Itamar Moses Addresses The J Question (part 1)

THE FOUR OF US author, Itamar Moses, delivered the most memorable of all the many fine talks at this past summer’s International Association for Jewish Theatre conference in New York. Reprinted here, with his permission, is part one of his talk.

I’ve never done this kind of things before, so bear with me. I mean, I’ve addressed groups, but usually just to answer questions, or maybe when I’m teaching, which I haven’t done in a while either. And when Edward Einhorn asked me to do this I asked him if he had any more specific guidelines than that I should talk about Judaism, Theatre, Culture, and Ideas. He said, “No.” So. Like I said. Bear with me. He also gave me an hour and I promise to bequeath at least one third of that time back to the universe.

I’ll start with an anecdote which is actually true.

Last November, a play that I wrote opened off-Broadway, and, as is usually the case when a new play opens by a young writer, the New York Times came, and bravely panned it, and, because the New York Times is, and has been for many decades, the only critical outlet that has any effect whatsoever on a play’s commercial viability, I knew that this meant the play wasn’t going to extend or have a commercial transfer, even if every single one of another dozen reviews were excellent. (Which, by the way, I feel obliged to point out that, in this case, pretty much all of them were. The associated press called it “riveting” and time out new york said it was “taut and beautifully modulated” and the wall street journal said it was “a superior piece of work.” Want to see it now? Too bad. You can’t. It closed.) I also knew, though I don’t really read reviews, or at least not the ones I hear are bad, that the gist of the criticism was that my play was content to skim the surface of its subject, because when you get a bad review people send you emails refuting it, with the possibly unintended effect of telling you what it says. I furthermore also knew, whatever we always say about not reading or caring about reviews, that because the theatrical community has internalized this tyranny to such a degree that everyone I talked to for the next few weeks would say things like, “I was surprised that play wasn’t more well-received.” As though the rest of the critical, not to mention the audience, reception, was irrelevant. So at the very least it’s fair to say that I was in a philosophical mood that morning.

I live in Park Slope, Brooklyn, right in the gentrified heart of the neighborhood, which means that I am often accosted by various people in bright blue t-shirts trying to get me to stop and give some money or time to various causes. These days it’s gay rights, “Do you have a minute for gay rights?” The question is always phrased this way. During the campaign it was, “Do you have a minute for Obama?” Sometimes it’s, “Do you have a minute for the environment?” The question is carefully framed to acknowledge that, more than my money or my signature, the real demand they’re making is on my time and attention. And but so in addition to those people, you’ll also sometime run into Hassidic jews, all in black, trying to get you to wrap teffilin, or, if it’s autumn, shake a lulav, or just generally to foist onto you whatever ritual act is appropriate for that time of year or day, and, as many of you may know, the question these people always ask, when you walk by them is, “Excuse me, sir, are you Jewish?”

And, whereas, “Do you have a minute for the endangered manatee?” is a question constructed to allow you to say, “Not right now but good luck I love the manatee” without any awkwardness, “Excuse me, sir, are you Jewish?” is a question designed to trap you. Because your options are to say, “No” which doesn’t feel quite right if you, like me, are Jewish, or to say “Yes” and then weirdly just keep walking, or to say something like “yes but no” meaning “yes I’m jewish but no I don’t have time for you right now not that you asked.” One time I said, “Not right now.” And the guy just laughed and said, “It doesn’t depend on the time.”

So that morning, the morning my play had been slammed in the Times, I was walking through my neighborhood. I was carrying a book. It was a book I’d received as an opening night gift from the theatre, one vaguely inspired by the play. The play was about athletes, and the theatre had given me a beautiful coffee table book of photographs of athletes, published by Sports Illustrated. These really gorgeous photos of basketball players in flight or boxers glaring wearily into the lens, that kind of thing, really intense stuff, quite beautiful. And as I carried this book under my arm, one of those Brooklyn Hasids approached me and said, “Excuse me, sir, are you Jewish?” And I thought, on this morning, which is different from all other mornings, perhaps I am in need of at least some kind of spiritual exchange, it might be nice to engage with something larger and older than non-profit off-broadway theatre, something ancient that might even restore my perspective on the origin and purpose of art itself. So I said, “Yes.”

