24 Hour Radio Race or What On Earth Am I Doing?

24 Hour Radio Race PosterOne of the greater advantages of being in a transitional period is the opportunity to try new things. When you work in the same place for 17 years, your list of “things I would do if I only had the time” can get kind of long. With a full-time job, my side projects were limited to my playwrighting, which I could reasonably pursue by typing away on the Metro during my morning commutes downtown. Since I ride from the end of the line I could always get a seat in the morning, and I probably wrote about 80% of my most recent play on the Red Line (who needs Amtrak’s Writers-in-Residence program with its questionable TOS). The way home in the afternoon was a different story, and frequently I found myself standing the whole way home either reading from an e-book or listening to a podcast. I’ve loved This American Life since it started being broadcast in the DC area years ago — long enough that I used to record episodes off the radio on CASSETTE TAPES! The Moth is another favorite podcast and recently I’ve started listening to KCRW’s Unfictional. I’ve done some minor sound engineering over the years, recording short intros for podcasts of events at work and I even put together a 12-minute version of a much longer oral history I recorded with my grandfather before he died. So when I saw that KCRW was holding a 24 Hour Radio Race, I decided to sign up and give it a shot.

If you’re familiar with the 48-Hour Film Project, this is the same idea, except without the film part and in half the time. This Saturday at 10 am Pacific Time, I’ll be emailed with the theme for the contest. I’ll then have 24 hours to write, record, edit and upload an original 4-minute, non-fiction radio story. Everything needs to be done within that 24 hour period, so there’s really nothing I can do to prepare other than make sure I know how to use my sound editing software and let people know that I may need to call on them as resources for possible interviews once I know the theme. Last year’s theme was “The Last Thing You’d Expect” so I anticipate that there will be a similarly broad theme this year.

My goal isn’t so much to win the competition as to see if I can put together a listenable radio piece in 24 hours. It is exciting and a little terrifying. I’ll be posting updates here to my blog to document the process of making the radio piece.

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Doubling-Down on Philip’s Jewish Identity in The Americans

Last season Melissa and I became unabashed fans of the FX television series The Americans. Since then it has quickly emerged as one of the best shows on television for its complex and multi-layered characters, its authentic-feeling spy-craft and its relative faithfulness to Reagan-era Cold War atmospherics in costumes, pop-culture references and plot lines. One of the running themes of the series is the differing attitudes the main characters, Philip and Elizabeth bring to their jobs as KGB “illegals” living deep under-cover. Elizabeth is the more ideologically committed of the two, while Philip is more skeptical both about the wisdom of their Moscow handlers and whether America is really the mortal enemy – he even considers defecting early in the series.

Part of the pleasure of the show is that Philip and Elizabeth are both deeply drawn characters, yet their backstories are largely unknown even to each other and only gradually and piecemeal revealed to us. We’ve learned some about Elizabeth’s childhood and her time in-training for the KGB as well as a plot-line last year about one of Philip’s former loves from the USSR. But we haven’t learned as much about his family background, which led me to speculate in a post last year that he might be Jewish. I laid out my reasons and in doing so, also cited an interview by the show’s Jewish creators in which they alluded to “a great story with a Mossad and a refusenik twist, but ultimately it didn’t pan out for this season…Yet it’s stuff that’s very much on our minds, given both of our backgrounds, and in future seasons, it’s fare I’m sure we’ll explore.”

Is Philip thinking whether or not this man can be turned...or something more?

Is Philip thinking whether or not this man can be turned…or something more?

Last night’s episode (Season 2, Episode 4 “A Little Night Music”) brought that Mossad/Refusenik story to the forefront and positioned it for at least a multi-episode arc. The episode opens with Philip at a synagogue listening to Baklanov, a former-Soviet physicist addressing the congregation about how dismal it was to be a Jew in the Soviet Union, how grateful he is to be in America, and how it offered the best future for his family and his children (cut to a shot of his slightly homey-looking wife and geek-in-training son listening with admiration in the front row). In a wonderful non-verbal acting moment, Philip (played by Matthew Rhys) seems to envy the safe harbor that America has provided Baklanov. Given the anxieties Philip and Elizabeth have for their own children’s future given their occupation and exacerbated by the recent murder of fellow agents Emmett and Leanne (and their daughter) one can hardly blame him. Reporting back to Moscow, Philip claims there is no way that Baklanov could ever be “turned” to spy for the Soviets.

Moscow decides that if the physicist cannot be turned, then he will need to be “exfiltrated” – kidnapped and returned to the USSR. Elizabeth and Philip are put on the case and as the episode ends, the attempted kidnapping has gone sideways. They are ambushed by another male/female pair of agents, one of whom they incapacitate while the other escapes with their car containing the targeted physicist chloroformed in the trunk. Roll credits.

The scenes-from-next-week confirm my initial suspicion that the spoiler agents are indeed from the Mossad. Why they were protecting the physicist we’ll probably learn and how this blown operation compromises Philip and Elizabeth’s operational ability as Soviet agents will be interesting. However, in the snippet seen in the teaser for the next episode it would appear that the show-runners are also setting-up something of an identity crisis – most likely targeted squarely at Philip. In the teaser, we see the Mossad agent, tied-up and bruised saying to Philip, “I hide what I do, I don’t hide who I am,” – a conversation that takes us into a realm of morality and identity that the show has not yet fully considered. And, I maintain, if Philip has any Jewish ancestry, which I’ve shown before is plausible, the identity crisis will be further compounded as another tug on his multiple and conflicting identities – as a father, as a KGB agent, as a husband to Elizabeth (and Martha) and a friend to (and sworn enemy of) Stan the FBI agent.

