We’ll be sharing wise words arising from three different discussions held over the past week, (including a post-performance Peace Café) each reflecting reactions from very different parts of our theater-going community. Kudos again to Stephen Stern and Hannah Hessel for organizing these forums.
It’s critical that PANGS OF THE MESSIAH speak to a diverse range of people and that our discussions voice reactions from friends in the religious Jewish communities, as well as moderates, Peaceniks, church-goers, Arab-Americans and Palestinians who come to this play with radically different orientations. Somehow, the play manages to be riveting (and quite challenging) to all.
In this first part focussing on last Sunday’s discussion, Stephen recaps a powerful session focussing on a religious reponse to the play (“People of the Text, and of the Yearning and Wrestling Soul”), and he’s received a written contribution from Erica Brown, scholar-in-residence at the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, who moderated the panel.
Stephen Stern: The powerful, heartbreaking drama, PANGS OF THE MESSIAH awakens the need for conversation with others about its passions and its warnings. The beauty and tragedy of the play stem from its immersion in Jewish family relations, religious practice and ideology — and in the love, broken apart — of family (mishpacha), land, and nation. In programming discussion of this show, one thing I hoped was to stimulate a conversation among fellow Jews, through Jewish sources, to further encounter the people and lessons of PANGS.
On July 8, under the general title of “Religious Life on the West Bank: Values, Tradition, Ideology” our post-show Artistic Director’s Roundtable was led by Erica Brown, scholar-in-residence at our Jewish Federation; with panelists Avi West, education officer at our Partnership for Jewish Living and Learning, and Michael Taub, translator into English of the original 1986 Hebrew version of the play.
Let’s first hear from Erica, in her think-piece, “Some Cursory Impressions of Painful Theater”
- Dr. Erica Brown:I saw and facilitated a discussion of a play three days ago, and it still sits in my stomach and my throat, like something that is too hard to digest and too problematic to ignore.I felt that Pangs of the Messiah raised a number of critical questions that don’t have easy answers. To me, the story is best told in the questions it left us as an audience:
• What is the difference between a passionate ideologist and an extremist?
• What is the relationship – both historic and futuristic – of the Jews to their biblical homeland?
• Does land matter or is peoplehood defined for us through purely human dimensions?
• What is the role of the radical moderate? Can there even be such a thing?
• What is the boundary between religious belief and fundamentalism?
• Who and how is that boundary identified?
• What course do we follow in the absence of leadership?
• What response can we expect from people who feel betrayed by their governments?
And, finally, how do we respond to a problem that is presented to us in a creative format but is representative of a real and burning political/spiritual/social dilemma in Israel today?
Stephen: Erica eloquently summarizes the many challenging questions raised by the pay. In last Sunday’s discussion, she started by echoing a dozen phrases from the play – such as “whose madness?…”using children like weapons.”, “desperate times demand desperate measures”, “I’ve got to change my shirt”, “what will happen to my house!?”
She noted that on the floor on which she stood (our set), were written words from the Bible’s “Lech Lecha” – God’s call to Abram to go forth from the land he knew, to build the foundation of the Jewish people in the land of Canaan, In real and symbolic ways, these word were the foundation and wellspring of the lives of the extended family of PANGS, and biblical echoes informed their every action.
Avi West presented the notion that text can be a chevruta (a style of Talmudic study with a partner), that has resonance when encountering Motti Lerner’s theatrical text come to life. The derivation of the very word Israel is in Jacob’s wrestling with the real and the ineffable. Avi was grateful for the learning and study opportunity of PANGS – a privilege provided by Israeli artists, and even Israeli politicians, to look deep into the soul and actions of these characters and their nation. Lech Lecha does establish love of the land as a source of the Jewish mission to walk it and settle it — a mission to do good. What are we to make of the 40 year contemporary opportunity that the “67 war opened up on this part of the Land of Israel? Avi cited the week’s Torah portion, in which Pinchas acts willfully and violently against violators of holiness to stave off plague infecting the people Israel. Yet it is not Pinchas, but the more seasoned and prudent Joshua, called to lead the people into the land.
