Always Remember: While We Participate in the J Street Conference (and comment on the poetry corner controversy)…

…We do so, as we take part in any conference or gathering, not to endorse a particular lobbying effort, political platform or religious orientation, but to promote and present culture that reflects the times we live in now and historically. The Washington DCJCC and Theater J do not support or oppose candidates for elected public office. Opinions expressed in the plays we present and in the discussions we convene belong solely to the artists and panelists expressing them. We partner with many organizations and groups to present programs, but we do not endorse political views or policy positions – we present art and opinions about art that comment on the reality surrounding us. The Washington DCJCC and Theater J are committed to presenting a wide selection of programs that offer multiple viewpoints and encourage critical inquiry. A quick visit to our washington dcjcc calendar or a run-down of our plays in production give a true sense of the range of reflections being presented on our stage, and beyond the stage as well.

And now to share my response to the Booted Poets controversy — from our 9 AM conference presentation, October 26, (part one):

As late as a week ago, I was slated to introduce and then moderate a Spoken Word Performance panel during this slot, involving three young voices; Tracey Soren, Joshua Healy and Kevin Koval; in the latter two cases, young published poets with track records on the hip-hop spoken word scene, sharing rhythm and rhyme about Jewish identity and the challenge of being down with the left and still thinking warm but complicated thoughts about Eretz Yisroel and Palestine. These were the youngest of the artists on the J Street culture track (co-presented by Theater J, but selected exclusively by J Street staff ); poets telling like it was in clubs and on university campuses, playing Hillels and coffee houses and sometimes getting bounced out of synagogues by rabbis in mid-performance or a week before a given conference. Though I did not know their poetry, I thought moderating a discussion about utterly candid ruminations about being Jewish and engaged with Israel—struggling and wrestling with it in rhythm and rhyme—might be interesting indeed; why were rabbis inviting in and then canceling performances mid-stanza? But then wider word got out –a small contagious virus was injected into the blogosphere alerting a network that Holocaust imagery was being bandied about recklessly, and, over a tumultuous weekend for J Street, trying very much to redirect the media story—J Street cancelled the poetry corner. In its place, we at Theater J were asked to present—and indeed we happily volunteered—to create this Drama Hour (hour and a half, actually; on no, more like 20 minutes) and we intend to make good on this opportunity to share significant moments from the body of work we’ve amassed producing our annual, “Voices From a Changing Middle East” Festival.

But first a bit more on our cancelled session. I am pleased to report back from a reading held at Busboys and Poets yesterday at 4 pm where I heard Josh Healy and Kevin Koval hold forth, presenting the program they’d been enlisted to present at J Street. Josh opened the program and read from the three poems he was to have read here: “Family Settlement” – a poem about his dear Israeli relatives and the conversations that take place between cousins, uncles, aunts – “This is where the hardest conversations take place; among family. He read from “Where I Stay,” a meditation on the Deeper Meanings of East and West, Coast and Bank. And then the offending poem, “Queer Intifada.”

Kevin read from “Why I Stopped Going to Shul” and he named names; he named the rabbi who wishes for all his congregants to practice yoga (while supporting Operation Cast Lead), he named the shul itself (the richest in the city), and he named the make of luxury automobiles pulling out of the parking lot. He spoke of “the performance of violence; not its practice.” And he read from “Burning Books,” about the IDF’s shutting down of the Palestinian National Book Fair. I was reminded that art has many purposes and modes of delivering its portraits; and in this case, Kevin was making the case for the artists as alarmist; clanging the bell; loudly, clearly, angrily.

I’m supportive of the conscientious poet who unpacks complicated issues of identity and alliance and gives them voice and rhyme. Is everything that comes out of his, or indeed our mouths golden? No. Not always. So, although, it’s understandable that an artist may announce, in a spill of self-dramatization during the heat of an election when a Jewish democratic former vice presidential candidate has abandoned ship to support the Republican nominee and the poet exclaims he’d like to punch said former vice presidential candidate in the face; we understand that he’s not articulating a plan of action; he’s performing an emotion; he’s intentionally OVERSTATING his case for dramatic effect expressing heightened outrage, and we allow for that in performance, or from the poet on the interview couch, recognizing that it may not be his finest hour in rational discourse. But one doesn’t look for rational discourse from poets at the podium or on the interviewer’s couch. Or at a gathering of political conference-goers. One looks to the poet to share language that surprises, arrests, and reveals emotion. And we make of it what we will.