And the guy says, “You have the look.” Then he hesitated like he was worried he’d insulted me, or Jews, or something, and clarified, “I mean, not that you can always tell from the way a person looks but certain people there’s this sense that….” So then he says, “Tell me. Where did you get that book?” And I said, “I’m a playwright. And I had a play open last night, and it’s a play about sports, and so the theatre gave me this as a gift.” And he said, “Oh. It’s better than I feared. It’s not something you purchased for yourself but rather something you received as a gift.” I said, “What?” And he said, “This is a very base and terrible publication and in particular they produce one issue of their magazine each year that is especially disgusting and what I advise you regarding this book is that you get rid of it and divorce yourself from it…oh don’t open it!” Because, when I started to attempt to show him that this was essentially a collection of artsy photos of people achieving the absolute limit of what is physically possible for human beings, and not a compilation of swimsuit photos, he shielded his eyes and averted his gaze like he was Indiana Jones at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark. So instead I just walked away.

And as I was leaving I heard him say, from behind me, I am not making this up, he said, “Also you may want to consider a change of career. It’s…not ideal.”

I am not now nor have I ever been a particularly religious Jew. I was born in Berkeley, California in the late seventies – that’s not the entire explanation – I was born in Berkeley, and, while there is a large and thriving Jewish community in Berkeley, some of it Orthodox, there’s also a large Israeli immigrant community, which included both of my parents, and Israeli Jews often locate their Judaism in the simple fact of their being Israeli, even if they don’t live there anymore, with the religion kind of like parsley decorating a steak – you can have it if you want to, but it’s not really what you ordered.

Nevertheless, the fact and importance of our Jewishness was a constant: my parents gave my sister and I Israeli names, ensuring, among other things, that I’d have to introduce myself at least twice to everyone I met for the rest of my life; until fifth grade I went to a Jewish Day School where Hebrew and Judaic Studies were on the curriculum; at first we didn’t go to synagogue much, because my parents weren’t comfortable with either of the nearby options, one Orthodox and one Reform, but as soon as a Conservative synagogue appeared in Berkeley, we started going a lot; and throughout it all at home we lit candles and observed all of the holidays and there was a fair amount of Hebrew spoken, usually when people were yelling. I was Jewish. It’s not that I would, as a kid, have resented the implication that I wasn’t Jewish enough. The suggestion would have baffled me.

I would have had no idea that it was possible to be more Jewish that I was, or, rather, I didn’t consider the Orthodox Jews that I knew to be more Jewish just kind of differently Jewish. More inconveniently Jewish. Like, okay, you can’t play video games on your Atari on Saturday, which is one of the only days on which you have sufficient time to play video games, and so that just seems perverse. Really, what unjust God would require this kind of sacrifice? Orthodox Jews were, to me, Jewish in a way that was less focused exclusively on the fun parts, like food and singing harmony on evocative minor-key melodies, and more concerned with the notion of obedience to a specific idea of God in a way that, even then, seemed to me to kind of miss the point.

So what was the point?

When I was in the ninth grade, I started going on weekend retreats with a Bay Area Jewish Youth Group called Midrasha, which mainly practiced the Northern California acoustic-guitar-based variety of Judaism. On one of the early retreats, there was a designated time for “lights out” that was unacceptable to any self-respecting fourteen-year-old who was away from his parents. The standard rebellion against this for most of the kids was to “sneak out” of the cabins at night through the windows, which led to a lot sprinting across fields in the darkness, getting chased by the counselors, and by eleventh grade junior counselors, and, ultimately to “getting busted” as we called it and being sent home early. What wasn’t clear was what these kids, from the valley I hasten to add, not from Berkeley, were even sneaking out in order to do. See girls? Get high? They didn’t ever seem to actually get away with doing anything. They just got in trouble and then did it again until there had to be a hushed conversation with someone’s parents and you never saw that kid again. My friends and I, the Berkeley kids, Gabe, Jesse, Dan — guys I’d known my whole life, since my days at that Jewish Day School, guys I’m still friends with, Gabe is getting married next month, in the Santa Cruz mountains, and I just bought my ticket — we had a different approach. An hour after lights out, maybe, we’d walk casually out the front door of our cabin, go to the common room where the counselors were having a meeting, sit down among them, and participate: “I think we don’t have time tomorrow for both the hike and the sing-along. We’re going to have to cut one of those, much as it breaks my heart.”

