“You’ve Lost That Blogging Feeling” (But Reading Others, Perhaps I Might Just Get it Back?)

Ari here. A final block of hours in Israel before heading off to BG airport to return to DC. I’ve been here 8 full days. I’ve been emailing and Facebooking to keep friends and colleagues updated – but yet to blog. A reason for that. But now the overtaking desire to write longer; no longer micro. Inspired by the eloquent–and yet succinct–postings of my fellow IsraDrama delegates. I begin (not so succinctly…. alas, not even close).

December 5, 2011

Header #1: “Hello, Yeah, It’s been a while”

Remember that lyric by England Dan and Jon Ford Coley? Yes, the 70s are with me as I fly to Israel, as they always seem to be when I return (two hugely formative experiences have taken place in Israel during my Bar-Mitzvah Decade), now on my 14th trip — Ah, but who’s counting? Actually, I think I am, as in some recent fb smack-down with friends Bonnie and Jon, official Lovers of Israel who, in the heat of exchange with others on their wall, wind up questioning “my love for Israel,” and I boldly declare that I’ve “been to Israel 18 times!” — but I think I am also boldly exaggerating, though the spirit of the declaration is true. I’ve been coming here since I was six, thanks to my parents who first came in 1945

 (mom, to Ben Shemen Youth Village/orphanage as part of Youth Aliyah as WWII was ending) and 1956 (dad, to Kibbutz Maaleh Chamisha, after law school) and they’ve been attached to the place and coming back ever since.

My pervious visits include:

• 1967 for two weeks: Highlight, Malon Shalom (the Hello Hotel!) across the street from the Tel Aviv Hilton – and the wonderful Gan Atzmaut or Independence Park leading to the sea — now as gay a site as The Ramble in Central Park, but back in the months after the 6 Day War, with sandbags still pitched in front of the hotel, the Park was a lovely place to get lost in, pretending to be an airplane…

• 1969 – 1 month in Hertzliyah Pituach; most memorable highlight, my sister cutting the back of her ankle/Achilles Heel on the stone step of the Arcadia hotel swimming pool and needing a metal clamp inserted; this, even though we rented a house on a dirt road a memorable walk away from the grocery store where we’d buy the best tasting green gum — I remember sampling all the different hotel swimming pools – the Validor, the Sharon and Sharonite, and Arcadia – but we liked the last the best because of the open air Naknikia Stand (that would be the Sausage/Hot Dog Man) — that is until afternoon of The Scrape.

• 1976 – for six weeks on the UAHC program “Know Israel Through Service” – a month in the Southern Development Town of Mitzpeh Ramon (across from Ramon Crater in the Negev) working as a camp counselor in a Kaitana, playing lots of basketball with the black Jews of Dimona and Mitzpeh,  and picking peaches for two weeks on Kibbutz Dvir just down the road from Sde Boker (a much nicer kibbutz where David Ben Gurion retired)

• 1979-80 – 10 months, where I do Sophomore year on The One Year Program at Hebrew University — and meet my wife to be Kate, and before that meet Ingrid (who Katie and I have reunited with this summer, and who’ll be coming as part of a Swedish delegation for this IsraDrama Festival), and study with American poet Shirley Kaufman who inspires me to want to put down my guitar and become a serious writer (!), and whose filmmaking daughter, Deborah Kaufman, and I just had the pleasure of connecting earlier this week when, on December 3 and 4 she, together with husband Alan Snitow presented “Between Two Worlds,” an important film about divisions coursing through the American Jewish Community about Israel; met them the night before their WJFF screening when they attending a Peace Café screening of Mahmood Karimi Hakak’s strong work-in-progress, “The Glass Wall,” interviewing many of the Israeli and Palestinian theater makers I’m soon to be meeting here – with the exception of the elegant Palestinian actor/director François Abu Salem who was supposed to a major part of IsraDrama but committed suicide six weeks ago — eager to hear the theories as to why; Francois was one of the more accepting and accommodating–or some would say resigned–Palestinian actor/director/creators on the scene and had come to terms with the need to work with Israeli artists in order to share narratives with Israelis who’d otherwise remain disconnected and untouched. But, I’m told, François — a founding member of the original Palestinian theater company, El Hakawati, battled depression for years. He spent much of his final year living in his car, I hear as well. But such an elegant man. He was on the IsraDrama line-up in October. By November, his name had to be replaced.

• 1984 – 2 week trip, attending Aryeh Eytan’s wedding (my best friend from Akiba Solomon Schechter Day School – my Israeli basketball buddy) and visiting Katie’s kibbutz parents at Maayan Baruch. We famously take pictures of ourselves naked in the Chaztpani River. Otherwise known as The Days When We Were Thin.

And then comes a decade-long detachment? Or was there a trip in the late 80’s? No, that’s when we traveled three times to the Soviet Union and I twice to Germany and Austria. Other worldly interests. And of course, the 1982 War in Lebanon. And the first Intifada. And Reagan’s impact on American Jewry. Or simply the effect of moving to Manhattan and negotiating a different kind of Jewish identity as a New York playwright. Things begin to get complicated.