How are we to take Shmuel’s “impossible” suicide which Erica stated was clearly against Jewish law? We know that it can and does happen among observant Jews. Avi pointed out that the “Masada complex” still moves uneasily within the Israeli ethos, and that exile (led by his valorous wife Amalia) felt personally impossible to Shmuel, all fed by the realization that he had become a liability to his community.
Michael Taub added that Shmuel saw clearly the state of violence and destruction they all had reached. Erica saw Shmuel overwhelmed by shock of recognition of his complicity in fueling his son-in-laws violent messianic ideology. Was their a hidden intention within the “unintended” consequences that led to Shmuel’s former pupil’s violent deeds? “Desperate times need desperate measures” which Shmuel turns on himself.
A woman in the audience could not see the religious women in PANGS as other than “stupid fools on so many levels;” another felt that Chava’s hatred and fear of her Arab neighbors was fuel for Benny’s violence; one asked why is this play called PANGS?; another audience member wanted to know if (which Erica gently adjusted to a hoped-for when) peace with the “neighbors” broke out could “haredi” (ultra-orthodox) and secular Jews find peace among themselves; and what about the role of the US and American Jews since ‘67 in all of this?
For Avi, the question of women as nurturers within the family and their role within the religious traditions of this extended family is more dynamic then seeing these women as repressed enablers of extreme men. There are questions of children as weapons and children as resources. The women of PANGS are the central gatekeepers of family as the “terrible chad gadya machine” of mutual devouring unsettles all. Their homes and settlement were founded above all to establish a quality of life for children – an opportunity to build a strong family, taking control away from distant Israeli bureaucracy. Avi referred to rabbinical notions that the messianic times will only dawn slowly and through travails and pain, as in childbirth — thus PANGS in the title.
Michael illuminated the twenty years since the original Israeli Hebrew text and production, and how this new updated version was impacted and “radicalized” by all that had happened in Israel since. There have been two intifadas, precarious peace pacts, assassinations, and deepening US and world involvement and frustration. While Benny was only a suspect in the terrible violent acts in the 1986 version, in our “2012” version he vehemently confesses and asserts its holiness. As to stresses within Israel, it’s not just the “haredi” versus the secular for Avi, but many ideologies contending within and among Israelis, religiously observant or not. Each of these paths brings and is about something of value. It is in their absolutism that they lead to “rivers’ of blood”. Bridges between them must be built and crossed with continuing dialogue.
Erica pointed our that the first “betrayal” we heard about in the play is US Jews, in their yearning to support peace, turning their back on Avner, the settlers’ lobbyist. For Avi, the deepest story about Israel is at long last the empowerment of the Jewish people, finally a people with a state and the power to make decisions. The land itself, has remained holy all along, and there is a suggestion that “redemption” of land is not primary. He closed with the rather mournful note that with all this empowerment as a state, Israeli governments find themselves increasingly unable to take decisive actions that heal breaches among peoples on the land.
Erica’s final quote was a kind of rubric for what we experience in learning together, in experiencing theater together, “We are drawn to what is too complex for our understanding.” I think there is a proper humility and yearning in that formulation. We need each other to consider deep conflict, to make bridges across chasms that defy human understanding. I think we need to deepen dialogue among Jews about what is ineffable and what is real. We need to face the sorrows of the conflict in the Middle East with our fellow Jews, and to build bridges to Arabs and all compassionate others. Stepping firmly onto these bridges, we might find opportunities to hear, to heal, and to reach whatever measure of human understanding we are allotted.
A thanks to Stephen again for this detailed report.
NEXT, in Part 2: Reflections from Jamal Najaab from our Peace Cafe, held on Thursday, July 12
Part 3, MJ Rosenberg of the Israel Policy Forum and Ziad Asali, director of the American Task Force on Palestine, respond after last nights’ July 14th performance.