Sunday, March 29, 2015

So Many Sides Now: Different Views of Israel's Wall

Tzameret Zamir's "Path to Peace" mosaic along the Gaza border
So last week as part of Perspectives Israel, we got a tour of the West Bank security barrier with Danny Tirza, the man who designed it.  While there was a lot about Tirza's presentation that got under my skin--I found his tone a bit glib and took issue with his attempt to show how cushy and comfortable life was for Palestinians in refugee camps as a way to I guess make them seem less deserving of international sympathy--it was definitely interesting to hear about the practical considerations that the government had to weigh in order to move forward in such a major security construction project.  This created a weird sort of symmetry to the emotional journey I've been on with Israel over the past decade.

Danny Tirza (right) explains to us the context and concerns that went into his design of the wall)
When I first visited Israel in 2004, the wall was in its beginning stages. Firmly rooted in the values of humanitarianism and liberalism, the whole concept horrified me.  The fact that my tour group wouldn't engage with me on the complicated politics of the region further enflamed my tempers, and I penned an angry editorial for the Boardman High School Bugle raising my concerns that Israel was not exhibiting the Jewish values I had cherished.

The visit with Danny marked one of many vantage points through which I have seen the wall on this trip.  Not going to lie, as a child of American peace activists, I was actually extremely excited the first time I got to see the wall from the Palestinian side, to see the kind of protest art that would no doubt be present.  And the splendor of the barrier in Bethlehem near Rachel's tomb did not disappoint.  There were vibrant, poignant, and soaring images that showed the international community was deeply invested in the Palestinians' plight.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

On Race and RENT in Jerusalem

So, encountering RENT at different points in my life is always a complex processing experience.  It's also interesting to see a show on the amateur level for the first time that you previously saw on Broadway (or in this case two Broadway tours) and to see how a smaller company solves issues of staging. I went into tonight's production RENT in Jerusalem with both intrigue and trepidation.

If you squint, you can see the
 one person of color in the cast in the lower left
I was pleased to see this production illustrate that you don't need a huge budget to make stage magic.  One of the things I dread about seeing non-professional theatre is cringing at sloppy, unnecessary set elements.  The best small productions are those that don't try to be Broadway, but instead use what they have thoughtfully.  One of wittiest moments in tonight's show was during Angel and Collins' first meeting and when Collins' said "nice tree," we realize he is referring to a pine-tree shaped air freshener around Angel's neck.  There is something really refreshing about seeing immature, hormone-crazed characters in their early 20s played by actors the same age, as opposed to people pushing 40.  In the case of RENT, having younger actors made their impulsive life decisions much more believable and the characters easier to empathize with.

However, this production also highlighted RENT's inherent flaws in terms of how it deals (or doesn't deal) with the subject of race.

On the one hand, the racial diversity of the Broadway production of RENT has always been a given and one of its most characteristic and important elements.  In particular in the original cast and movie, you have characters of color representing a wide range of class experiences, sexual identities, and body types.  That coupled with show's universal messages of love and freedom definitely offer a hopeful vision of society that has led to its appeal among young people.  On the flip side, by ignoring the issue of race completely in the script, it also ignores many of the very real systematic obstacles and issues that prevent that utopian world from becoming a reality.  From a casting point of view, it means that a show about economic inequality can get away with having virtually no actors of color in the cast.

Is this necessarily a problem?  I think it is in a place like Jerusalem, in which racial tensions and inequality color the fundamental conflicts facing this society.  There's conflict with the Palestinians, who routinely face eviction from their homes and water shortages based on their background.  And within the Israeli Jewish society, you have Jews from Ethiopia and North African countries as well as those from the former Soviet Union who suffer from a huge income and opportunity gap compared to those of central and Western Europe.   One of the reasons the ultra-Orthodox party Shas has continued to endure it is it's one of the only parties that has made income inequality among (Jewish) minorities a central part of its platform.   Sure, it was an English-language speaking production whose main audience is the Anglo community.  But seeing the all-white audience of well-meaning liberals watch an almost completely white cast (with the excerption of the black actor playing greedy mogul Benny, which raises other issues) sing about how oppressed their lives were in their little artistic bubble, I felt like something fundamental was missing.  One American girl in the cast had been a roommate of mine, and at one point I heard her bitch about how it was ridiculous to say that there is anything controversial about Israel occupying the West Bank because they won that territory fair and square.  And how many of those actors, who probably consider themselves left-wing, have had any meaningful contact with the real issues of inequality here in Israeli society?