Or when a compassionate poet-performer goes to a rally in DC and witnesses competing claims of oppression, suffering, and victimization overlapping each other in front of the White House, and then comments on the cacophony of multiple rights communities stepping on each others messages, as Josh Healy does in his hip-hop anthem “Queer Intifada” and then backs away, digesting the madness, including his own confusion and quest for emotional clarity, and winds up intoning in a kind of neo-Ginsburgian homily, “Matthew Shepherd is Anne Frank, Guantanamo is Auschwitz”, we (or at least some of us) again understand, in the context of a much more persuasive 4 minute poem, that the poet is not to be taken literally; he is presenting the self as a vessel for distilling and synthesizing disparate slogans and icons; he himself becomes a metaphor for empathy in the wake of exhaustion; the affinity between unlike occurrences (Auschwitz/ Guantanamo) and victims (Shepherd/Frank) is not so impossible to fathom when one is moved and disoriented and propelled to a perch where universalizing takes place–where humanistic connection embraces all; even as the intellect parses and knows that there are distinctions to be made between the Holocaust and a political prisoners camp in Cuba, the poet/vessel of empathy moved to his epiphany has the right to co-join symbols; and yet, despite this right, the poet – yanked from the perch, the stage or the page and pressed into political purpose holds himself up to be thumped by parsing detractors. And that’s exactly what happened in this controversy involving J Street and the Weekly Standard. The poets got thumped. But shorn of their J Street Street cloak and chain, back on stage at Busboys and Poets and 100+ party people who came to hear call and response passion, the poets got their props.

As artists, we have a right to our metaphors. Do our metaphors exaggerate? Yes. Can that be acceptable in poetry, theater, painting, etc? I’d say, absolutely. Is a wonky convention like J Street’s comfortable with metaphor? Evidently not. Are we boycotting the J Street conference because of their decision to cancel poetry? No, we’re not boycotting. But in true J Street fashion, we’re articulating this dialectic: We’re Pro-Conference, and Pro-Art, and by that we mean, We Have A Right To Be Critical Of Our Hosts, Whom We Love, As We State What J Street Has Already Acknowledged; That They Acted Prudently But Morally Incorrectly.


3 thoughts on “Always Remember: While We Participate in the J Street Conference (and comment on the poetry corner controversy)…

  1. actually, kevin named the (senior) rabbi who makes the most zionist speeches ever. it was a different (assistant) rabbi (who is no longer there) who was the yoga-focused one.

  2. anybody else see this report from a WJW writer on Theater J’s participation in the “culture as a tool for change” track? It just recycled itself and was flagged on our Google alerts!

    By Adam Kredo, Rockville, Md
    Tuesday, October 27, 2009

    Controversy!? No. Just boring.

    Adam Kredo

    The “will they-won’t they”/”should they-shouldn’t they” controversy that erupted over Theater J’s participation in J Street’s first conference was, from its onset, utterly ridiculous.

    After witnessing two of the five sessions — both of which were innocuous snorefests – I’m further convinced that the hubbub was ludicrous at best.

    Detractors of the pairing had argued that Theater J was obligated to steer clear of J Street, and it’s so-called fanatical, left-wing agenda, lest the federation-funded entity sully itself in political activism.

    Since Theater J receives money from the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington – an apolitical, nonprofit organization – critics had argued that Theater J was breaking its nonpartisan imperative. Others quoted in WJW’s article on the (non)controversy, were more upfront about their basic distaste for J Street’s agenda.

    Either way, the sessions were harmless, playing out far beyond the anti-Israel, Jewish-bashing arena, as some might have imagined.

    Allow me to recount a few of the incredibly edgy things I witnessed. Try to stay awake, if you can.

    On Monday morning, Ari Roth, Theater J’s artistic director gathered with a few of troop’s actors to discuss how theater can become “a tool for change,” per J Street’s schedule.

    I sneaked into the session mid-way through to watch Theater J’s actors deliver an impassioned performance of a play I’ve never seen, some sort of family drama.

    Absent were the critiques of Israel, Arab sympathizing and other anthems residing in the Jewish hostility hole.

    Disinterested in the sheer mundanity of the whole thing, I left.

    Later in the day, I attended a Theater J/J Street session on the popular media, and – you guessed it – how it can be utilized as “a tool for change,” per J Street’s schedule.

    John Marks, the president and founder of Search for Common Ground – a group that develops ways to bring Palestinians and Israelis closer together – discussed how he uses documentary film making to alter the political landscape in the Middle East.

    Marks played video clips for the crowd, showcasing how his group brought together various Israeli and Palestinian diplomats to discuss solutions to the dueling sides’ largest problems, among them sewage filtration and the administration of Jerusalem’s holy sites.

    While enlightening to watch, the presentation was – again – incredibly tame. After all, Marks is focused on delivering solutions, not harping on either sides’ perceived injustices.

    He raised not one liberally biased flag.

    I can’t speak to the other sessions – which focused on storytelling and short films – but I’m willing to bet they wouldn’t offend anyone’s parents.

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