Rosh Hashana Talk on Judaism and The Arts (and…)

A “drash” given this morning at GWU Hillel, Lisner Auditorium.  Wishing everyone a very happy new year. 

Art and Judaism and the Case for a Holy Fusion

It’s wonderful to be with you today, to pray and sing and usher in the new year with family, friends, and this new community for us here at George Washington University. UnknownLet’s appreciate the intimacy of what’s to come (even the irony) of me standing before you, fresh off the plane from Israel and Italy – where my daughter and I joined a mostly-fully-represented extended family  to the scene where my mother, her sister, their mother and 1000 other Jews trekked into the Alps of Italy in early September, 1943 to escape deportation from Southern France. We were re-enacting their trek in a Memory March (our “legs were praying” indeed, just as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said in 1965 when he joined with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and other religious and political figures in a third—and finally successful—attempt to march from Selma to Montgomery, AL, to demand voting rights for African Americans at the Alabama state capitol;  and my heart was full of inspiration from  the fellowship with church-affiliated citizens of Saluzzo who hosted us); a weekend’s worth of ceremonies, all of which followed a three-day jaunt through Israel joining the tour of WOODY SEZ: THE LIFE AND MUSIC OF WOOD GUTHRIE… It was a whirlwind Jewish week synthesizing art and family, memory and present-day consciousness; strengthening old bonds and forging new ones.

Today I come before you, a tad disoriented, publically worshipping for the first time in months, which feels momentous, to have been away from a prayer service (if not a synagogue—we toured several in Italy) and then be bestowed with this honor—the qualifier being that although I immerse myself in the world of Jewish drama—and I work in a Jewish Community Cultural Arts Center everyday—perhaps I don’t spend a deep enough time meditating on the full meaning of the spiritual component I’m immersed in—I’m so focused on the craft, the sustaining of the art—but what of the “J” in Theater J? Can I find it in the art I help produce? I’m going to reflect on that, as we consider the assigned topic—what Cantor Mishkin has charged me to address: “Art & Judaism,” to which I’ll add the sub-title: “A Dialectical Dance (or Holy Fusion).”

Doug Mishkin is a new friend. We bonded last fall over our common debt to Woody Guthrie. I fell in love with Doug’s great song, “Woody’s Children” and the amazing video of it which was released last year in celebration of Woody’s Centennial. We realized that the love of one artist bespoke a lot of other common passions (a kind of Jeff-Bezos/ affinity match, “If you liked this, you might like…” only without the diabolical algorithms). Doug and I discovered connections ranging from youth group song-leading, to civil rights history, to the lyricist who wrote “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” There’s something to this: If you’ve got a work of art in common, you might share other things—values, ethical principles—and through the love of a single piece of art you forge relationship, and as that extends to others, community is assembled; and the structure of our religion–with its cyclical rhythms and rituals, sustaining the community, year after year, ritual and repetition bound by passion and deep feeling–is fortified. Without deep feeling, intentionality, or kavanah, there is only law; only compulsion; practice devoid of light. The Arts have been a gateway for bringing light and repetition together; a portal through which we can connect to our heritage and have it resonate musically in the modern world.

And yet “The Arts as a Gateway” has become a familiar trope. It’s “The Spoonful Of Sugar” Approach; Sweeten things up with story, a melody or a decorative aesthetic. But to others, the arts are an end to themselves—not just additive—but a sustaining framework of meaning extolling the miracle and relentless fury of creation (natural and human). There are atheists for whom Art is their religion; for whom the theater, or the concert hall, is The Temple. I’m here to fuse the  notions; that the arts lead us back to more meaningful Jewish engagement (back to the synagogue, even), yet are to be understood (and respected) as more than a mere stepping stone. Jewish arts provide continuity and community; literacy and regenerative vitality. And in that word vitality, we see a material and spiritual life-line; an instrument for keeping our Spirit Alive.

So then don’t we adequately fund it?  Why don’t we make the arts a communal priority? Why doesn’t a new generation of donors and daveners give a darn about Jewish Arts? Because there is evidence suggesting that they don’t. There’s even a rare few who feel some Jewish arts should be de-funded!  Specifically, that the theater I run should be de-funded! Or that I should be. But we’ll get to that…

Let’s pose some more specific questions and ask if it’s really so important; this marriage of Judaism And The Arts.  Compared to, what?  Bible Study?  Meals on Wheels?  Financial support for the state of Israel?  Synagogue building maintenance? All of these are important too. What’s so special about Art?

