from Staging Dialogue at Theater J: Negotiating Israeli Politics in Jewish Communal Encounters by Elliot Leffler, University of Minnesota
History of portrayal of Israel within the Jewish-American Theatre
The major works of academic literature on the Jewish-American theatre (Bial 2005; Novick 2008; Schiff 2004) begin their consideration of their subject in the early 20th century, though they recognize that Jews have been actively making theatre in the United States for longer than that. (Bial notes the career of Mordecai Manuel Noah, whose early 19th century patriotic plays about the American military garnered popular appeal ). The massive immigration from Eastern Europe during the anti-Semitic pogroms of the late 19th and early 20th centuries brought an unprecedented number of Jews to the emerging American theatre capital of New York, and an unprecedented number of these Jews found careers in the theatre.
(*Numerous theories exist about why so many Jews have found work in the American Theatre. This investigation is beyond the scope of this paper, but Bial provides a succinct overview of some of these theories (7-8). [see Works Cited at the end of this posting])
Theatre thus became one of the ways that the Jewish community in the United States told its stories to each other, reflected on its conundrums, and conducted a communal dialogue. Stephen Witfield has even noted (somewhat hyperbolically, perhaps) that “no epicenter of American Jewish culture exists . . . But if there were such a locale, it would be Broadway” (Whitfield 59, Bial 13). At times, this communal dialogue operated tacitly, through a double-coding that intended general audiences to understand one meaning of a play, and Jewish audiences to understand another (Bial 17). At other times, such as the early 20th century Yiddish theatre and the late 20th century plays of Wendy Wasserstein and Tony Kushner, it was more explicit (Schiff 18-23, Bial 27). The topics of this Jewish communal dialogue have been numerous: assimilation, intermarriage, business ethics, historical memory, racism, social justice, intergenerational tension, interpretation of traditional texts, etc. (Schiff 15-17, 25-29, 35-43).
Yet despite the myriad topics that this theatrical communal investigation has addressed, certain overarching preoccupations emerge. Chief among these is the negotiation of Jewish particularism with American universalism (Novick 5-7, Bial 3-4, Schiff 34). How do we (within the American Jewish community) retain a sense of uniqueness while embracing the opportunities afforded to us in our current circumstances? Why should we actively identify as Jewish when others no longer actively identify us as such, and when doing so may alienate us from those around us? How can we negotiate the expectations of a white mainstream that is capitalist, future-oriented, and individualist with the expectations of our ancestors who were tradition-oriented and collectivist? These have been the overriding concerns of the Jewish-American theatre, perhaps because the American Jewish community has mostly had to define itself vis-à-vis the white, Christian mainstream in the US. Anthony Cohen suggests that communities, like individuals, “define themselves by reference to a ‘significant other,’” and our chief “significant other,” for most of our history, has been mainstream America (115).
The plays with which the American Jewish community has negotiated its boundaries with this mainstream have largely not addressed Israel or Israeli politics. In part, this may be because Jewish-American writers lacked the intimate knowledge of Israel that makes for good theatre (Furman 2). However, it is also because Israel’s presence and politics – for most of Jewish-American history – have not profoundly challenged the way we negotiate our community’s boundaries vis-à-vis mainstream America. Throughout most of the Cold War era, the single democratic ally in the Middle East garnered as much sympathy from mainstream America as it did from Jews; thus, the State of Israel didn’t inspire the same kind of wrestling between particularist (Jewish) and “universal” (American) identities that other phenomena have inspired. This seems evident even in the rare plays that do feature Israel before the 1980s; these plays (unlike most plays in the Jewish-American repertoire) do not ask their audiences to struggle with the challenges of reconciling their Jewish and American identities. For instance, the 1947 play A Flag is Born virtually blended the Zionist and American narratives into one, as it followed three concentration camp survivors on their way to erect a new, democratic state for an oppressed religious minority. The advertisements and programs for this very-successful performance now seem almost comical in the extent to which they collapse these two historical narratives: they feature quotes from Thomas Jefferson, images of American revolutionaries, and the motto “It’s 1776 in Palestine!” (Medoff np). Similarly, the 1961 musical Milk and Honey portrayed American Jews easily moving back and forth between Israel and the US. These characters delighted in the utopic Jewish homeland that its creators portrayed to their audiences, but that delight doesn’t seem to make them any less American, and as they fall in love, the question of where they will ultimately live seems almost redundant; it is easily settled with the lyrics, “I will follow you / to wherever you happen to lead me” (Solomon np).
