Friday, May 04, 2012


As someone who mostly writes about Jewish related theatre I saw many parallels to plays of Jewish content in Eugene O'Neill's play The Iceman Cometh which opened last night at the The Goodman in Chicago. Perhaps due to that, I saw a play that depicted the story of people in exile. 

Though it has stars - Brian Dennehy and Nathan Lane who were excellent -- it was O'Neill, his epic play (4 hrs and 45 minutes incl. three intermissions) and the ensemble cast who were the stars. This group of ne'er do wells in Harry Hope's flophouse are rootless, stateless and living under the bottle -- longing for their next drink and waiting for Hickey, their saviour.

But when Hickey arrives, the salvation he offers is to come clean, to leave the world of pipe dreams, to come back to reality and see the world as it truly is -- not under the haze and anesthesia of drink. This seems reasonable and not unlike abolitionists of the day. Since Hickey is a charismatic figure that they look up to they do try to tear away the charades they play. They work to clean up and in amusing ways like a group of schlemiels, they try to drop their pretend lives that are dreams, but are so much a part of their identity. They try to live in a reality that has oppressed them in the past and to do the things that they say they really want to accomplish.

But this freedom that he offers has a price. And when they do join the world, they see why they lived in fantasy. Separated from their dreams they become like their oppressors -- petty, angry, greedy, misogynist, physical abusers, and racist. They become the things that they have been trying to escape from. Life fills them with terror. Before, they saw the world as in a dream and they were the storytellers of that dream, living for a tomorrow that may never come, but yearning for it just as an exile longs for the homeland.

Bolshevism and revolution are the backdrop. Radical leaders are being turned in and arrested by an intransigent (and corrupt) legal system, that upholds inequality and believes that cultural and racial differences are insidious and un-American. Similarly, Jewish-American were leaders in the unions and radical movements at that time, enduring jail to promote their ideals. Anti-Semitism was rampant in 1939 when the play was written and Germany was seen, even in America (witness leaders like Henry Ford and Charles Lindbergh), as a bastion of progress with a false superman -- Hitler, to rid them of their radicals and their Jews.

The characters (and they are interesting and playful characters performed by a wonderful cast) in Harry Hope's Saloon come to reality and it stinks. They yearn to go back to their dreams and their lies. But Hickey has worked a miracle and changed the booze so it no longer creates an alcoholic stupor. Like a magician he has made the elixir of dreams into liquid impotence and all that is left to them is emptiness. 

The characters in Harry Hope's Saloon are from the heartland of America, they are Irish-Americans, Black, Jewish, immigrants (legals and not), people who are emotionally unstable, intellectuals, women selling their bodies -- all searching for a home and a society that accepts them and their difference. They yearn for a day of equality and change. They yearn for a future that brings hope. And unlike other times when Hickey visits, even if they didn't have that, they had their dreams.

But Hickey has changed. He takes their dreams away as he takes away their drink and gives them the harsh reality of an America that only cares about power and is self-serving. Similarly to Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman, Hickey is a salesman who sells dreams. But both embody rootlessness and self-loathing that is both imposed from within and from outside. They live in a dream that becomes a nightmare of deep, deep existential loss.

Where does this loss come from? I believe it is from exile, the exile of people from their communities, their cultural roots, and their identities. The pipe dreams of Harry Hope's Saloon that they express through stories, jokes and song are their lifeblood, helping them to live with a taste of a better tomorrow, that they all long for, but can only realize through booze. 

And Hickey, their leader, is also the ultimate wanderer who can never settle down. Like Willy Loman he is always on the go. And as much as they chase the next sale, they are in both in exile. Both of them live in an world that values commercialism, capitalism and power. They are just cogs in the system -- the everyman, the "low-man," the "hick-man" -- and attention will definitely not be paid.

These plays speak so much to our times, where power and greed are what are given voice in America and the world today. Not only has the revolution not taken place but corporations are now  "people" under the law as the Supreme Court ruled in the Citizens United case. No longer are individual human rights respected, as the Arizona law against immigrants makes clear -- they need not apply, even though they add value economically and as cultural capitol. And as the NRA lobby continues to guide legislation, states like Florida allow people to legally use guns and kill when they feel threatened by people they deem to be "the other."