By not dealing with any of these issues directly, RENT was able to find broad universal appeal, and yet this also makes it prone to shallowness and superficiality, just another exploration of myopic white people problems.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Most Amazing Pearls Of Wisdom From An Evening With Writer Etgar Keret

I've been psyched out to attend a talk with Etgar Keret ever since I saw the event on our class schedule.  While I haven't read any of his fiction in full, the commentaries about Israel politics and society that have appeared in the New York Times and Haaretz over the years have always been moving, hilarious, and devastating.  While my own relationship to Israel and the conflict has ebbed and flowed over the years, his deeply insightful and self-reflective work has always given me peace of mind that my values are reflected in certain places within that society.

And there have seldom been greater times when that kind of peace of mind has been so necessary than after a visit to Hebron this morning.  In case you aren't familiar, Hebron is a deeply divided city in the West Bank where tensions between Jewish settlers and Muslim residents have come to such a head that the military has effectively put a moratorium on human activity in much of the Old City.  The result is an eerie, post-apocalyptic feeling that feels like something out a dystopian sci-fi novel.

Feeling exhausted both physically and mentally, I was relieved to go into a talk with a someone who has absolutely no illusions about the reality of the conflict, and yet still endeavors to find hope and beauty through his work (with a rueful sense of humor).  And Etgar Keret did not disappoint.

Here are some of his more delightful sound bites:

On the Purpose of Fiction:
Etgar Keret (left) reading one of his short stories
to students at Hebrew Untion College in Jerusalem

"Why do we need stories?...cutting a salad is more important than writing a story."

"Religious belief and art...make existence less arbitrary."

Fiction allows readers to "enter worlds without risk, to places that wouldn't be safe in real life."

"When you write a story or read a work of fiction you are exercising your empathy muscle."

"I find literature for the power that it has no function."

"I don't know if fiction is a place of truth--it is a place of sincerity. You can be yourself."

"[My favorite art] shows there is something good in humanity...If I want to know that life sucks and people are terrible I just have to look out my window."

Friday, March 13, 2015

Gambling Eden: On The Joys--And Anxieties--Of Funding

A few months ago, there was a Salon piece going around by a female writer discussing how being "sponsored" by her husband allows her the financial freedom to pursue a full-time writing career. While talking about money is super uncomfortable, it opened up an enlightening conversation among a lot of people in my network about the financial challenges and sacrifices involved in making a career in the arts. When I was between jobs a few years ago, I conducted an informal survey among my writer friends about the most sustainable strategies they have found to both support themselves financially as well as make time for their art.  For some people, the answer is support from a spouse, while for others the answer is office work or teaching.  Because every writer has a unique set of emotional and intellectual needs, no two life strategies are going to be the same.  And a lot of my life over the last few years has been experimenting with different life rhythms to figure out what makes the most sense for me.
The view from my hotel room at the Dead Sea last month

Since January, I have been in Jerusalem on a the the Jewish Theological Seminary's Kesher Hadash Semester In Israel Program, which is funded by the Jim Joseph Foundation.  As someone who is in an insane amount of debt from grad school for a playwriting degree, being on a funded program is completely blowing my mind.  Not only am I studying tuition-free with a rent stipend, the program takes us on experiences as diverse as the Palestinian-narrative program Encounter to Perspectives Israel, which was created to provide Israeli views on the occupation. They also frequently reimburse us for attending Israeli cultural activities and puts us up in hotels with sumptuous breakfast bars.  I am not saying this to brag--I find myself every other week to take pains to say how humbled and grateful I am for this experience.  Throughout my whole application process last year I kept waiting to be told I wasn't good enough, that there was some bar it turned out I probably wasn't meeting.  Or maybe I was just traumatized from applying to so fellowships in the theatre world, where funding opportunities are so sparse and competitive it's hard not to feel like vultures fighting over the corpse of a famine victim.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Seeking A More Perfect Jewish Union and Striving For Empathy

