Thursday, November 9, 2017

Last Year's Election and Finding Healing Through Israel Angst

Photo by Jody Christopherson
I didn’t want to wake up devastated a year ago today.

Not that I am unique in that respect.  

Regardless of how many Americans felt about Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party, the election in 2017 represented an entry into a strange and uncertain timeline very few could have anticipated. 

But for me, November 9, 2016 was supposed to be a personal as well as a political victory.  I was set to debut my very first solo show, The Worst Zionist in The Room, in the Lounge Series at New York’s Dixon Place.  Solo performing was something I had been steadily pursuing at open-mic shows for a couple of years, and it was thrilling to rediscover myself as a performer for the first time since college.  This particular show was the culmination of an angst-ridden journey through my relationship to Judaism and Israel over a decade. I had struggled a bit to find my balance professionally after returning from Israel in May 2015, and completing this show represented a victory in my desire to become a person who makes things happen for myself as opposed to waiting for permission or approval for my creative vision. Like anything worth having in life, the journey was hard-fought, but no doubt such struggle had fortified me and given me a deeper appreciation for all I would achieve. 

I hadn’t really thought much when Dixon Place gave me the date of November 9 for my show months earlier.  But as the date approached, adolescent terrors of not being cool enough for people to hang out with me during what would likely be post-election euphoria started to creep in.  “There’s a bar there!” I wrote desperately on the Facebook event. “If we’re happy, we’ll need to drink to celebrate getting through this crazy election and primary season.  If we’re sad, we’ll drink too!”  That last part was meant to be a joke, of course. 

And then the results came in.

“I’m sorry I can’t make it tonight,” people started messaging me on Facebook.  “I can’t leave my apartment.  I just need to hug babies and play with puppies.” 

I was devastated, but envious I couldn’t join them.  There was nothing more I wanted than to stay in bed and listen to “It’s Quiet Uptown” on repeat.  But I still had a show to do, regardless if anyone showed up.  At least this wouldn’t be my first experience: a year earlier a festival show of mine about BDSM had a show scheduled on Father’s Day, and not one person came. But in that case it was a cast of incredibly gracious actors doing my work to an empty house, and here it would just be me. 

Still, somehow I managed to survive that experience, and I would no doubt survive this one.  And if nothing else, I would have my awesome director Christine and photographer Jody there that night, who were all fabulous, supportive, kickass ladies. 

But to my surprise, people actually did come, many of whom I never would have expected.  This gave me the confidence I needed to take a deep breath and feel at ease—at least if the nation was about to fall apart, my own popularity would be in tact. 

Performing that night was a cathartic, almost out of body experience.  I was reminded of September 11 2001, when I got to put aside the terror attacks for two hours during tech week for Little Shop of Horrors at the Youngstown Playhouse.  There is something really powerful about theatre in giving us a way to be physically present with other people and channel our feelings into some sort of productive action.  When the world feels like it is collapsing, it is heartening to feel like it is possible to create something.

What’s weird is that dealing with Israel that night felt like almost a sense of relief in comparison to the uncertainty that was gripping the U.S. While I was there in 2015 I had witnessed the disappointment among liberals over their most recent election, when the left-wing government miserably failed to mount a challenge to Benjamin Netanyahu’s government.  The heaviness in the air that hung over Tel Aviv the day after that election felt very similar to what many of us were feeling here. It was almost comforting to feel like I had experienced a sort of trial run for our current moment. 

What inspired me being in Israel were the activists and educators I met.  But despite the constant disappointment over any sort of major developments in the status quo, I had met scores of Jewish and Palestinian leaders that were working tirelessly to fight for their own pockets of justice and equity in the face of despair.  Their counterfactual belief that the world they saw was worth fighting for gave me hope.