I could go on and on about the relevance of The Iceman Cometh and Death of a Salesman. Suffice it to say that the loss of everything we should hold dear is in this play. Come see it to dream, to laugh, to cry, to mourn and to feel the loss that comes from an exilic world. From this telling of the tale, maybe there is hope.

Monday, April 23, 2012


The acts of violence against innocents and the shear hatred that it encompasses is not in the past, as we remember the Holocaust on Yom HaShoah this past Wednesday and Thursday. It is with us today. The trial of  Anders Behring Breivik for the massacre of 77 people in 2011, mostly teens at a summer camp, that he executed in Utoya, Norway, shows us how pure unadulterated hate leads to a violence that is unimaginable by civilized people. 

The recent killings done by a madman in Toulouse, France when Mohammed Merah went on a rampage in March 2012, killing three paratroopers and seriously injuring a third. Then four days later Merah went to a Jewish school and slaughtered a 30-year old rabbi Jonathan Sandler, his children aged four and five, and another child, the daughter of the school's principal. The 7-year-old girl, Miriam Monsonego, died in her father's arms as medics tried to resuscitate her. Merah was described as chasing her and then holding her by the hair as he shot her at point blank range.

As I teach my classes this quarter on representations of the Holocaust in theatre and film we think about why things like this happen. We try to get "inside" the events that are being depicted on stage or on the screen and we examine how they represent what the Holocaust was about. We discuss the ongoing history of anti-Semitism and acts of violence that come from racism and prejudice that humanity perpetrates against the other. And as theatre people, we try to imagine. 

Yet our imaginations fall short. We have no thoughts that can truly picture it. So, even as we realize the paucity of our understanding, acts of violence against children and other innocent people still happen. The theatre of the real takes over and erases the theatre of the stage. This is not the same as so-called "Reality TV", with its superficial nonsense that wears us down when we watch and anesthetizes us. The theatre of the real is the performances of every moment that make us feel and think and shock us to what is important in life.

Today Elie Wiesel and Barak Obama met at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC. They went to the memorial and spoke about the continued need to ferret out atrocity and intervene before it is too late. Wiesel spoke about how the Holocaust could have been prevented if nations had moved to stop it. Obama spoke about the new commission on atrocity and the sanctions against Syria and Iran. 

Are these acts enough? When will the violence of hatred end? As Karl Ove Knausgaard wrote today in the NYTimes in reference to the trial of Breivik, "Our task is to witness it, to allow the weight of reality to break through the picture and correct it. And never, never the reverse." This is the theatre of the real.

Monday, March 19, 2012

FOOTNOTE-Joseph Cedar's wonderful new film

I am still pondering this one. Though the reviewers I've read have seen this as a film that shows the Jewish art of learning for learning's sake - Torah Lishma - I think it is more about the problems of learning that begin and end with a footnote. Having been in footnotes myself in books and articles and also being proud of them, I definitely, empathize with the father Eliezer. But I also relate to Uriel the son, who is able to go beyond the infinitesimally small and expand learning so that people today can relate.

This tension very much exists today. We want to know and learn quickly. We don't want to take the time for research. We want everything to relate to our times and we get frustrated or bored when the problems of the past aren't my problems. I also get frustrated with the phrase "make it relevant." I am a big believer in context and I think that learning must be as much as possible from a contextualized perspective. I think we settle for easy answers and basically we like knowledge when it affirms views that we already have.

But learning in order for it to truly be new knowledge must be unsettling and disturbing. It must jar our usual mental processes and bring us to new conclusions. And this is where the movie FOOTNOTE creates the tension. The learning of the father gets stuck in the infinitesimal and the learning of the son, which becomes wisdom is that just knowing the truth is not always what is right.

It says in the Talmud that two scholars studying together "sharpen each other's minds in the study of the law for the sake of truth." But that sharpening can be a dangerous weapon wielded against others. FOOTNOTE beautifully shows this tension and also shows the dire consequences of learning that are hurtful and create barriers which enslave rather than frees us.