This week as part of our mifgash with Israelis from Hebrew U, we visited the Yitzhak Rabin Youth Hostel.  I knew this was going to be an emotional evening:  I was in Hebrew school when I learned that Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated by a religious Jew, and that event has loomed as a shadow over my relationship with Israel. This is very different from my father's generation, for whom Israel represented a safe haven in the aftermath of the Holocaust and the miracle of the Six Day War.

The "broken amphitheater" 
For the our program, we were taken into a room that we were told was designed to represent a "broken amphitheater," representing the deep divisions that Rabin's government and murder revealed in Israeli society.  We were then told we were going to see a video presentation from a projector, but no one pulled down a screen.  Instead, images and scenes from 100 years of Zionist and Israeli history surrounded us in 360 degrees.

Whether it was Israeli troops storming Jaffa Gate during the Six-Day war or impassioned rallies and peace demonstrations in the lead-up to the Oslo Accords, the curators of this presentation put the viewer directly in the middle of the turmoil.  While I had been aware of many of these events on an an intellectual level, I had never seen footage of many of them and so they weren't really alive for me.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Collecting Narratives: Podcasts I'm Listening To Right Now

A few months, I started to become very conscious of the fact that most of the media I was consuming was created by people who look and sound like me.  While this impulse is natural, it is also super problematic for someone like me interested in cross-cultural dialogue.  When my lens into other cultures is always being filtered through even the most well-intentioned white people, there's the inevitable danger of fetishizing the sense of difference and not seeing those communities as fully human.

I started to think about this deeply in the criticisms of Sarah Koenig's smash hit podcast "Serial."  In one particular article headlined, "Serial and White Reporter Privilege," Jay Caspian Kang takes aim at Koenig's cultural tourism in her investigation of the communities of Adnan Syed and Hae Min Lee. "Who among us (and here, I am talking to fellow people of color)," Kang writes, "hasn't felt that subtle, discomfiting burn whenever the very nice white person across the table expresses fascination with every detail about our families that strays outside of the expected narrative?"  I've felt my own version of this whenever Christians in Ohio would tell me "Wow, it's so cool that you're Jewish!" but it rarely occurred to me that I could be guilty of the same annoying behavior.

But this is not a post about me flagellating myself over white guilt.  This is a post about sharing some of the awesome podcasts I've discovered by voices expressing narratives I would love to see get more recognition.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Moving From The Margins To The Majority, And Trying To Stay Inclusive

From Loving the Real Israel by Alex Sinclair

I spent a lot of my childhood being an outsider.  Whether it was for my religion, my vegetarian diet, or my love of musical theatre, my identity existed outside of the norm in Youngstown, Ohio.  As I mentioned before in previous posts, my Jewish values are deeply tied to the idea that because of my people's history of oppression, it is our duty to use the advantages we have achieved to provide support to those still struggling to achieve equality. Whether it was explicitly told to me or not, I also came to be suspicious of any kind of majority and felt it was my duty to provide nuance and a voice for the voiceless.

And this is why perhaps I have always struggled in Jewish majorities--whether in Israel or New York City.   When traveling through the neighborhood that used to be the Warsaw ghetto, some girls expressed distain that anyone could live there after the Holocaust, and I felt obliged to point out that we Americans build shopping malls on former Indian land and name subdivisions after tribes.  At least we Jews have memorials commemorating our suffering--most groups simply get their histories erased.  I thought of this as exactly why my parents were adamant about sending me to public school as opposed to day school:  they wanted me to be able to relate to and empathize with a larger society than one ethnic/religious group.  If I became too comfortable only surrounded by people who are like me, would I lose the ability to empathize with others, and then become part of the problem?

And so my experience in Israel on Kesher Hadash has been an interesting one.  While I spent the last ten years feeling really isolated from the Jewish community because of my religious questioning and my issues with Zionism, for once I find myself in an environment where most of my colleagues share my views.