Responses to The Post…

Grace here. You may have seen the recent Washington Post article about Theater J and the discussions about Israeli drama. We recently got this beautiful response from Elaine and Tom, and they were kind enough to let me share it on our blog. Please feel free to leave your own comments and continue the conversation.

Dear Ari Roth and colleagues,

My husband and I have been subscribers to Theater J for several years–and love what you do. We have found the plays interesting, thought-provoking and balanced. We really liked “Return to Haifa” and applaud you for staging it. The Washington Post article inspired us to voice our support.

We are ardent supporters of Israel but that doesn’t mean that Israel is perfect. I believe the creation of Israel was absolutely necessary and its secure continuation equally necessary. At the same time, the reality is that many Palestinian families were displaced. To recognize that, as Theater J has, and to engage in dialogue and seek a peaceful co-existence is simply being honest and fair.

Without this kind of fairness, Theater J would not be the same. We changed our series tickets from The Shakespeare Theater to Theater J after being introduced to a performance there by friends. We were delighted with it and went to other plays and then became season series holders.

PLEASE DON”T CHANGE! You are doing great work, both on and off the stage–hurrah for the Peace Cafes!

Elaine Murphy and Tom Merrick
Washington, DC

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Washington Post Feature: “At Theater J, Soul-Searching as Israel Debate Intensifies”

Well, the piece is out, first in print, now on line. Been fielding interesting responses via email all day. Good communication with our new CEO, Carole Zawatsky, throughout the process as well. Here’s her quote from the piece:

“I would suggest the work may be controversial for some individuals, but the choice is to present work at the highest level… For me, the question is, first and foremost, to help this broad public that comes from this place of passion to understand that every voice is honored.”

And here’s how the piece concludes:

“Roth says that in a sense, his new season of plays — with works by Arthur Miller, others about Bernard Madoff and Baruch de Spinoza — is a calculated response to the debates that are occurring in Jewish households across the country. ‘Look at what we’re doing: We’re fighting for the soul of our community. We are enacting dramas, and the subject is the embattled soul of the Jewish people. It’s a community and a people that are split and torn, and we sit on the seams of that divide and we need to reflect that schism: that person who looks deeply at himself, and is divided.’

And the Peace Cafes? Whether they reappear at the community center or not, Roth says that he and Shallal are counting on a slate of future nights of hummus and argument.”

Your thoughts?

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