And the counselors would laugh and we’d get to stay up later. In a way, we were just doing what we thought was funny. But we also seem implicitly to have recognized that punishment had nothing to do with disobeying the rules, per se, but with treating the counselors like mean authority figures, because then that’s what they became. And of course it made them angry. No one wants to be told that they’ve grown up to be everything they used to hate. And in any event they hadn’t, not really. Mainly, they were goofy slackers, just like us, but ten years on.

Meanwhile, during those years, whenever I talked about or wrote about what my favorite thing was about being Jewish or what was important to me about being Jewish or what defined Jewishness for me – which happened more often than you might think when you factor in application essays and personal essays and what I did last summer essays and oral presentations and closing speeches at festivals of arts and ideas – I had a stock answer, and my stock answer was that I loved Judaism’s emphasis on questioning. Which is, if you think about it, hilarious. But I always praised the Jewish tendency to embrace rather than to suppress interpretation and debate. I mean, I also loved the friends I made and building memories together through rituals that I could later be nostalgic about, but everyone does that, that’s a part of growing up, and not essentially or exclusively Jewish. So I’d write about or talk about how, even, say, at the most Orthodox Yeshiva, everyone is literally assigned someone to argue with over everything they’re studying, a Chevruta Partner. And how the pages of the Talmud surround the original text with commentary, and then, increasingly small, commentary on the commentary, and so on, until it looks almost vandalized, like a culture-wide bathroom stall, and how I thought that this was great.  The fact that I had never actually read most of this original text, let alone the commentary, was an unimportant nuance. The awareness that the commentary existed, and was permitted, even encouraged, gave me, I felt, tacit permission to look at Judaism in a certain way.

I didn’t see a connection then between our youth group shenanigans, which were taking place in a Jewish context, and what I kept saying was central to my Judaism until, well, okay, basically until I started working on this part of this speech. Now the connection seems obvious. (Writing is just as often about telling the truth to yourself as it is about telling it to other people. Or, first you have to do one before you can do the other. Or something.) So, for instance, when the kids from the valley eventually complained about the strictness of the rules, trying, as always, to fight authority only through the most obvious official channels, and the only concession they could secure was that it was okay to be outside the cabins after lights out if you were demonstrably on your way to the bathroom, whereas they were frustrated, because thought this was a defeat, we began walking around at all hours of the night holding toothbrushes, insisting, no matter where we were or what we were doing, that we were on our way to brush our teeth.

“Why are you guys playing tetherball at two in the morning?” “We’re on our way to the bathroom. Look: my toothbrush.” It was like post-modern insubordination, disobedience that contained within it commentary on itself, and on the arbitrariness of roles and rules. It was, in other words, kind of Talmudic. The valley kids accepted the premise that, because the lights out rule existed then to break it must be bad. We posed the question: what if breaking this rule can be hilarious and awesome and make everybody’s experience here better even that of the people who are supposed to be enforcing the rules?

We did this kind of thing everywhere, for years. In eleventh grade, when we were junior counselors for that year’s ninth graders ourselves, we begged until they let us handle the night watch duties after lights out, not because we wanted to preserve order, but because we want to put on camouflage and face paint and carry giant police-grade flashlights and pretend we were commandos, which is what we did. We had a running joke where, whenever we met a new authority figure, one of us would pull him aside for a serious discussion in which we placed him in charge of whatever he was already in charge of.

After the first sports practice, you’d pull the coach aside and say: “Listen, I really like the leadership qualities you showed today and, if you think you handle it, I’d like to actually let you ‘coach’ this team.” Senior year of high school, on the first day of Physics, when the teacher asked if there were any questions, Gabe pointed at the word “Physics” written on the board and said, “Now, are we actually going to learn in this class to be psychic?” You’re thinking, oh, so you guys were smartass pricks. Yes. But I also think it was more complicated than that. On the first day of college, when I met my Dean, I had written his name and title on my name tag, and asked him how he was settling in and if there were any questions he might have. He said, “Hm. Role reversal. Very amusing.” But he didn’t actually laugh. This may have been a sign that I was finally too old to this kind of thing but it may also simply have been because my college Dean was not a Jew.