Has a work of art ever led us to a more Jewish sense of self? We’ve all been moved by art, sure. But the question is, in what ways does loving Woody Guthrie lead to my praying here in Lisner? Which artists have left us spiritually elevated? Gerswhin? Copeland? Bernstein? Rothko? The bittersweet laughter of Wasserstein…? And as I’m listing and thinking about the importance of art in our lives, I’m reminded of another Woody—Woody Allen—and his famous list uttered into a tape recorder just before the end of his 1979 movie “Manhattan.”

In that final sequence, Woody Allen’s Isaac is on the sofa dictating to himself an idea for a short story. It’ll be about “people in Manhattan,” he says, “who are constantly creating these real unnecessary, neurotic problems for themselves” because they cannot bear to confront the “more unsolvable, terrible problems about the universe.” As Isaac sinks into his familiar despair. He tries a different approach: “Why is life worth living?” He gives it some thought. Hems and Haws.  “That’s a very good question… There are certain things, I guess, that make it worthwhile.” And then the list begins:


“Groucho Marx, Willie Mays, the second movement of Mozart’s ‘Jupiter Symphony,’ Louis Armstrong’s recording of Potato Head Blues, Swedish movies, naturally, Flaubert’s Sentimental Education, Marlon Brando, Frank Sinatra, those incredible apples and pears by Cézanne, the crabs at Sam Wo’s … Tracy’s face.”

This list acts as an important hinge in the film’s narrative, according to critic Everette Hatcher, the point not only when Isaac suddenly becomes aware of his feelings for Tracy [and we’ll leave aside the fact that the woman he loves could, prophetically, be the age of his teenage daughter], as he resolves to go after her. But within the list there is also a belief in the sheer power of art, its ability to provide a sense of worth to an otherwise empty existence. Art, Woody seems to be saying, is the only valuable response—the only conceivable response—to the dreadfulness of the human predicament.

The momentum of the list; the cascading confluence of aesthetic virtuosity gives us a feeling of joy. And we identify. After all, it’s a Jewish list, is it not? Marx Brothers? Definitely, the crabs at Sam Wo’s—who else eats Chinese on Christmas Eve?  Willy Mays. Sinatra, Louis Armstrong… All Jewish, at least when inflected by a Jewish New Yawker. Swedish movies? Of course they’re Jewish, but only if seen in a Greenwich Village movie theater. The list becomes an emblem of assimilation and integration; the Jew embracing the eclecticism of multiculturalism, long before the term was even invented.

Or, as Lenny Bruce used to say: “If you live in New York or any other big city, you’re Jewish. It doesn’t matter even if you’re Catholic; if you live in New York, you’re Jewish. If you live in Butte, Montana, you’re going to be goyish even if you’re Jewish. B’nai B’rith is goyish; Hadassah, Jewish. Kool-Aid is goyish. Evaporated milk, goyish even if the Jews invented it. Chocolate is Jewish and fudge is goyish. Fruit salad is Jewish. Lime Jell-O is goyish. Rye Bread is Jewish, white bread, goysich; instant potatoes, scary goyisch. Count Basie’s Jewish. Ray Charles is Jewish. Eddie Cantor’s goyish.”

Need we go on? Did Lenny Bruce ever explain? It just worked… Fifty years ago, that is. Perhaps the act of listing—even with a New York inflection—isn’t good enough for us anymore; not in 21st Century Washington DC when we resist the cultural appropriation by our White Jewish Men. Gender, and race, and religious distinctiveness seem to matter that much more. We’ve become a little more demanding as to how cultural works bespeak  identity. Louis Armstrong doesn’t really belong to the Jewish people, does he? We enjoy him singing “What a Wonderful World.” But we’re not gonna steal him. Or claim him.