In the 1980s, the Jewish-American stage gradually began to represent Israel – and Israeli politics – with greater frequency. Gordon Rayfield’s 1988 play Bitter Friends explores the split loyalties that American Jews harbor towards Israel and the US. Allan Havis’s A Vow of Silence (1992) portrays the exoneration of four Israeli soldiers after the death of a detained Palestinian. Josh Ford’s Miklat (2002) depicts the alienation of a Jewish-American couple from their adult son, who has found spiritual renewal and a new home in Israel. Perhaps most famously, William Gibson’s Golda’s Balcony (2003) portrays Golda Meir’s challenges as Prime Minister during the 1973 Yom Kippur War; not coincidentally, it was adapted from a 1976 flop penned by the same author, who may have been writing for Jewish-American audiences that weren’t yet ready to scrutinize an Israeli leader (Schiff 38).
In addition to these plays, written by American Jews, the American theatre has also absorbed an increasing number of translated Israeli plays, especially in the past decade. For instance, Jewish-American audiences across the country have flocked to the theatre to see Motti Lerner’s Exile in Jerusalem, which has been presented in Detroit, New York, Washington DC, and Williamstown, MA (“Motti Lerner” np). Both Theater J and The Jewish Theatre of San Francisco have produced festivals that feature staged readings of many Israeli plays over several weeks; Theater J has hosted five such festivals since 2005 (“Welcome to the 2010-11 Season” np, Roth 2011a np).
I want to attribute the Jewish-American theatre’s relatively new take-up of Israel and Israeli politics to several causes. First, the expanding news media in the US has projected international events into our lives with more frequency than ever before. In 1980, CNN emerged to create the 24-hour news cycle, responding to and creating an even greater appetite for more extensive international news coverage. Even more significantly, the spread of the internet throughout the 1990s created the opportunity for Americans to tune into news outlets from across the world – including the major Israeli newspapers and Arab/Palestinian news sources. The increasing “presence” of Israel in our lives meant that for many in the American Jewish community, Israel became a “significant other” in relationship to whom we needed to define ourselves (Cohen 115). With this increasing exposure to Israel, we American Jews began to negotiate a second border: we had one border with the white, American mainstream living in our suburbs, and a second border with the Israeli Jews living in our televisions and internet browsers.
(**Andrew Furman has suggested that American-Jewish fiction–stories and novels–has begun to address Israel with increasing frequency for the same reason: as Jewish Americans began to know Israel more intimately, through media (and also through travel), we became equipped and compelled to write about Israel with increasing frequency (Furman 4).
Second, Israel’s political and military events over the past three decades have introduced significant political tensions within the American Jewish community. While the vast majority of American Jews accepted the 1967 and 1973 wars as defensive, the 1982 Lebanon war alienated parts of the American Jewish community, particularly as Israeli officials enabled Lebanese Christian Phalangists to massacre Palestinians in Sabra and Shatilla (Kramer 28, Furman 8, Seliktar 70, Rosenthal 70-72). In the late 1980s, the first Palestinian Intifada rendered the Palestinian narrative legible to many American Jews for the first time, and the Israeli military response made American Jews increasingly uncomfortable (Furman 8-9, Seliktar 93-96, Rosenthal 102-103). These events created a rift in the American Jewish community between the increasingly alienated left (largely secular or liberal Jews) and the increasingly defensive right (an alliance of older Jews and Orthodox Jews) (Seliktar 125-126, Rosenthal 112-130, Furman 9). The left began amass around its own NGOs and national publications – most notably, the New Israel Fund and the magazine Tikkun – which, though marginalized by the more entrenched right, narrated the events of the 1990s and 2000s in a voice that critiqued settlement expansion, validated Palestinian national aspirations, and argued that “Israeli responses to the two intifadas were immoral” (“About Tikkun Magazine,” Rosenthal 174-175). The left celebrated the Oslo Accords, while the right remained skeptical (Seliktar 125-141). The right championed Israel’s right to self-defense throughout the military operations of the 2000s, while the left grew increasingly uneasy. Torn by its allegiance to a particularist Jewish State and its embrace of “universal” (Western/American) principles of human dignity and human rights, the Jewish community experienced a painful split.