And seeing the sheer diversity of people who showed up to my show that night gave me a glimpse of the kind of community I want my work to create.  So often liberals have our angsty conversations about Israel in an echo chamber, and I was heartened to see Jewish people from many different backgrounds and denominations, including both Conservative and Orthodox rabbinical students, people who are deeply secular, as well as Jews of color.  There were non-Jews there as well of various ethnicities and religious affiliations, including my hijab-wearing videographer Ramah.  If this comes across as bragging, I apologize.  The point is that this audience represented everything Donald Trump campaigned against, and this is the world I wanted to fight for.   I was moved by the awareness that typically these groups would not be in the same room together to take in politically charged information about Israel if they didn’t know me, and that I could be a person who served as a connector during a time of divisiveness. 

There is more I can say, and more I surely will. Like many others, I am aware there is more I should do.  I have made some calls to legislators, but not nearly enough.  I have given money, but not nearly enough.  I know it may be incredibly privileged that only now I am beginning to feel exhausted by the myriad obstacles facing justice in this country.  It’s exhausting to ponder how much work has been left undone and how much there is to do.  But what gives me strength is my community, and over the past year I have been seeking experiences that fortify that foundation, whether that is creating storytelling dinner parties, studying ancient Jewish texts in groups, or baking cookies on Sunday mornings for my coworkers at Trader Joe’s. 

I love you all.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

My Favorite Saturday Spots in East Jerusalem

As I have written previously, Saturdays are pretty quiet in the Jewish parts of Jerusalem, as most businesses are closed due to the Jewish Sabbath.  While often this silence can be maddening, it has also motivated me be adventurous in seeking out new, interesting, and lively surroundings.

As of late, my wanderings have taken me to East Jerusalem's Bab a-Zahara neighborhood.  One of the first Arab neighborhoods built outside of the City, it was a bustling commercial area during the British Mandate and after the 1948 partition (in which East Jerusalem and the Old City were part of Jordan). I first happened upon the area when searching for some Palestinian art galleries, and have enjoyed peeling back its layers.  The area lies just outside of the Old City's Damascus Gate and is the meeting ground for several different communities cross paths.  You have the local Muslim population, who flock to the area for the bustling market as well as the Palestinian bus station that provides transportation to towns in the West Bank.  It also contains numerous Christian religious sites such as the Garden Tomb, and so it's not uncommon to see missionary groups from the U.S. and Europe wandering around.  The area's proximity to the French Institute and the American Colony Hotel also insure there is a presence of European NGO employees hanging around.

So here I want to share three spots in this area that have become my favorite haunts as of late.

Educational Bookshop
9 Salah Eddin St.

A delightful bookstore-cafe focused on providing information on Middle East culture and the Arab-Israeli conflict.  Here you can get everything from introductory books on Islam and conversational Palestinian Arabic to post cards of Banksy's murals on the separation barrier.  I felt at home seeing J Street founder Jeremy Ben-Ami's A New Voice for Israel displayed alongside works by Karen Armstrong, one of my favorite contemporary religious scholars. The crowd at any given time is a mix of locals to the neighborhood, foreign journalists, and curious tourists.  The upstairs cafe area is nice because it's the sort of place where you can sit for a few hours charging your devices without anyone bothering you or guilting you into buying more than a cup of tea (which you can get with your choice of sage, cardamom, chamomile, mint, or za'tar).

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Israel on Yom HaShoah: Train Tracks, Memory, Anxiety and Photography

Eleven years ago today, I was 18 and standing on the train tracks in Poland leading from Auschwitz to Birkenau as part of the Holocaust remembrance event, March of the Living.

A typical scene from March of the Living 
This year on Holocaust Memorial Day--Yom HaShoah--I find myself staring down a different train track that runs along Jerusalem's light rail on Jaffa St.  Every year the state of Israel observes a two-minute moment of silence on this day to commemorate six million Jewish lives lost in that horrible tragedy.  For two minutes, a siren blasts, and all activity stops.  Not only trains, cars, and buses, but people on the street stopping in mid action and conversation.  Our program director instructed us to visit public spaces on this day and film the two minute silence, as a way to examine the ritual in Israel from an educational and philosophical perspective. My friend Liz thought the view from the light rail would provide an interesting vantage point.

The symmetry with my experience eleven years ago barely even occurred to me.

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.