In part that’s because, over the past fifty years, our cultural staples have been allowed to become much more explicitly Jewish than in the early part of last century. We’ve become much less covert and disguised in telling our story as Jews. For the longest time, we buried the Jewish historical narrative by telling the story of other outsiders. The Jewish immigrant’s story could only be told inferentially. Let’s think of all the dozens of great Jewish composers and librettists of Broadway who told their story through non-Jewish surrogates. Like…  George and Ira Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess—forget the plot, let’s just listen to one of its anthems, straight out of our morning service today:

(Barchu es adonai hamvorach)

which lends itself rather nicely to…

It Aint Necessarily So
It ain’t necessarily so
The t’ings dat yo’ li’ble
To read in de Bible,
It ain’t necessarily so.

Oh, the irony of that verse set to the opening piece of liturgy in the Jewish prayer service! Which has led one noted theater historian to write: “The more that Jews are not writing about Jews, is when they’re most writing about Jews. “

Sure, there were exceptions, explicit depictions like The Jazz Singer, but that was a treatise to assimilation; to leaving behind one’s Jewish cantorial roots. It was Fiddler on The Roof in 1964 that changed the equation on Broadway, paving the way for explicit Jewish subject matter in popular fare, though in straight drama there was Awake and SingThe Tenth Man It took a similarly long time for Hollywood to get to The Pawn Broker, The Apprenticeship of Duddie Kravitz, Shindler’s List, Crossing Delancey.

So we’re more comfortable with the explicit in our cultural pronouncements, but the pull from the universal endures (as we rebel against shmaltz, and kitsch, and Fiddler Fiddler Everywhere). We run from the explicitly educational — the biblical on our stages… That’s what Sunday school is for! We’re suspicious of sugar coated culture, especially when the sugar coat is laced with chicken fat!
Works of Art are mind and soul expanding, enriching and ennobling — in the same way that prophetic Judaism embraces universal values of repairing the world, caring for our neighbors. But is the art that belongs to everyone watered down Jewish expression? And as such, unworthy of support from the Jewish community?

What makes something intrinsically Jewish, yet aesthetically transcendent? That’s something I think about a lot as a programmer at Theater J. How particular does our Jewish lens want to be in telling the story of our people?

When I think about what’s been most valuable to our community — which productions have been our most important community contributions–I think about the intrinsically Jewish works… Like Chaim Potok’s THE CHOSEN which examines the fissures between two different orthodox  communities; one modern, one Satmar; one traditional but open to the influence of the non-Jewish world; one closed, fiercely insular, yet full of ecstatic embrace of the mystical; of the secrets revealed in Gamatria. Or Hadar Galron’s MIKVEH, exploring the binding sorority of women entering the cleansing waters of a ritual bath in Israel. Closed communities that have taught us about the universal dramas within their particular contexts…

The Chosen, adapted by Aaron Posner and directed for us by him at Arena Stage in 2011, Rick (with tallis) facing boysreminds us that there are critical bridges to traverse within our own circles, our own schools, our own families, within our own hearts. We are all as divided as Revuen and Danny, as Reb Saunders and David Malter, stamped by our heritage, yet set free in this great land.

Danny and Reuven are forbidden from seeing each other by Rabbinic edict as their families quarrel over the supporting creation of the Jewish state Israel. For the ultra Orthodox Saunders family, Israel will be a place of impurity and apikorsim. It won’t be run by strict Halachic law. It’s a watered down Jewish state. The Neturei Karta oppose its creation. Battle lines are drawn … for a time. And then the reality of war transpires. The state is delivered. And before long, the excommunication is rescinded. Danny and Reuven find their way back to each other, even as they grow apart from their fathers and move onto college.

For us at Theater J, we undulate between the universal and the particular in a questioning, restless embrace of all. The question of Jewish art remains fluid. Out of the 120 shows we’ve produced over 20 years, what are the other intrinsically Jewish shows? Besides The Chosen? David In Shadow and Light; New Jerusalem: The Trial of Baruch de Spinoza; Apples From The Desert interwoven with titles that reflect the social history of this country (After The Fall, Spring Forward Fall Back, WJWeeklegal2Waiting For Lefty, The Whipping Man) and our traumatic history in Europe (Born Guilty, Either Or, Hannah and Martin, The Disputation) and of course Israel (where we’ll end our discussion).

The answer here Is that we strive for an undulating balance, swinging between the particular and the universal. But there’s a tension in the undulating.

