Programming for THE ADMISSION

Below, a guest post from Stephen Stern, Chair of the Theater J Council Voices from a Changing Middle East Festival Committee.

You can see video excerpts of two of the discussions on our Vimeo site:

Marshall Breger and Peter Beinart

The American Jewish Community and Israel: A Conversation with Peter Beinart from Theater J on Vimeo.

Breakdown to Breakthrough: Dennis Ross, Tamara Cofman Wittes, Ghaith al-Omari

Breakdown to Breakthrough: From First Intifada to the White House Lawn from Theater J on Vimeo.

Now, from Stephen:

We set for ourselves the task of determined dialogue–sixteen multi-themed civil conversations among panelists and with our audience–to respond to theatrical art and public issues raised by sixteen workshop performances of the Admission.   A small group–opposed to such production and conversation in a Jewish community institution–had very vocally described us as people using a “made-up massacre” to defame Israel.  These detractors selected and distorted elements of the historical controversy on what happened in 1948 in the village of Tantura. The events of that battle were the sorrowful inspiration, and deeply researched context, for a drama of two fictional families (one Palestinian and one Jewish-Israeli) desperately trying to come to terms with each other, and to the legacies of what two fathers did and witnessed there.

Our audience and our panelists shared a journey within this deeply realized story of seven characters and their fates. Then, with those characters firmly in their hearts, time after time our participants engaged in passionate conversation on forgotten memories, historical uncertainties, and the fully real aftermath of one people’s self-determination and another’s dispossession   In our committed practice of public conversation, we shared a path of looking back to hurt and loss, and of exploring our ability to come to terms and as panelist Sahar Khamis put it, “dig and move on”.

“Giora should just apologize and understand that his father is right.”  So said a mother in the audience response part of our Young Leaders salon discussion, reporting on her own family’s conversations on Israel–from her Holocaust survivor parent’s emphasis on refuge and rescue to her daughter troubled by domination and occupation of another people and reluctant-to-speak in public.  Tal Harris, the young leader of One Voice Israel, told of the play summoning forth the multi-faceted, dangerous and volatile historical layers of the Israeli and Palestinian lives that he knew.  For him the play was a “blow in my stomach”, summoning up connections to his peace activism, his Zionism and his love of life.  Tal sees a limit to what we can carry within us. We cannot let our personal stories remain a catastrophe. In the end, that reluctant-to-speak young Jewish woman replied to her mother’s response by asserting that Giora’s painful quest to understand his legacy needed her mother’s and everyone’s attention.

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“Embracing Democracy” Double-Header Draws Over 900 Despite the Ice and Snow

The Washington DCJCC’s “Embracing Democracy” series nimbly adjusted to the fierce weather conditions of earlier this week and stacked two nights worth of programming into one extraordinary evening at Adas Israel Congregation as over 600 attended a 6:30 panel discussion on the history of the 1948 War of Independence, and then were joined by over 300 more paying tribute to Israeli journalist Ari Shavit and to hear him elucidate on themes probed in his run-away best-selling book, “My Promised Land: The Triumph and The Tragedy of Israel” in a conversation with Leon Wieseltier.

The first panel, “EXAMINING THE HISTORY OF 1948” was moderated by Dahlia Lithwick, senior editor at Slate, and featured panelists Donna Robinson Divine, Morningstar Family Foundation Professor of Government and Director of Middle East Studies at Smith College; Shay Hazkani, Visiting Scholar at Berkeley Institute for Jewish Law and Israeli Law, Economy and Society; and Dr. Yehuda Kurtzer, President of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. 1948-panel-discussion-LOW-RESWhat proved striking to many was the consensus among the panelists of acknowledging the moral complexity of the history; that the multiplicity of perspectives culled from Israeli and non-Israeli historians have created a composite portrait of the War as being both a war of independence and liberation; a war for securing existence; a war of heroic achievement and stunning transformation; and at the same being a war of displacement; of “catastrophe” for those evicted, expelled, or those who fled in fright or at the behest of their leaders. It was startling to hear of the “coerced research” that the Israeli government commissioned to prove that Palestinians left the land of their own free will. It was moving to hear of the range of letters written by IDF veterans over the course of a generation reflecting on their own journeys from European displacement to finding and securing a sense of home in an embattled new land. And the panel was lifted but also challenged by the philosophical questions, “Does it make us more moral to know about history? Does knowledge of history necessarily change our identity? Is Selective Memory truly a core tenet of Judaism?” Facts and history, it was argued, don’t create identity. “Values create identity.” Soon we’ll have a video to post of the lively hour-long panel.

