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" http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0Qw0-39e3dQ  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. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b6Sj7GcRl4U

Or if you really like Yiddish, the REAL Yiddish, what about "Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness" by Joseph Dorman, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hfx5tOBbe6U
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.