Here’s a case from another discipline for the fusion of High Secular Culture Married to the Jewish Particular: Why Jewish Arts Are Important – from the Boston Jewish Music Festival
 Co-Founder and Executive Director, Joey Baron

There is much discussion and concern in the Jewish boardrooms, committee meetings and community about continuity and engagement. Everyone, rightfully, wants to know what it takes to keep people engaged with the Judaism. The usual suggestions tend to focus on social media and social opportunities, about open door policies and lowering entry costs.

Just how important are the arts to Jewish peoplehood at this time? They are essential and have been from the very beginning, from when the angels sang, yes sang, in celebration of the creation of the world. From Miriam’s timbrel to Matisyahu concerts, music is a part of us. And, with the demise of Jewish radio stations and record labels, if we want to ensure people get to experience great Jewish art, we, as a community, must make it a priority. Yes, we need rabbis and teachers and camp directors, but we also need musicians and poets. There are important artists in all genres who are taking our traditions and reinterpreting and rejuvenating them.”

He gives the example of Daniel Kahn, 1348545216-daniel-kahn-and-the-painted-bird-play-at-chicago-world-music-festival_1476309a young singer/songwriter who grew up in a suburban Detroit, got turned on by hearing the New Orleans Klezmer All Stars and has since moved to Berlin and dedicated himself to Yiddishkeit. He talks of one song, Mayn Rue Plats (My Place To Rest), a written in Yiddish by poet Morris Rosenfeld, the poet laureate of the slum and Lower East Side sweatshops where Jews played vital roles in labor rights, set against a culture of the Yiddish theater. This last song on Daniel Kahn’s Partisans and Parasites cd. by a dedicated and talented Klezmer/Punk/Protest/Rock singer (a Yiddish Billy Bragg) singing in the mamaloshen; the mother tongue; you have beauty, history, and the values of Tikkun Olam. All in just 4 minutes.

Ah, but Who’s buying Daniel Katz’s CD? Daniel doesn’t live in the States. J-Dub is done. HOW IMPORTANT ARE THESE ARTISTS WHO CREATE OUR UNDULATING KINETIC FUSIONS ? Where is the next generation of these expressions coming from? Are we encouraging the writing of great work? Or are we ambivalent about it?

Here’s where–given our setting today–I think of being a student–trying to determine just what path is most urgent and compelling to pursue. I’m thinking of the decision-making of this summer — for both my daughters — each is on a different straddle of the double major dilemma (both in graduate school and undergrad) It can be an elegant hedge… or a confusing fork in the road that forces decisions — because you’re either going to go to medical school or you’re not! Doesn’t that preclude the pursuit of a career in professional dance? Integrative medicine was a nice hedge, but now the hard choices come… What’s it going to be, Isabel?

Into the debate of a fusion identity, let’s Introduce the Shawn Renee Lent. A former student of Twyala Tharp, returning to her alma mater, Millikin University, as one of two alumni selected to speak to the then current theatre and dance undergraduate body. She spoke about working with a child with cancer, leading an arts project with juvenile offenders at a community center in East London, and the role of arts in public schools. This speech was before her projects in Bosnia and Egypt. After her talk, she opened the floor to questions. One of the undergraduates asked, “Did you have any sort of breakdown when you gave up on your dreams?”
She responds:

“It took me a moment to process her question. For her and her peers, dance and theatre students focused on training, headshots, audition skills, and getting their big break, my career trajectory as an artist seemed to be a failure, a major detour. I composed myself and tried to explain that I had not given up on my dream; my dream had gotten bigger.”

We stand at a crossroads of decision-making everyday. Will there be art in our lives and what kind will it be?

Here’s how Shawn Renee Lent answered the student, in full, in a piece she entitles, “Am I a Dancer Who Gave up?”

“I decided to be an artist in the world. I teach dance, I choreograph, I manage and evaluate programs, consult, share, think, write. I’m a professional and a dancer, but you probably wouldn’t call me a professional dancer. I read and join projects relating not to Broadway but to cancer, death, green cemeteries, cultural diplomacy, religion, genocide, geography, databases, divided communities (from Belfast to Bosnia). And it certainly feels like fulfilling a dream, rather than giving up on one.”
“Artists need to be in on…
Cancer research and treatment
Conflict prevention, mediation and resolution
Inter-religious and Inter-cultural dialogue and education
Military training and homecoming
Youth development
Addressing racism and bigotry
Community development and organizing
Divided and insular communities
Hospitals, prisons/detention facilities, corporations, public schools
City planning, housing and urban development
Policing and crime prevention
Parades and festivals
Education and professional development
Elder care, day care…
The artistic contribution to these areas can be revolutionary.”