Friday, March 09, 2012

Batsheva Dance Company Tells Story Through Revelation

The internationally famous Batsheva Dance Company from Israel is coming to Chicago to the Auditorium Theatre later this month (ticket information below) . I watch the performers as they exhibit flawless execution and I ask, "What story are they telling?"

I spoke with Matan David, one of the troupe’s dancers and who is currently in New York City with the company. I asked him about the meaning and stories of their dance compositions. “It is hard to say as theatre and story. We work with emotions and feelings but not to show a story. The information is purely physical. The way we work - stories are created on their own and it is abstract.”

This past week they performed "Hora" in New York City. “It is a dance about the alternative meanings,” David told me. “The word “hora” can mean many things. For many it is an Israeli dance, it can also mean “hour” in Latin" (the dance is one hour). And the work doesn’t have the Hora circle dance in it. Clearly for Batsheva and its Director Ohad Naharin, meanings are subjectively multiple and come from the viewer’s perspective, even as they emerge for the performer.

Naharin, the Director of Batsheva Dance since 1990, has said. “Texture is one of the most meaningful things to me, in dancing…And for me the meaning comes out of recognizing those elements…the composition, the tension between the elements, the dynamics… that’s the meaning of the work; it comes out of there. That’s why you cannot tell a dance. And if you can tell a dance, it’s maybe not a very good danc.” (Susan Yung 2007 interview). Anna Kisselgoff of the NYTimes wrote, “He seems deliberately to leave interpretation to the audience. A more dubious appraisal might suggest the choreography is needlessly obscure in some cases.”

I continued my discussion with Matan David about “Max“ which will be performed in Chicago.  I continued to probe about story, but in a new way. I asked David about the story of Naharin and how he composed the music for “Max” under the pseudonym Maxim Warrat. He laughed and said, “That is very funny. Max is the alter ego of Naharin. He came into the studio one day and became Maxim Warrat the composer. It seemed like a joke. And the music came in with him each day we worked on it.” I asked if Naharin became someone else or more himself as Maxim and how his dual identities reminded me of Purim this past week, with the masks we wear to hide in order to play and let out another side of ourselves. “Yes, that is true," he said, "so “Max” is very theatrical and it came from the music. I always have people see “Max” first if they have never seen Batsheva. For me it is dark…the movement creates a distance. I love it. It is very influenced by Japanese movement and dance.”

In “Max” I saw the performers manipulate their bodies flawlessly through movements that were exacting, totally in sync and physically impeccable. I heard Hebrew and other languages or pseudo-language; and the musical tones evoked Jewish kinot, or mourning laments, which are chanted to remember exile and the ancient Temple’s destruction. I also saw in the dance other destructions and atrocities like Hiroshima and Nagasaki and through the purity of Batsheva’s movement I was brought to the universalism of the suffering of all humanity. The New York Times wrote about “Max,” “(It) produces a formal structure full of breath, as if the air around the dancers and not just the movement, is responsible for shifting the dynamic from mischievous to ominous. At times it’s balmy; in other moments it’s ice cold. Succinctly and mysteriously, “Max” zeros in, just as its press notes say, on the pleasure and pain of being alive.”

Dance critic Debra Cash writes about how their technique coming from a process called "Gaga" is integral to their composition, “The Company sums it up by calling it simply “a tool for creative thinking." As it says on their website, "We are aware of the distance between our body parts, we are aware of the friction between flesh and bones, we sense the weight of our body parts…we learn to appreciate understatement and exaggeration…We discover both the animal we are and the power of our imagination.” 

In this way the body is more body-in-pure-movement rather than a body with a dramatic story arc and context. As a contrast, in the recent Wim Wenders film about Pina Bausch, Pina, (which beautifully encompasses her aesthetic of dance and the Wuppertal Tanztheater) one sees dancers working in a totally different way, with all kinds of relationships emerging -- men to women, sensual to powerful, repetitive and Sisyphusean, environment to body, music to feeling, and youth to aging.

