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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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

Middle East Peace Talks Compel Audience Members to Urge Theater J Response

Received this a day before the new round of talks began at the White House this week:


TO; Mr. Ari Roth

Mr. Roth:

I had the honor, pleasure of seeing ‘Pangs of the Messiah” a few years ago and it occurred to me that this would be something important for the President and his advisers to see as they approach talks with PM Netanyahu.

Now I just went on the Theater J blog and played part of “Israel Comes to 16th Street“, fascinated to hear what went into the mounting of the play for an American audience…

I don’t know that Americans really understand how “biographical” Israel really is – that this tiny state, this conglomerated nation, is really made up of the one-plus-one-plus-one’s. It gets lost in talk of the “Israeli-Palestinian Problem” – as if it is somehow disembodied from people.

I imagine you have tapes of the play and though it’s always better to see a live performance, at this late hour, that is highly unlikely, even were impossible to get the actors and A MOST GENEROUS BENEFACTOR TO SUPPORT A “COMMAND”WHITE HOUSE PERFORMANCE.


Perhaps, actually, this might be a propitious time to mount a short-run screening of the play IN “ORDER TO “TEACH THE ISSUES OF THE PLAY’ – as was said in the video.

And then this follow up from the same individual:

Settlers defy peace talks with new construction across West Bank

Yesha council says settlers will start building in at least 80 settlements, breaking a government freeze that ends on September 26.

I KNEW IT! September 1 is a day for “Blitzkreig” – and I KNEW this would be it! Just as PANGS OF THE MESSIAH predicted!

So here are the videos documenting the prophetic PANGS OF THE MESSIAH by Motti Lerner; a play about a historic peace agreement that’s scuttled by the actions of extremists.

Filmmaker David Goldenberg’s documentaries made during our rehearsals and early performances of PANGS OF THE MESSIAH in summer of 2007.


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PANGS in Chicago

Check out this radio feature — an interview with playwright Motti Lerner done in Chicago in advance of the opening of PANGS OF THE MESSIAH at the Silk Road Theatre Company. Listen to the feature here (which includes an excerpt from the play).

Motti Lerner is an Israeli playwright and writer of the play Pangs of the Messiah. It’s about the eviction of Jewish settlers from the west bank after a peace agreement is signed in the year 2012.

The Silk Road Theater Project will present Pangs of the Messiah, here in Chicago, from March 19th to May 10th.  Continue reading