Third, and perhaps most significantly, the American Jewish community shifted the way it narrates its history. In the early and mid 20th-century, the American Jewish community largely understood itself to be from Europe. The immigrants of the turn of the century were literally from Europe, and their children and grandchildren understood their own history in that light. Moreover, the Zionist narrative that clamored for a Jewish State and then defended its presence emphasized the vulnerability of the Jews in Europe; it cited the Spanish inquisition, the Dreyfus affair, the Eastern European pogroms, and the Holocaust to justify a Jewish State. But the Jews of the 1960s, inspired by the Black power movement, began to abandon this narrative of weakness. They crafted a new narrative, explaining that Jews were from Eretz Yisrael, temporarily displaced for a few thousand years only to reclaim their rightful homeland (Staub 203, 236).
(***The Hebrew phrase Eretz Yisrael literally means “the land of Israel.” I use it here to refer specifically to the land of Israel, rather than the State of Israel.)
As this narrative gained traction, it provided a sense of rootedness to the post-baby boomer generations in America – generations who didn’t know their immigrant ancestors and had trouble making sense of the disjointed fragments of their European family histories. The post-1967 access to the Old City of Jerusalem lent increased legitimacy and momentum to this narrative, and archeological digs there enabled American Jews of the late twentieth century, increasingly able to travel internationally, to see and touch their history. The emergence of a Palestinian narrative that claimed a historical connection to the land between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River gave many Jews even more reason to emphasize their revised history. “We too are from here, even more authentically than you are,” our narrative said. “Just look at the ancient stones.”
(****To be clear, neither narrative is false. Jews have historical roots both in Europe and in Eretz Yisrael. But Jewish historiography has shifted, in part, in order to contextualize a shifting present with a “selective construction of the past.” Anthony Cohen suggests that communities construct such historical narratives in order to “orient ourselves to the phenomen[a] requiring interpretation” (Cohen 99).
The sense of being from Eretz Yisrael means that today’s Jewish particularism is bound up with that place. For American Jews of the early 21st century – young Jews in particular – the Jewish-American theatre does not need to address the struggles of immigration or acculturation, nor need it address the struggle to overcome anti-Semitism and gain acceptance. If the Jewish-American theatre is going to address the current struggle between Jewish particularism and American universalism, and if it is going to help us draw some communal boundaries that are going to define our community, then it needs to address both the shame and defensiveness that Jews feel when their non-Jewish acquaintances casually reference the “Gaza Massacre” of 2008-2009 or the “Apartheid Wall” that appropriates Palestinian lands while limiting Palestinian freedom of movement.
These three phenomena – the technology that has made Israel more “present” in the lives of Americans, the increasing ethical questioning of Israeli policy due to the events of the past three decades, and the shift of narrative origins from Eastern Europe to Eretz Yisrael – situate the recent and increasing take-up of Israel and Israeli politics in the Jewish-American theatre. They help to explain, I hope, why American Jews have begun to wrestle with Israel in a way that we didn’t feel a need to do when Ben Hecht wrote A Flag is Born (in 1947) and Jerry Herman wrote the lyrics to Milk and Honey (in 1961). Theater J’s programming is consistent with this larger, emerging trend of examining Israel at the theatre, but its method of doing so in long, facilitated public discussions is unique. To address the specific controversy that Theater J’s current programming is causing, and the dialogue this programming is catalyzing, it is necessary to examine the details of the current political conversation within the American Jewish community. It is to these conversations – as they occur beyond Theater J’s walls – that I now turn, in order to subsequently return to the conversation within Theater J’s aesthetic space.
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