Unlike Pina, Naharin goes to the other end of the spectrum. Meaning and story are stripped away to show the purity of body and energy. The music lends a feeling of ritual. Unseen and powerful forces are the source for the movement and the dancer is an actor who is not in control and caught up in movements without intellectual or emotional awareness.

Batsheva is understood through the viewer’s perspective, what the dancer discovers, and how the pure movement on stage is an unformed revelation of movement -- as texture and the text.

Batsheva Dance Company Auditorium Theatre March 17 and 18, 2012 one weekend only. Tickets are on sale now and range from $30 - $90, available by phone at (800) 982-2787, at or in-person at ATRU’s box office. This engagement is made possible through the generous support of Seymour Persky.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012


Reflecting on the Academy Awards with Billy Crystal. There is clearly no problem with Billy being the emcee for the awards show and his comfortability addressing the audience in the theatre as well as the television audience – talking about African-American ethnicity and referencing Jewish ethnicity was not a problem. The fact that being Jewish is so accepted in this country is both amazing and also often overlooked by many Jews.

Quite often the “official” line is that there is a lot of anti-Semitism and that we must be vigilant. No question, anti-Semitism exists. Synagogues are still being defaced and bombings are planned, just as happened recently outside the New York City area in New Jersey.

But the freedom that exists here is both unprecedented and wondrous. The Jewish community should be overjoyed at what we have achieved over the last 200+ years in America. While in Philadelphia this weekend we went to the incredible American Jewish History Museum on Independence Mall. What a great experience! The accomplishments by Jews in this country from science to business to politics and of course to arts and culture not only are great because of the achievements, they are great because they strongly contributed to what has made America into America. And the ways Jews joined with other ethnicities to be creative is only something that could have happened in this country.

Jews have a lot to be proud of, but America does too. The fabric of this nation is to offer freedom, not only to do as we please as long as it doesn’t hurt others. The genius of this country is to be an incubator nation that stimulates ingenuity, cross-cultural exchanges, creative solutions, and artistic explorations that come from a deep sense of breaking new ground for fresh perspectives on identity and invention.

That is the greatness of America – that identity and invention can come together and social strata, prejudices, class, and whether one has wealth or not are not going to be obstacles. Of course I acknowledge the racism that is a deep part of America, issues of women’s rights, and the ongoing homophobia that still is seeking a real just response. But as my teacher Elie Wiesel would always say -- and yet….

Much has been achieved and cultures are seeking each other out for cross-fertilization. The opportunities today are greater than ever. I am so optimistic for this world and we must insist on being optimistic, keeping in mind realities and obstacles. The world is closer together than ever before and the Jewish world as well as the world-at-large must embrace it or there will be no survival.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Holocaust, Israel and Jewish Performance

Just returning to Louisville from LA, I was looking at the films being shown at the Louisville Jewish Film Festival. At least four out of the thirteen (b-mitzvah theme here?) were based on the Holocaust or grappling with memories of Nazi cruelty. One was about Jews in America entitled Yankles - about a "Bad News Bears" style chasidic baseball team and the other eight were either from Israel or about Israel. On the face of it, the festival seems to say that Jewish film is mostly about the Holocaust and the rebirth of Judaism in the State of Israel. That means that the one film representing the approximately 5 million Jews in America relegates Jewish culture to kitschy schmaltz, which is putting it mildly.

So maybe these are the only films the festival leaders could find? But I know that isn't true. I have seen really good and interesting films with Jewish content from America and other countries with really interesting themes and cinematography over the last year. An example is "Crime After Crime"  I was pleased to meet the filmmaker Yoav Potash and Joshua Safran, a Jewish lawyer in the film who's Jewishness is very much a motif in the film. It documents how Safran, with his partner Nadia Costa, defends African-American woman Deborah Peagler seeking parole from an unjust sentence. The film had funding from the Foundation for Jewish Culture and has been a Sundance Selection.

Or what about a film about 20-somethings like "Four Weddings and a Felony." Though not an acclaimed film it still is a good film showing the trials and tribs of young Jews today.