The headline event featuring Ari Shavit held the huge audience in rapt attention. The achievement of the book, Leon Wieseltier contended, was in its insistence on a simultaneity; that the book is a work of “de-idealization, yet written with love.” It is a book “drenched in Ahavat Yisrael — love of Israel,” Wieseltier contexted, as it asks us to continue to reconcile our love with our disappointment” for a country that can never measure up to our hope for it. Our challenge is to “love the object of our criticism” even as we “criticize the object of our love.” Shavit picked up on Wieseltier’s embrace of simultaneity. “I am a hawkish dove.” (That is part of Shavit’s appeal). Shavit-low-resShavit extolls the virtues of Israel’s founding generation, in spite of their blemishes and moral blind spots. “Our main problem is cynicism. We got tired and bored of our own story. We lost the big picture; our grand narrative.”

That grand epic narrative that Shavit creates for the reader is one laced with oppositional strands; of existential panic and triumphant euphoria; of mortal fear and expansive exhilaration. The centerpiece of Shavit’s book, of course, is the chapter on Lyddah, excerpted this past fall in The New Yorker. The power of that chapter — what it exposes — won’t be talked about here; it wasn’t described in any detail at the talk either. But the reading of it profoundly alters one’s sense of Israeli history. And yet it doesn’t shake Shavit’s core belief in the state of Israel, or his allegiance as a Zionist. In fact, it simply makes it more real. And Shavit insisted on contexting the brutal events of the conquest of Lyddah with the overall brutality of the decade of the 1940s and the brutality of the region in general. A distinction was made between goodness and innocence. The reason to tell the story of Lyddah is to increase the moral sensitivity of the reader, and to activate that moral sensitivity within the framework of doing difficult things in order to secure survival.

Some have begun to post their thoughts about the event. Student thoughts can be found below.

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.”

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Third Night, Second Posting, Last Hours in Israel

The absurdly short visit to Israel comes to a close with me behind on transcribing the experience of this whirlwind, so you’ll forgive me for out-of-sequence chronicling and leading with the last experience first, right? I’m preparing to leave for Ben Gurion Airport after a very rich Tuesday and Wednesday in Tel Aviv, Haifa and BeerSheva. I’ll start with Beersheva, down south, where we just came back from seeing a rock solid production of Motti Lerner’s PANGS OF THE MESSIAH at the Beersheva Theatre Company.

Playwright Motti Lerner in front of poster for PANGS OF THE MESSIAH at the Beer Sheva Theatre

Playwright Motti Lerner in front of poster for PANGS OF THE MESSIAH at the Beer Sheva Theatre

It’s the first time the play’s been done in Israel since Motti’s major rewrite for our 2007 production which re-set the play 5 years into the future instead of where it used to be when it first premiered, set and first produced in 1987. The play at Theater J was set in 2012 (funny to think of how back in 07, 2012 seemed so far ahead in time!), and now the play is still set in the near future, on the brink of a major peace agreement between the Israelis, Palestinian Authority and the Americans, and that means very bad news for the family of religious/nationalist settlers in the West Bank who will be forced to relocate in the territorial compromise. The Berger family (renamed here the more Sephardic Basso to suit the Yeminite actor playing the lead Rabbi) aims to oppose any resettlement plan. Division within the family as to how to fight the government ensues. Havoc is wrought as the Rabbi is forced to reckon with the seeds of violence that have been sown into his movement–and indeed his family, The play is just as devastating, frightening, and bracingly argued as ever. This great Israeli version stacks up so well alongside ours which involved great Israeli artists and a great American cast. Do check out the video – and compare it to scenes from our TJ production.

The evening trip south follows a day time trip north to Haifa to interview the extraordinary musical talent, Habib Shehadeh, the composer behind the films The Band’s Visit and Lemon Tree (for which he received Israel’s equivalent of The Academy Award). Habib will compose the music for Sinai Peter’s production of Motti Lerner’s The Admission, joining wonderful set and costume designer Frida Shocham, who met with Motti and me today as well. There were meetings with friends and former interns/apprentices, all providing a wonderfully vivid window on life in Israel in these nervous days of Syrian calamities and fears of a chemical attack in retaliation for whatever the United States might choose to do in the wake of the Syrian chemical weapons attack of its own defenseless population last week. The Israeli public is told to stay calm as people bring their gas masks out of storage, remaining calm, planning for both the worst, and for nothing at all out of the ordinary. Welcome to cognitive dissonance and thinking double — of the worst and most normal of times at once.
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