* * *

Let’s see if we can’t take that wonderful revolutionary vision and make it work for our community—Art and Jewish education, Art and Jewish practice, Art and Jewish political life life all interwoven.

We call that Revolutionary, because we’re not seeing any consensus on this front. In fact, the Jewish community is deeply divided on the subject of supporting the Jewish artist and the need to integrate Jewish arts into Jewish life.

We are in the midst of a restructuring of our Jewish community—DC seems to be enjoying its own mini Golden Age of Jewish arts, between all the great festivals at the DCJCC and all the amazing music coming off the bimma 6th and I—but that’s just in downtown DC. Across the country, it’s a different story.

What are the national Jewish priorities? Are we putting arts money into our budgets? My colleague at the JCC, Josh Ford, writing in New York’s Jewish Week says “no.”

“The announcement that the UJA-Federation in New York will not be renewing the innovative Six Points Fellowship Program is part of a trend that reveals that funding for the arts is falling even further down on our list of Jewish communal priorities. More discouraging evidence of this can be seen in the recent Next Gen Donor report issued by 21/64 and the Johnson Center for Philanthropy which relates that the next generation of philanthropists is even less likely to support the arts than their parents and grandparents. The closure of cutting-edge art venues like 92Y Tribeca and Traveling Jewish Theatre in San Francisco, has yet to provoke a thoughtful conversation about and advocacy for the importance of Jewish arts in the thriving Jewish communities we are seeking to create.

The question: Why re-prioritize, especially if there’s the basic feeling that the market of Hollywood has taken care of Jewish culture for us: Jews are at the center of our stories, and who are most beloved story-tellers? Seinfeld; Stiller, Larry David; Jon Stewart; and Jews are not telling the tales; they’re on the inside directing and producing of the tales — so why do we need to fund art with a Jewish lens and 21st Century Jewish inflection if it’s being commercially bankrolled already?

We have to make a better case than simply invoking “the elegant undulating interweaving between the particular and universal” — Let Spielberg take care of that. We have a more urgent case to make.

What’s at stake right now, I would argue, is the health of the Jewish conscience, and the Jewish soul — universalist/particularist — the negotiation between the two halves of our identity — and its successful integration in the modern world.

How are we to adapt and stay moral in this changing world? Will Humash get us there? Will Talmudic responsa?

Oppositional narratives make up our nation; both here and in Israel. They interpose and compete. We can read about the debates between Hillel and Shamai until we’re blue in the face – But will that help us see the humanity of those we oppose and who violently oppose us?

Art has the power to generate soulful renewal through transformation and catharsis; through empathic identification and aesthetic appreciation of character and beauty. Art, in short, can make us more humane.

Drama has been a gateway for me to engage more meaningfully than ever with a crucial piece of my Jewish identity. And that crucial piece is my relationship with Israel, which has matured. Art has brought me inside the character; the soul; the family of Israel.

It’s been a personal passport and collective portal through which our community of theater goers have come to know what’s on the minds and in the hearts of a broad range Israelis — enabling a more informed sense of peoplehood. That portrait of Israel comprises the same undulating dynamic between the personal and political; the religious and the secular; and Israel, of course, doesn’t only belong to Jews. In Israel there are Arab citizens, Christians and Muslims who make up a component of the landscape.

From Exile in Jerusalem, to Via Dolorosa, to Miklat, to Mikveh, From Tel Aviv to Ramallah: A Beatbox Journey; Passing The Love of Women, to Pangs Of The Messiah, Dai (Enough), The Accident, Return To Haifa… All the conferences sponsored by Makom; the IsraDrama Festivals… All the readings and workshops…