Now, of course, this attitude towards the world is kind of how I make my living. There is very little overtly Jewish content in my work, very few specifically Jewish characters or themes, at least so far, I’m kind of still just getting started, but the way I approach playwriting and theatre, the spirit of inquiry or questioning, is completely bound up with a worldview that is, to me, fundamentally Jewish. It’s not just that my characters are themselves sort of questing and ambivalent, or that the process of writing a play necessarily involves divvying up your own psyche a little so that you can give equally passionate and plausible points of view, or parts of you, to different characters who disagree with each other. I’m also very interested in playwriting as a form, how the form tells stories, and how questioning the form itself, exploring the limits of what’s possible with the form, can itself be a part of the storytelling. Which is also kind of Talmudic, if you consider that biblical narrative, whether you believe it’s the literal word of God or not, is a story in which mankind tries to make sense of itself and its place in the universe, and the Talmud to be kind of exposing the building blocks of that story and making that a part of the story.

Plays, and novels and TV shows and paintings, all art, really, are, at their best, shards of this same story. Not of the bible, but of the pre-biblical flowering of human consciousness that made us self-aware enough to write the bible. Or, that made us worthy to receive it. Depending on your point of view.

What’s maybe interesting, though, is that despite, or even because, of the fact that I can make the argument that theatre, and the way that I do theatre, is one of the more Jewish parts of my life, at least culturally speaking, a total stranger also felt compelled to tell me that playwriting is not an appropriate pursuit for a Jew. And, sure, in addition to, or maybe even partly because of, theatre’s reputation for consisting basically of debaucherous narcissists competing for attention in small rooms, theatre, and art in general, is, in a sense, direct competition for religion.

One thing this means of course is that religion has nothing to worry about. But it’s the same reason Scientologists are threatened by psychotherapy: because psychotherapists charge less money to do the same thing. Though, given how expensive theatre tickets have become, again… But so the point is maybe a religious animosity towards artists emerges from the observation that art is essentially religion without God. That it is, in other words, ritual for its own sake rather than as a form of worship, beginning, oh who knows, with reenactments of the hunt, which then became theatre when Thespis stood on a hill and recited the Iliad, which in turn was rendered pointless when Beckett got depressed after the Second World War. (That’s the short version. I just saved you all $80,000 in graduate school loans.)

And there is something analogous, maybe a little loosely or tendentiously analogous, but nevertheless analogous, about the experience of an audience at a play and a congregation at a synagogue. The analogy already lines up imperfectly between the audience and the congregation, for one thing because there is generally more participation from religious audiences, although that depends on the religion, and on the audience, and on what you mean by participation, and but gets even murkier elsewhere, so rather than get bogged down in, “So wait, is the Rabbi the director, and people who read Torah portions are the actors, or, no, wait, maybe the Rabbi is an actor, too…” rather, in other words, than trying to fill in the blanks in some kind of equation, and rather than ask a really vague question like, “Can’t the arts and religion just get along?” which is, like, “Can’t science and religion just get a long?” the kind of question to which the answer is either obviously yes and obviously no depending on what you mean by “get along” and which in any case would be a pretty loaded not to mention compromised question coming from me anyway, since I’ve already revealed that I’m not religious, I’ll just say that I think there is something very very interesting lurking in this analogy that I think is worth talking about and thinking about some more.

The best religious experiences I’ve ever had – and I don’t mean religious experience like “religious experience” like “I had Dim Sum last weekend and it was a religious experience” I mean just literally experiences involving religion – have basically consisted of people coming together, around some story, to talk about what it means. For Passover every year, a group of families that were all friends would get together for a Seder, and everyone would get an assignment, to read up on the ten plagues, or the four questions, and to give a little presentation to the group when we got to that part of the Haggadah. There was someone leading the Seder, sure, but the role was more gentle facilitator than tyrannical doctrinaire. This has been true of all my favorite Rabbis. And I mean “Rabbi” both literally and figuratively, my best classroom experiences have involved teachers who were not an end in themselves but rather a conduit to something larger, something that student and teacher together invited into the room, a third party, a story we’re trying to interpret together.

I’m using “story” pretty broadly here to mean I guess any closed system with its own rules of cause and effect. History is a story, sure, and literature has stories, there are stories in literature and there’s the story of literature, but I mean science too, science is a story, and math is a story, a story a good math teacher can invite into the room with you, to live it with until you understand it. And it’s the same thing that great art invites into the room, into the space between or around the art and the viewer, and all the artist has done is to craft a window of a particular shape and size that looks onto that story. And it’s the same thing that visits the artist during the creative act, only then the third party appeared between or around the artist and the art.

