Why Do a Reading of Churchill’s “Seven Jewish Children” at a Jewish Theater?

Check out this important post from Washington DCJCC’s Josh Ford, our Chief Programming Officer. It’s up on the 16th Street J blog and cross-posted on the Makom website

You can understand the outrage. Imagine it: a non-Jewish, British playwright has the temerity to write something as provocative as the line, “The Jews do not belong here” and a Jewish theater, in a fit of obvious self-loathing, gives that voice a venue by placing it on its stage. I am not speaking of the sudden controversy surrounding Caryl Churchill’s short-play, Seven Jewish Children which the Washington DCJCC’s resident professional company Theater J will present readings of this week. Rather, I am referring to the same Theater J’s production of David Hare’s Via Dolorosa nearly a decade ago, in the fall of 2000.
Back then we knew we were undertaking something with the potential to be controversial for its outsider’s observations of the Israel-Palestine conflict. We braced ourselves for outrage. We prepared our leadership for potential protests, even boycotts. We were not doing this merely for controversy’s sake, but because of our belief, that the work – consisting mainly of Mr. Hare’s channeling the voices of the various Israelis and Palestinians he met – confronted us with a challenging and artful portrayal of ourselves and our Israeli cousins. But so concerned were we about the potential for outraged audiences that we built into the presentation of the play a response vehicle, “The Peace Café” co-created by artistic director Ari Roth, Theater J councilmember Mimi Conway and a frequent participant in Arab-Jewish dialogue, restaurateur and Iraqi-American Anas Shallal. Following the performances, audiences gathered around tables, broke bread and picked from a menu of discussion questions and quotations of some of the play’s most provocative lines.
In spite of all our fears, or perhaps because of them, the tidal wave of controversy never materialized, but the Peace Café experience gave us a model with which to engage more controversial material in the years to come. Meanwhile, the work itself, Via Dolorosa has gone on to productions both at other Jewish theaters and in Israel itself.
If you have an opinion in this matter I hope to G-d you’ve taken the time to read the seven pages of verse that’s causing all the ruckus. I have neither the space nor the charge to do an explication of the work here, but if this is to be a Jewish argument, which is to say, an argument amongst Jews, then I hope we can all work from the source text and not just the commentaries.
So what’s different about Seven Jewish Children? Via Dolorosa was the theatrical equivalent of a documentary in its specific attribution of comments and ideas to individuals either named, like Benny Begin and Shulamit Aloni, or unnamed but definitely real, like the American settler couple Mr. Hare spends Shabbat with on the West Bank. Ms. Churchill’s work goes as far in the other direction as possible: neither the speaker nor to whom they are speaking, nor when they are speaking are ever made explicit. Ms. Churchill doesn’t assign statements to individual actors, instructing instead that,
The lines can be shared out in any way you like among those characters. The characters are different in each small scene as the time and child are different. They may be played by any number of actors.
The result is that it becomes difficult to find an authentic and specific Jewish voice in a work so broad that it is somehow attributable to all Israelis and no Israelis, to all Jews and yet no one Jew. Which speaks pointedly to the fact that while David Hare traveled the land of Israel gathering the cacophony of voices in his play, Ms. Churchill participates in an obstinate cultural boycott of Israel and does not even permit her works to be performed there. So there’s two strikes against Ms. Churchill. Let’s even throw in for argument’s sake that maybe she’s also a bit of an anti-Semite. That doesn’t take away from the power and verisimilitude of the compressed language she puts on the page for I would argue, five-sixths of the short work. That last part, suffers not from the caricature of a racist, belligerent, ultra-Nationalist (anyone caring to read material equally offensive but of more estimable provenance need only peruse Amos Oz’s essay “The Tender Among You and Very Delicate” from his collection In the Land of Israel); but its lack of attribution.
To keep reading the rest of Josh’s post click here.