Staging Dialogue at Theater J – Conclusion & End Notes

from Staging Dialogue at Theater J: Negotiating Israeli Politics in Jewish Communal Encounters  by Elliot Leffler, University of Minnesota


In this investigation, I have tried to highlight not only the texts of Theater J’s productions, but also the metatexts and  relational aesthetics of these events, revealing no polemic agenda to either “denigrate  [or] undermine Israel’s  legitimacy.”  Rather, the metatext that gets generated orally (in post-show discussions) and electronically (on the blog) largely reveals a frank conversation, inspired by the emotional “claim” of the characters on stage, through which audiences express productive dissent as they wrestle with particularist and universal approaches to Israeli policy in a face-to-face encounter.

The expanding representation of Israel in the Jewish-American theatre over the past three decades suggests that there is an increasing desire for such a dialogue.  However, the existing structures for communal dialogue seem unable to channel it effectively: our major national institutions generally adopt dogmatic positions, synagogues and other ritual spaces largely evade such controversy to preserve a sense of “communitas,” and online spaces, which fail to nurture the ethical relationships of face-to-face encounters, erupt in angry, overstated, rhetoric.  Theater J is attempting something quite radical… they are using theatre to promote face-to-face, multivocal community dialogue in which American Jews can continually reassess how to negotiate their particularist identification with the State of Israel vis-à-vis their American, universalist concerns for human rights, national rights, and the fundamental equality of all people.

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Staging Dialogue at Theater J (parts 4 + 5) – The Blog as Metatext: Constructive Conversation/Negative Space

from Staging Dialogue at Theater J: Negotiating Israeli Politics in Jewish Communal Encounters  by Elliot Leffler, University of Minnesota

(the essay starts here, and continues with parts 4 & 5 below – footnotes appear at end – “Works cited” appears at the end of part 2 and will be reposted together with the paper’s conclusion later today…)

The Blog as Metatext: The Relational Aesthetics of the Post-Show Conversation

Ari Roth, Stephen Stern, and Shirley Serotsky, who organize the post-show discussions at Theater J, generally invite a guest or a panel of guests to initiate the dialogue.[1]   At the first performance of Return to Haifa, Anton Goodman, who works as a shaliach (liaison) for the Jewish Agency, filled this role.[2]  As he recalled in a follow-up blog post, Goodman described the play as “opening a raw wound in our history but also celebrating the freedom of speech in Israel” (Goodman np).  Others in the audience were offended by his focus on the liberalism and inclusiveness of the State; this felt inappropriate in light of a narrative that was (at least in part) challenging Jews to acknowledge the way that their society “appropriate[s] everything” from Palestinians (Pladott np).  He was offering a particularist take on a narrative that seemed to challenge Jews to engage in a more universalist critique of Israeli policies.

A Palestinian-American woman (who prefers to remain anonymous) stood up to challenge Goodman’s framing of the event, suggesting that the play itself was an Israeli appropriation of this iconic Palestinian novella.  One blogger who attended the discussion observed, “Though she did not intend her comments to be accusatory in any way, I still felt tensions rise in the theater as she spoke” (McDonough np).  This Palestinian-American woman then wrote an email to Ari Roth, which he posted on the blog with her permission, clarifying her position.  She opened by calling the production “extraordinary,” and ended her email by appreciating Roth’s manner of facilitating the discussion, his personal warmth, and his “inclusive way of handling things.” But in the middle of her email, sandwiched between these compliments, she critiqued the ways that the Palestinian narrative is presented as “secondary” to the Israeli narrative; at times, she felt like the humorous remarks of the Jewish protagonist served to “minimize” the pain of the Palestinian couple (Roth with Anonymous np).

Udi Pladott, a Jewish Israeli who attended on the same evening, and who has been living long-term in Virginia, recalled her comments in his own blog post.  He, too, opened and closed with compliments to the theatre, yet he also expanded on her critique, saying “In your production, the story turned from one about Said [the Palestinian protagonist] to one about Miriam [the Israeli protagonist] . . . Your dramatic choices with respect to the original are making the statement that the Palestinian tragedy cannot be recognized and acknowledged unless it is juxtaposed with our own tragedy.”  He charged that the Cameri Theatre was contributing to a self-congratulatory ethos within Israel that celebrates its open-mindedness while “undermining real criticism and real struggles for justice.”  He described the play as a “cocktail . . . that leaves the drinker feeling that the status quo may not be perfect, but it still makes sense.”  Tellingly, Pladott ended his note with the self-reflection, “I have been living here abroad for over 9 years and I see from this distance (and up close, when I visit) a country that’s becoming more and more violent and alien to me.”  With this comment, he attributed his emotional distance from the particularist narrative of the Jewish State to his emerging American identity.   (Pladott np).

Stephen Stern, an American Jew who serves on the Theater J Council, then responded to Udi on the blog.  He politely challenged Udi’s American-universalist distancing from the Jewish-Israeli mainstream, challenging him to consider the ways that mainstream Israeli views are becoming increasingly sensitive to Palestinian concerns.  “Udi,” he pleaded, “don’t write off the engagement of those who count themselves as ‘defenders of Zion’, who praise Israeli democracy, in encountering the Palestinian narrative and its claims.”  He pointed to the efforts underway, both in the Israeli academy and “in all circles in Israel,” to complicate the founding narrative of the state and to wrestle with what that revised history might ethically entail (Stern np).