Or if you really like Yiddish, the REAL Yiddish, what about "Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness" by Joseph Dorman,
which puts to lie about how happy-go-lucky Tevye and his band of merry Jews were. As Hillel Halkin says in the film, "Sholem Aleichem never uses humor to escape what's terrible. He uses humor to enable you to understand that there is a perspective from which the most terrible thing is funny, too." It also features the 100 years old Bel Kaufman, author of Up the Down Staircase and the granddaughter of Sholem Aleichem.

There are many more but I guess the point I want to make is that Jewish films abound and the choices go  in many different directions, not just with the Holocaust and Israel. On another level I wonder about the choices and ask what are they saying about what the film fest selectors want to portray as Jewish culture and concerns. Why is there the focus on the Holocaust and Israel? Is this the primary way the presenters want Jews to be defined? Is this the way they define themselves? Is the implicit statement that being a Jew today in America is to primarily show how suffering and catastrophe resulted in the establishment of an Israel which now can boast a thriving film industry with talented filmmakers? 

I have seen many good Israeli films and bad ones, too. I was just at a private screening by the Tel Aviv University Film Department with films by students and graduates. But they aren't the sum total of the Jewish experience of America or in the world. We must go beyond the ghetto. We must see the Jewish-World experience in all of its colors, dimensions, and transculturalism. There are new definitions and cultural expressions of Jewishness today. Let's move into the 21st C.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Jewish theatre or what?

Lots of thoughts are going around my head since I got back from Los Angeles and the Jewish Theatre Conference we held there. So many good people came and showed their work and discussed topics like the ethics in a Jewish themed play or about "memory and identity" in plays with Holocaust content. We met with icons in American entertainment - Ed Asner and Carl Reiner and we saw performances that varied from "Yiddishy" style drama to personal wrestlings with what it means to be a Jew in a post-modern world. 

So what is the upshot? Jewish theatre, Jews in theatre, theatre impacted by Jewish thinking and Jewish experience and Jewish history -- where does it end? When Richard Montoya our keynote speaker on the "Shaping and Shifting of Jewish Theatre" came from Culture Clash, he spoke about the "taco meets pastrami" and I loved it because it said it all for me. It is about the taco and pastrami becoming friends and doing a dance. It is about the partnership that can come in a transcultural exchange. It is about what I have to gain from meeting you and what you have to gain from meeting me.

Martin Buber one of the greatest social-theologians in the 20th C, who also adored and believed in theatre and was a dramaturg in his early career, wrote that all of life is meeting. It is in the meeting that I respect where you come from and your journey, that enhances and excites me and the journey I can take with you. Theatre is the best way to enact that meeting, to communicate and be in the fully present moment. It brings me into the "awe" and transforms me, even for a short amount of time. Yet from this transformation I realize it is possible to be moved. It is in theatre that I become fully other and that I can best come to an understanding for the other who is in front of me. Buber felt that the I-Thou revelatory moment lived in theatre.

So Jewish theatre is that moment for me when all of this comes together. When I create or see theatrical creations before me I see the great tragedy of humanity and how heroic we all are in our desire to be more fully human -- to be just, to love, to endure our suffering and pains, to overcome grief, to laugh and make fun, to not take ourselves too seriously, to play and shpiel and to be meaningfully thoughtful when we are faced with memory and what the future holds. Jewish theatre brings all of this together for me and yet....

Yet we must join with others. Our theatre must be transcultural today. It must include and be exposed to other identities and heritages. It must include and be affected by others and it must not be triumphal - only trumpeting ourselves. When Richard Montoya said that he wanted to include Jewish culture into his work and he wanted to be proud of his Jewishness from his crypto-Spanish Jewish roots, I said "Jews should be proud of the Spanish inflections in our roots and how some of the greatest collection of writings and experiences of all time came from those roots - the Kabbalah. The magical realism of Spanish culture is a strong element in our joint roots and it is no accident that the crucible of our search for the transcendent was in the history we lived together." So Richard said to me, "let's make a new play about this and I'll write it with you." So Richard, I will take you up on that offer. I'm there!

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Getting Started

This is a new blog to move forward with an ongoing contemplation about Jewish theatre, film, arts and culture and their intersection with other arts and culture.