Talk for the Kehila Chadasha Havura in Bethesda, MD
(edited to avoid some repetitions from earlier postings)
Given Sunday morning, November 14
rendering by Diane H Cline
It’s been in the air and on our blog and newsletter and soon to be broadcast over national TV in the 3-part PBS Special Called “The Jewish Americans” — Some bigger questions about what we’re doing in the Jewish arts – why we’re doing it – and who are we doing it for.
How Jewish should a Jewish Theater aspire to be? Ours in particular.
And of course: What does it mean to be a Jewish theater?
Does it mean the writer has to be Jewish? What about when he or she is not (like Kathleen Tolan, or Akbar Ahmed, or David Hare) What’s the quotient: Do there need to be more than 4 Jewish references for it to be sufficiently inflected? What if there are only 3, like in our current SPEED-THE-PLOW with the references to Afikomen, Shtup, and the Bal Shem Tov?
Most pointedly for me: why bother being a Jewish theater when the demands and range of the art form force one into an engagement with the entirety of artistic expression? Why limit one’s viewfinder to explore only certain parameters in a world full of Chekhov and Ibsen and Shakespeare – are we only allowed to flex Shakespearean muscles when we’re dealing with the dreary figure of Shylock?
Why is this all in the air now?
Well, it’s the 10 year anniversary of my coming to Theater J, for starters. We’re writing an on line history – IN THESE FERVID YEARS – an homage to THE FERVENT YEARS – and going back to important, original questions. There’s also a Strategic Planning Committee discussing basic fundamentals too.
And most recently, we’ve been fielding reactions to a body of work that has undulated from secular world premieres to 3 Jewish titles in a row with perhaps too nakedly a Jewish ta’am, or taste. It makes some people uneasy.
Getting beyond the mere allergy of being “too Jewish” — I want to explore two components here – firstly, what undergirds this uneasiness of work that’s too narrowly focused? (in that I share this uneasiness, as you’ll soon see.)
But I also have a craving for the meat – the brisket – the substance at the heart of this enterprise of marrying our Jewishness and our Art. Where’s the paydirt?
We come to this question from two distinct points of origin:
– Our love of art and aspiration to make art
– Our home in our tradition, around the dinner table, in the synagogue, the summer camp – our religion.
Most days I show up for work aware that what I want to be is a great artist – not a great Jew. I wake up and go to my lap top wondering how can I push the art forward. How can I fund the art better. The art is more important than the Judaism.
But the Judaism is the bloodtype. It’s the fingerprint. It’s what identifies who I am, racially, biologically, fundamentally. But also, only up to a point. My Judaism is, like a bloodtype, fingerprint, or habitual behavior, something that classifies and distinguishes me. But really, those aspects are only filigree; grace notes; subtle differences when the overall corpus of that which is me quite obviously announces that I Am Human. I am a body made up of water, protein, bones, and occasionally toe fungus.
We do theater first, and the Jewish context and characteristics are sometimes – or perhaps always there – to be found in the bloodstream, finger prints, or the toe fungus; the filligree – but the overwhelming aspect of our work is that we put human beings on stage in motion, in conflict, in pursuit of holy grails and big ideas which are readily recognizable and identifiable to all.
Our identity undulates between the overwhelmingly universal, humanistic aspect of our art and the particular history, behavioral traits, tics and habits that mark us as Jews.
“Why Be Jewish?” “How does Judaism Add to Your Life?”
I was asked this by the National Conference of Hillel Directors. They were looking for me to run a workshop and write a resounding blurb for it.
I refused to answer. At least at first. Here’s what I said instead:
The responsibility of an artist is to tell the truth. And a Jewish artist is compelled to tell the truth about what it means to be Jewish. So when someone asks me as “Why be Jewish?” and “How does Judaism Add to Your Life?” I tell the truth and say, you know that question makes me a little bit queasy, but let’s explore that queasiness.
I am firmly devoted to that which I do. I run a successful Jewish Theater company and I write plays, occasionally with Jewish themes. The plays I produce reflect key aspects of the Jewish experience. Intertwined within that experience is an historical ambivalence about how much and how loudly I announce and practice my faith. I embrace my ambivalence as much as I embrace all of that about which I am proud.
How crucial a role does religiosity play in the formulation of a Jewish aesthetic? To go back to our first sentence, Jewish art holds up a mirror to who we are. The mirror is a portrait — a rendering of how we behave; how we live and die and suffer and cause pain to each other, to ourselves, to others, and how we celebrate; how we agitate; how we fornicate — how we Do It, basically; the “It” being live. And how we should live. What are the ethics of our forefathers and how are those ethics being rewritten today? How do we repair a broken world? The artist doesn’t lecture. The artist dramatizes that struggle; he animates the debate; she illustrates the source of light from whence hope might come in this dark world.
Jewish artists set the table and provide a menu for the tribe that is full of bounty, expanding the consciousness and the horizons of how we regard ourselves. We belong to the world. That needs to be a vital part of our message.
There is excitement in finding spiritual and cultural meaning on the razor’s edge of assimilation and identification; of ambivlence and spiritual commitment – That’s where the best work in American Jewish Culture has emerged – on this knife’s edge. We’ll see it throughout the PBS Special “The Jewish Americans.”
In the work of cartoonist Jules Feiffer and when he talks about the invention of “Superman” by two Cleveland Jewish boys, or Mandy Patinkin demonstrating Irving Berlin’s genius with its shtetl motifs embedded into American stardards, culminating, of course, in the holiday perennial “White Christmas” which, the composer Jack Gordon points out, “took the Christianity out of Christmas,” as a rash of other Jewish composers moved to create other Christmas standards (like “Rudolf the Red Nose Reindeer”) Matisyahu marries hip-hop, reggae, and hasidic incantation.
I love our culture. We are a creative, fractious, funny, and literate people, self-dramatizing, self-conscious, outward-gazing, morally probing, and consumed with burning questions. Our cultural attributes come from our source material; the Books that stamped us and gave us our original narratives; the Talmudic responsa that form the template of how we might respond to the challenges of the changing world; the prayers that lay the musical motifs for our petitions, our celebrations, our deepest expressions of desire; that which we want; which we beseech of God.
Yes, the arts truly are a gateway that lead us back to our religion. They’re an honest mode of transport, where we can travel kicking and screaming, or celebrating and meditating, on our way back to how it all began for us as Jews: With us accepting the charge to be Chosen. The artist wrestles with that word, as she illustrates our distinctiveness; as we question the moral correctness; we express our uneasiness; we embrace our ambivalence. But in the end we come back to the burden and the beauty of being Jewish. “Chosen People.” What does it mean? The Jewish artist, we can be sure, will provide a supremely rich answer.