Or, take a personal essayistic piece of writing like this, like the one I’m delivering now. To the extent that I even have a point, the evidence for it is my experience: the anecdotes I’ve told, about the Hassidic man on the street, or the stories from my ninth grade youth group retreats. And these carry weight because I told you that they were true. Which they are, by the way, I’m not preparing to pull some kind of sneaky trick where I suddenly reveal that I made those things up, I didn’t. But if I were to tell you that I made them up you’d probably feel betrayed, or at least confused, and in any event you’d find whatever points I’m trying to make to be less persuasive because the foundation on which those points were resting would suddenly have vanished. But if I were writing a play, or a novel, or making a movie, about my camp experiences, and presented all those scenes as the adventures of my young protagonist, and bookended it with a scene of the protagonist as an adult having an encounter with a Hassidic Jew on 7th Ave. in Brooklyn, I’d actually be making exactly the same points, and if you were touched or moved by this movie, and someone said to you, yes, well, it’s only a movie, you’d wonder what this person even meant. So what? you’d say. I got it. I got what he was saying. In fact, in that case, if someone then told you that the movie was autobiographical, it might then carry for you less weight, it might feel earthbound in a way that it didn’t when you thought that it was fiction, less readable as metaphor.

In either instance, the stories in question don’t change. What changes is your initial belief about the story’s origin. Why is this change so painful? Why does it sap things of their meaning? I’m actually asking. I don’t know. But it’s especially weird because, as a writer, I know that things are almost never just one or the other anyway. People are always asking writers whether their work is autobiographical as though the answer could possibly be “yes” or “no” whereas in my experience the answer it always some variation on “kind of.” Every piece of writing needs some kernel of truth to keep it tethered to meaning and every piece of writing also needs the freedom of imagination to let it soar. Art as a kite, is I guess the image here. The real conscious experiences of the artist bind it to the earth, and while, the unconscious, is the wind. (The ruach, as it were, to spin this for my current audience.) And this is true of fiction and non-fiction, both, I’m telling you.

Which is why when I suggested earlier, of the bible, that the difference between our having written it and our having received is one of point of view I was only being halfway glib. To write something is to receive it. “From where” is a question that no one has ever been able to satisfactorily answer and personally I don’t think it’s a very interesting one. The question that interests me is, “How can I remain in contact, as often as possible, and throughout my life, with that place, whatever and wherever it is?” The Jewish story is, yes, in itself, a powerful one, and Jewish religious texts are, yes, in themselves, rich and fascinating, but the real power of Judaism, to me, is in the approach to that story and those texts, a way of thinking and feeling that applies to all of life.

Now, the guy on 7th avenue might quite reasonably object, at this point, and tell me that I’m wandering into some dangerously new-agey territory here. He’d say that, actually, Judaism has specific laws and that that’s what makes it Judaism, and that the point is to obey those laws, not to seek out some vaguely defined spiritual satisfaction for myself and treat my own feeling of connection to something larger than myself as the only evidence I need that I’m doing it right. He’d say it’s great that I had some nice camp experiences but “Jewish” can’t simply mean whatever I say it means because if that’s the case then “Jewish” ceases to mean anything at all. In response to which I’d say, “Good point. But. The question ‘What is the meaning and purpose of my life?’ and the question ‘How should I spend all of my time?’ are actually two different questions. And isn’t one potential pitfall of total adherence to millennia old tenets the danger that you might simply be finding comfort in having a permanent answer to the second question, because you have this book that tells you what to do with all of your time, without ever having to genuinely engage with the much more difficult and elusive first question? In other words, if religion actually rescues you from ever having to ask, ‘What is the meaning and purpose of my life?’ then what’s the point? I mean you probably think that secular people like me live lives that are more cushy and lazy than yours and in a way that’s true. But it’s also worth asking, who really has it tougher?

Psychologically, I mean. Whose hoeing a tougher row, internally? You, who already knows everything? Or people who allow themselves to admit, at every turn, the possibility that they might be wrong? Or would you say that that’s the point, to make my internal life easier, by no longer asking any questions? In other words, do you think I am simultaneously lazy and making things too difficult for myself? Because frankly I don’t see how I can possibly be guilty of both at the same time.” That’s what I’d ask him. And I’d be interested to hear his answer. But of course we didn’t have that conversation. He didn’t invite a conversation. He just walked up to me and told me what to do and that was the end of our exchange.

Another anecdote.

(to be continued…)