The immersion has been my gateway to a mature relationship with Israel that might have stayed static had I stuck with my Israeli relatives; or old friends from Jewish day school. All the various plot-lines fuse together now: Disoriented, transplanted poets in Palestine; tours through religious and secular Israel; through Gaza and Ramallah; through all the quarters of Jerusalem; the various denizens of a tel aviv café in the moments before a bombing, from a dozen perspectives including that of the bomber and his mother; a quietly corrupted liberal family unconcerned about the death undocumented foreign worker (collateral damage on the way home from a new year’s party) as they confront their own moral slippage and the efforts to reclaim a revivified sense of self… the sorority of sisterhood and the healing waters of the ritual as a band of women fight a repressive and abusive patriarch…

All these explorations have vitalized my connection to Israel, to think and feel critically and supportively. This is why a Jewish theater—just like a Jewish film festival, literary festival, music festival, are so important. Because each provides a deep, nuanced and detailed engagement, soulful and intimate, honest, authentic, and expansive, fully-representative, all cohabitating under a big blue tent of affirmation and dissent — connecting us with a country; a community; a moment in time; with the vastness of a people…

Dissenting from this case, comes a group we won’t name, banging a drum-beat to defund our efforts. The group disapproves of a multifaceted, multi-layered portrait of Israel. They argue that when Israel’s existence is at stake and a battle rages to discredit, delegitimize and destroy the state of Israel, any community-sponsored narrative that seeks to complicate the portrait, is to be silenced.

But their calls to censor have fallen into responsible in-boxes where the response has been to continue actively supporting a vigorous arts program in our Jewish community. Only through gross distortions has this rump group been able to make a case that portraits of Israel on the Theater J stage have been harmful and destructive, as opposed to moving, enlightening and cathartic. So the tension continues. The battle for support and for what portraits will be shown on our Jewish stages rages on; even, alas, during these days of reflection; the days of awe.

Let me end with a glimpse of what’s being shown on our stage right now; an example of integrative synthesis from playwright Amy Herzog and her breakthrough play, After The Revolution. It’s about a young activist, Emma Joseph, fulfilling the legacy of her grandfather, Joe Joseph, a hallowed Blacklisted activist who’s been memorialized by Emma in a fund she’s named in his honor; a fund committed to social justice, prison reform, and to call attention specifically to the plight of former Black Panther and convicted (alleged) cop-killer, Mumia Abu Jamal.

A complication gives rise to Emma’s formidable inner-turmoil: The release of a book about the decrypted Venona intercepts reveals the news that Joe Joseph was a paid spy for the Soviet Union. This gives rise to Emma’s internal reassessment — of how she’s come to believe what she believes, and whether her family — in shielding her from her history — has held her back from fulfilling a truer sense of self.
In the end, she attempts the same larger integration we’ve been trying to achieve as a theater. But Emma’s checked by her beloved grandmother, challenged by the rigor of an earlier generation’s progressivism, so that the play ends not with an anthem-like declaration, but  a question; the best kind; one that we will continue to wrestle with. Synthesis Interrupted — The Struggle Internal Continues.

I recommend reading about Dialectics. I’ve just tried it on Wikkipedia. It was mind blowing. Socratic, Hegelian, Marxist Dialectics…How we arrive at resolution in a world sown with contradiction and oppositional arguments — thesis and anti-thesis? How do we marry the oppositional, as peoples of different faiths who must find commonality?

It’s not enough to recognize that we have duality within us… How do we forge a singular fusion within us?

Through Art! Art is that embodiment of that fusion! Of That Holy Mash-Up.
Let it inspire and be a part of our lives. A vibrant piece of our Jewishness…
We are experiencing a Golden Moment—if not truly a Golden Age—at least here in Washington, if not the entire country, of a bourgeoning Jewish expression. Yes, it is being contested by Boo-Birds and Distortionists who don’t want to see culture contribute to our community’s conscience. But contribute, we shall continue. We will celebrate and sustain this moment.

Let us move to build even stronger discourse; a more knowing sense of community; a deeper appreciation of who we are. We are all part of K’lal Yisrael, the congregation of Israel.  Let us rejoice, and treasure, and work hard in a challenging world.  In these Days of Awe, let prayer and poetry wrap themselves around our hearts, clarifying our conscience, sensitizing our souls.  Let us be active art makers and art partakers, critics and conversationalists, worshippers and wonderers. May the new year be a rich season full of transforming actions and cultural reactions; civic enactments and historical re-enactments — full of good debate, more in love with the world, more aware of how infinite are the meanings of the book of life that measures our brief time on this earth.
Shana Tova.