Finally, Goodman himself wrote a post, responding to the Palestinian-American woman approximately two weeks after the event.  Continue reading

Staging Dialogue at Theater J (Part 3) – The Community Conversation About Israel Outside the Cultural Sphere

from Staging Dialogue at Theater J: Negotiating Israeli Politics in Jewish Communal Encounters  by Elliot Leffler, University of Minnesota

(the essay starts here, and continues with part 3 below)

The Current Conversation (Or Lack Thereof)

In a 2010 article in The New York Review of Books, Peter Beinart argues that the major institutions that shape public opinion in the American Jewish community have actively discouraged an open conversation about Israeli politics.  By “defending virtually anything any Israeli government does” and publicly discrediting the human rights group that critique government policy, organizations like American-Israel Public Affairs Committee and the Anti-Defamation League set a tone for Jewish-American rhetoric that elides critical thought and nuanced conversation.  They have created a dogma for the Jewish community of what it means to be pro-Israel – a dogma which allows for little dissent (Beinart np).

Inside the primary local institutions of Jewish life in the US – synagogues – Jewish communities often speak the tropes that are modeled by the national organizations, or elide the conversation entirely.   In part, this is because we think of the synagogue primarily as a space for prayer.  When we pray, we speak in unison, move in unison, and refer to ourselves in the first-person plural, nurturing a sense of one-ness or communitas.[1]

([1] “Communitas,” according to anthropologist Victor Turner, is a sense of invigorating, inspiring unity catalyzed by community ritual (Turner 1982 47-48).)

As we do so, we inherently discourage dissent.  (The same resistance happens at other ritual gatherings, in which the ritual event also promotes a sense of communitas: Shabbat dinners, Passover Seders, family reunions, etc.)  Moreover, the pro-Israel symbolism within synagogues (flags in the sanctuary, Israeli art in the lobby, prayers for the State of Israel, etc) enables us to avoid an explicit conversation of how we differ in our feelings about Israel.  These symbols preserve a sense of peace and cohesion in the congregation, as they allow members of a wide variety of ideological stances (left-wing Zionists and right-wing Zionists, for example) to adopt the same symbolism.  We foreground that which we have in common, and privately, we nuance those similarities in very different ways (Cohen 18).

Anthony Cohen suggests that this ability of community to contain discordance is its “great triumph.”  This allows community members to establish a commonality that need not amount to a uniformity (20).  But, if there is no opportunity for community members to discuss, challenge, and refine their ideas, then Zygmunt Bauman argues that community becomes an oppressive place, in which we sacrifice freedom (to think independently) on the altar of communal security (4-5). As I argued in the previous section of this paper, the individuals who comprise the American Jewish community feel an increasing need to discuss and to question Israeli policy.  The emergence of more and more explicitly political plays about Israel throughout the past three decades attests to that need.  But rather than developing this dialogue in institutions that might accommodate a range of opinions, the Jewish community has largely splintered into opposing publics: a right-wing public that circulates its ideas through AIPAC, the ADL, the magazine Commentary, and other institutions, and a left-wing counter-public that circulates its ideas through the NIF, Americans for Peace Now, J Street, and the magazine Tikkun. This bifurcation into separate public spheres has impoverished the Jewish communal dialogue, creating a dual set of dogmas rather than establishing a dynamic space of open conversation and questioning.[2]

([2] A public, according to Michael Warner, is a space of discourse that organizes itself around an uptake of texts and a circulation of responses to those texts.  For instance, the right-wing Jewish magazine Commentary has a readership that engages with each other, through Commentary (and perhaps also through press releases from the ADL, AIPAC, and other Jewish organizations).  This readership constitutes a public.  I’m suggesting that left-wing Jewish organizations and publications, such as Tikkun, have created a counter-public – a public with a subordinate power status that organizes itself in opposition to a dominant public (Warner 2002).  Thus, the discourse largely takes place in two separate spheres. )

Theater J’s programming suggests that perhaps theatre can succeed where other institutions have failed. Plays that express a political opinion – or a number of conflicting opinions – engage audiences in a version of the dialogue that generally seems elusive within the American Jewish community.  Daniele Klapproth argues, after Deborah Tannen, that the process of watching a play is cognitively an active process of narrative involvement: as audience members make sense out of the images and sounds that originate on stage, they participate in a joint interactional achievement with the performers.  They engage in a silent conversation on issues they have been unable to discuss at their synagogues or their other Jewish gatherings.  In producing plays like Pangs of the Messiah and Return to Haifa, and staging readings like Seven Jewish Children, Theater J stimulates this nonverbal “conversation” with its audiences.

Yet Theater J also goes a step further than this silent conversation.  It has structured its programming to include extensive post-show discussions after every production of controversial plays like Return to Haifa and every staged reading of plays like Seven Jewish Children.  The theatre then supplements these conversations, which often last an hour or longer, with periodic “Peace Café” programs in which patrons gather with drinks and snacks to discuss the issues further.  Afterwards, the interactive Theater J blog is available for a continued conversation.  Thus, audience members can extend the conversation – a conversation which began as a tacit but active cognitive interaction with the performers – into a verbal and written engagement with other members of the Washington, DC Jewish community.  Continue reading

Staging Dialogue at Theater J (Part 2) + bibliography & notes

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 [23]). 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).

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