and a self-fulfilling prophesy. If, for example, we say we don’t have a partner for peace because Palestinians and other Arabs are by definition our enemies, then we will, indeed, never have a partner for peace because we will never be able to see them any other way, no matter what they do. Such intransigence breeds more of the same in those we characterize as incapable of change. Hardened hearts mirror each other and create a vicious cycle. This is the COPMA approach.

It ignores a more nunaced reality that offers opportunities for peace. I personally know many Palestinians, both Muslim and Christian, who advocate nonviolence and are working with others here and in the region for a negotiated, sustainable resolution to the conflict for both peoples. Their Israeli counterparts include former heads of the Shin Bet and the Mossad, former military leaders and diplomats, and the son and daughter of slain prime minister Yitzhak Rabin.

Only when both sides open up can they move out of conflict. Theater J’s plays and post-show discussions – and I have been to many – facilitate this desparately needed openness by creating a safe space for listening, learning, and growing. It is not just Jews who listen and grow, but the Palestinian participants, too. They are challenged by a range of perspectives, including seeing Zionism through Jewish eyes. They see how emotionally connected many Jews are to Israel, how torn many of us feel over what is happening there, and how honestly we are willing to examine it and ourselves. Such candor encourages them to explore their own preconceptions.

This is not bashing Israel. This is asking questions and wrestling with it. This is what Jews do.

Whether at the seder table or the kitchen table on all other nights of the year, my grandfather, may he rest in peace, always taught me to ask questions, to try and see all sides of an argument, and to seek justice and pursue it. And he taught me never to see others as less than ourselves, for we, too, were once, and for many centuries have been, outcasts in a foreign land. This, he would tell me in his slight Yiddish accent, as he sat in his Bronx apartment under a painting of rabbis davening in their tallis and tfellin, is our heritage. These are the values that have sustained our people. Your work, Ari, and Theater J epitomize them.

Yasher koach,

–Kay Halpern
Silver Spring

Theater J Plays the FDIC

Last Wednesday, May 12, Theater J actor Alexander Strain and I went out to Arlington, VA and presented a program before 400 at the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation main offices, on a video simulcast that went to hundreds of branch offices throughout the country. The program, sponsored by the FDIC’s Office of Diversity and Engagement was to observe Jewish American Heritage Month, signed into law only recently. President Obama’s proclamation, “calling upon all Americans to observe this month with appropriate programs, activities, and ceremonies to celebrate the heritage and contributions of Jewish Americans” appears below, as does the cover of their very handsome program. Below that, notes from my talk (one day we’ll turn it into something more formal).

I modified the title of my talk to create more of a link with the work done by the fine folks at the FDIC, and so presented a talk on “Stress Tests” — How drama forges revelation by putting ideas, institutions, and individuals to a dramatic test, heightening tensions to reveal character… in the same ways that the FDIC puts banks through stress tests to assess whether large U.S. banks can survive a protracted slump.

Stress Testing and The Idea Made Flesh – Transforming the Philosophical into Action at Theater J

I am honored to speak here today at the FDIC as part of Jewish American Heritage Month observances. You’ve invited the Artistic Director of a Jewish Theater to help you Appreciate What This Particular Heritage Means. What do we as Americans appreciate about being Jewish? What do we value most in our culture? For me, it’s our heritage of inquiry.

Of reading carefully and questioning our inheritance; putting our biblical and mishnaic narratives under a microscope. From this rabbinic tradition, taught in our houses of learning and worship, a discourse of jurisprudence emerged (and that’s why Jews, of course, have made good lawyers; practice). As it applies to Jewish law, we call this forum for hypothesizing, parsing and explication the Talmud.

As it applies to Jewish behavior, identity, and the way we live our lives—WHAT KIND OF PEOPLE WE ARE and how we record that, and analyze that–we call that Literature; the scrutinized unfolding of our lives.  Taking those words off the page, and bringing them to life in five dimensions: we call this is the act of Drama.

What type of drama do we do at Theater J?

Dramas that show us who we are; not merely by holding up a mirror and recording our debates; our dilemmas – but in putting those dilemmas to a test. Our Dramatists conduct stress tests on a little depository of ideas called the family; the community; we put a community to a test.

We are a community full of teeming diversity – a many splendored, divergently opinionated people.

We are a theater that celebrates its heritage and also lives by the highest standard of its art. And so we take the notion of “Jewish peoplehood” and put that to the test; into the smythie of a dramatic crucible to examine the fractures and fissures, and to argue for a strengthened and more unified/fused amalgam to emerge.

We take an idea–like responsibility to our parents–and put that to the test. We take a question, a proposition, and infuse it with it tension, contentiousness, high stakes. This pertains to comedy as well as drama; to musicals as well as to straight plays. The theater is ABOUT Heightened Stakes.

Theater J often subjects OUR OWN LOCAL COMMUNITY TO A STRESS TEST. Sometimes this yields controversy. More hopefully, it sheds light; it clarifies internal conflict simmering beneath the surface. It reveals something of our nature, in how we respond.

Theater J is also SUBJECTED to stress tests itself. For example today, as we receive a less than enthusiastic review in our paper of record for a show we believe in and that audiences are embracing. This “ding” tests our mettle; how will we–and our show persevere when external affirmation is less than forthcoming? Is that why we produced the play in the first place? For a good grade in the paper? Where do we find the internal affirmation to keep driving forward?

Stress tests, therefore, can often result in a stronger constitution, even if they’re initially painful to experience.

Let’s explore some case examples:

Sean Dugan (David) and Bill Hamlin (Richard Resnick) in Spring Forward, Fall Back

SPRING FORWARD/FALL BACK — in which case the subject is the family: and the stress test is Time and the inexorable force of cultural assimilation

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“It’s powerful to realize that you are not alone”

Shirley here, with some reflections on the past week.

As you’ve been reading in Ari’s entries—we spent Monday and Tuesday of this week downtown at the Grand Hyatt, attending the first J Street Conference. And by “we” I mean—Ari, me, several of our Theater J Council members, handfuls of other Theater J friends and subscribers, and about 1,450 other folks who fit somewhere along the “Pro-Peace, Pro-Israel” spectrum. How was it? Exciting. Enlightening. Exhausting.

There was a shortage of chairs. They expected 1,000 people to attend, but something along the lines of 1,500 showed up. So no matter where you went, or what session you were attending, there were usually too few chairs. So people hunkered down on knees, sat cross-legged in corners, and leaned against walls. The most important thing, it seemed, was to BE THERE, to LISTEN.

When you work at a theater and something like this comes up, a conference or an event out of town, something that takes you away from your DESK, from your WORK, there is always a voice in the back of your mind wondering “Should I be here? Am I falling behind in all of the IMPORTANT STUFF I have to do at my desk? Was this WORTH IT?” my feeling after two days at the conference and now one day back at the office is that, it would have been negligent NOT to have been there. With the amount of programming we do around Israel and the middle east it seems absolutely necessary that we check in and put our collective Theater J finger on the pulse of that world. What are people thinking about? What are they advocating for? What bothers them? What excites them? Continue reading