• 1993 – We go for 9 months (long enough to give birth to a baby and, in fact, we conceive one, in Ramat Aviv) Katie’s two semesters teaching at Tel Aviv University, tenure track, and I, wishing I could just be in the States working on my screenplay to Born Guilty for LeFrak Productions and my Black-Jewish commission for Manhattan Theatre Club, and I grow depressed and feel isolated, not connected to any kind of playwriting scene in Israel, as the Intifada ends, but Oslo is another year away, and Israel is in malaise, just like me, and I have no adventurous spirit to go out and meet others — any others — and no context to be an artist, as everyone in Israel yawns at the work I’ve done and am planning to do — I take care of Isabel a lot, bringing her to Gan — going to the toy store and candy store everyday — and eating pizza — I play basketball a lot with kids at the university until my back goes out — I play through the pain, thinking of Michael Jordan while watching him win his first Three-Peat for The Bulls — and then I’m diagnosed with a herniated disk and grow truly depressed — until I meet playwright Motti Lerner 6 or 7 months into my stay.  It’s my father who meets him in Chicago where Motti’s speaking and researching his play on Jonathan Pollard, and tells Motti to look up his son the playwright, and Motti does, and we first have coffee at Kopulsky’s and connect, writer to writer, and then wind up mutually courting (professionally, that is) director Shira Piven on a beach north of Hertzliyah, and Shira winds up directing Born Guilty a year later in Chicago, as well as three of our early productions at Theater J from 1998-1999. While Motti becomes a life-long friend, associate, and veritable playwright-in-residence for us with productions in ’98, ’04, ’07, ’09, and more readings than you can shake a stick at.

Enough of the memories now, yes? Here’s a quick litany of the remaining trips, but they all bleed together and I really have to check these dates against different journals at home:

• 2000 – I begin to come as a producer. In the shadow of the 2nd Intifada. We’ve successfully produced Via Dolorosa. I’m here looking for new plays. I remember the fear in Jerusalem restaurants. My fear. Having my bag searched as I enter. Trying to overcome the fear by walking deserted streets late at night. No crime. No accosting. Just palpable fear, shadows, and moonlight.

• 2001 – A precursor to the Makom gathering. A People-to-People Initiative underwritten by the Sochnut (Israeli Agency). Put together by Robbie Gringras and others.

• 2003 – The Ali Salem Adventure begins/Akko Festival Master Teaching

• 2004 – The Nazareth Orchestra in Rishon LTizion/The Right of Return Conference in Haifa; some whirlwind adventures zipping up and down the coast.

• 2005 – two trips – first to see Ali Salem receive his honorary doctorate from Ben Gurion University in the Negev. He never makes it. Which becomes its own drama and a great real-life plot-point for a play I have yet to finish. Even though we have a very successful presentation of Act I of the Ali Salem Project in DC in 2005. Why haven’t I finished that play? Also a reason for that…

• Later in 2005 – I attend the first ever Association for Jewish Theatre Conference in Israel. I think. I could be getting my conferences confused.

• 2006 – I attend the first Makom Conference – Meeting Boaz Gaon for the first time.

• 2007 – IsraDrama – see earlier blogs from 2007. Boaz Gaon reads me the treatment/mis en scene for RETURN TO HAIFA in a Tel Aviv restaturant

• 2008 – Nephew Miko’s bar-mitzvah (shoot me, I first wrote “wedding!”) on Kfar Blum – Hillel Kook conference in TA – meeting with the Cameri Theatre about bringing over Yaeli Ronen’s PLONTER. Share plans for set and staging. Plans for 19 actors to travel to DC. Trip doesn’t happen. We do THE ACCIDENT, as planned, and BENEDICTUS as replacement.

• 2011 – IsraDrama – back, after a 3 year break. Too long.

So I haven’t really lost the blogger’s impulse to spill now, have I?

It’s just I’ve been self-censoring this last stretch of months, mostly a result of the way in which this blog was used by our fiercest detractors–cherry-picking from posts here to create maligning material about our theater, our invited guests,  our Theater J Council members, and me. So I’ve sought refuge in the micro-blogging of Facebook, where I’ve been busy-busy not censoring at all — but being busy isn’t the same as being of full-voice, and I haven’t been; I’ve lost the narrating ease of a chronicler of my own journey–and of our theater’s collective adventures and all the dramas therein. I was asked to be a No-Drama-Obama-in- training; to quiet down. I was told “this is not your blog; this is a JCC blog” — not because the JCC owns the architecture to WordPress, but because “the JCC owns the name to Theater J” but that was then, during darker days, in a darker time, and now we seem to have rebuilt internal trust and mutual appreciation in our newly centered Center, and, even more significantly, we’ve restored a means for curating and being active anew, engaged again in presentations of the Israeli drama within the context of a changing Middle East, and we are quiet no more; we are tilling the soil and planting trees of all types and they’re germinating as we speak, and this festival is its own new forest in which we are strolling, hiking, about to ford, with more to come and much coming soon.

And so, to embark!

But let me stop to note the tension, internally, in the voice – wavering between “I” and “we.” Blogs are personal. We’re allowed to use the “I.”  Whose blog is this? A collective “We.”  Or a collective “J?” Or a “J” comprised of artists’ spirits — I’s conjoined with We’s to achieve a personal/shared dialectic. That’s what I’d like to see. Or give voice to. That’s been my striving all these years at Theater J; finding that balance; that voice; sometimes suppressing the one part to amplify the other; better to have erred on the side of the collective. And this trip is unique in my traveling as a producer. For it’s the first time that I’m not traveling alone. We are a delegation! We are a team that includes staff, artists, Council leadership, 5 of us (including Imagining Madoff director Alex Aron), joining a robust cohort on the other side representing some 14 other countries. We will be speaking in plural while responding as individuals. Or maybe it’s the other way around. You get the idea; you get the tension and the fine-art of being both of the J, and of the I. And the I is for Israel. And the self. And one’s relationship to the greater entity. And so we’re set to fly, on Turkish Airlines, for the very first time, touching down in Istanbul — a Muslim country losing lots of love for Israel on an accelerating basis. Why am I flying there? Well, I paid for my own flight. And it rang up cheapest. And the connections were perfect. I get to leave at 10:30 at night after a great long day of work, and bye-bye dinner at home. I like that schedule. But what does it mean? To be the only Jew on a flight to Israel?

We’ll soon find out…