How long can Philip keep these contradictions in perpetual tension? Waiting for the breaking point is what keeps me watching.


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JewPlay: The Future of Jewish Theater is in the Past

The series of #JewPlay posts that recently ran on HowlRound have had me regretting my relative absence from the Jewish Theater scene for the past decade. There’s been a lot of good work done during that time, and with the exception of what was happening in my backyard at Theater J, I’ve missed most of it. That’s not to say I regret the decisions I’ve made that charted my personal and professional course for the past ten years or so – a time period during which my wife and I had twins and she was able to publish four books (one nonfiction and two novels and another novel coming this spring). I had the opportunity to run a major film festival, program and meet major authors, commission new scores to old silent films – lots of creative and rewarding work, a lot of deep thinking about the roles and uses of Jewish culture, but not much personal theatrical output. But as the old Yiddish saying goes, “You can’t dance at two weddings with one tuches,” and while I was dancing at a special and unique wedding, that doesn’t mean I’m not curious about that which made the other wedding special and unique. We can always wish for an additional tuches.

When I was last on the scene I was making profoundly Jewish theatre. My play Miklat told the story of a ba’al t’shuvah – a newly observant Orthodox Jew – whose parents come to Jerusalem to try and retrieve him on the eve of the first Gulf War. It was a comedy but it also tried to ask serious questions about faith, the depth of identity and whether those of us who reject fundamentalist religion are also brave enough to embrace a principled atheism. It struck a nerve with audiences and had a successful run at Theater J, (where I was the Associate Producer) as well as at theaters in Atlanta, Minneapolis and Palm Beach. Why it never made it to New York, I’ll never know. Something about the new play “pipeline” at the time flowing in one direction from New York?

A dozen years later I’m entering a new phase in my professional life and I’m lucky to be able to return to playwriting in a serious way as a participating artist in Theater J’s Locally Grown Festival. The play I’ll be work-shopping, To Kill a King tells the story of the 1968 Sanitation Workers Strike that brought Martin Luther King to Memphis, Tennessee where an assassin’s bullet found him on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel. What attracted me to this story was not its heroes – the sanitation workers, whose story has been well told in other ways, nor its primary martyr, MLK who has been the subject of numerous dramatizations. What interested me, and what makes it a Jewish play are three more ambivalent figures who sit at the center of the drama – Mayor Henry Loeb, a former Jew and recent convert to Christianity, in-league with old-line segregationists who stonewalls the strikers and refuses to negotiate; Jerry Wurf, the President of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees who is representing the strikers and Rabbi James Wax, leader of Memphis’ reform synagogue who at different times during the strike served as a reluctant mediator, a prophet predicting disaster, an opponent of public confrontation with the mayor, and ultimately the moral conscience of Memphis who engages in a profound act of public protest. For each of these characters, how they behave in accordance or in opposition to their perception of their Jewish identity has tremendous consequences, not only for themselves, but also for the outcome of the strike, and the course of American history.

The American Century of prosperity has been accompanied by the rise of the most successful, secure and accepted Jewish community ever. In many ways the history of America over the past 75 years is the history of the Jewish community – and that history, with its myths and misconceptions deserves dramatic re-examination. Just as our brethren in Israel are confronting their foundational narratives to unearth the deeper truths necessary to move forward, so too must Jewish theater seek to examine the past that is not so distant that we cannot bear some responsibility for it. When we do so, we’ll still find much to be proud of, but also ambiguities and hard decisions that may not have been the best, but the best they could do.

Just as it is ridiculous to say that we are living in a post-racial era, similarly it is nonsense to expect that we are in a post-ethnic era – in both instances the racial and ethnic landscape has gotten more complex, more nuanced, less easily stereotyped, but to deny the existence of the geography is folly. How we draw on our history, chauvinistically or with compassion and sober honesty will go a long way to determining our future. That as I see it is one of the great challenges for Jewish theater, one that gives it relevance and one that invites a multiplicity of voices necessary to tell the perpetually unfolding story.

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I Can’t Watch Football Anymore

I’m not watching football anymore. I just can’t. Let me explain.

I didn’t play organized football for very long. I started a new school in 8th grade and for some reason I thought playing on the football team would be a good way to meet people and make friends. Never mind that I was rail thin and maybe 100 pounds sopping wet in a wool sweater. Never mind that the only football I had played up to that point were touch games in the backyard with my friends and the occasional semi-organized game of flag football at summer camp. Never mind that constitutionally I was a better fit for the drama club than the poseur-macho culture of the middle school locker room. I played because I was a football fan – a NY Giants fan to be specific. I had posters of Lawrence Taylor, Carl Banks and Joe Morris on the walls of my bedroom. Bill Parcells was the smartest man alive as far as I could tell. Those guys were my heroes. I lived and died every Sunday watching them play on TV and those rare occasions when I was able to go to a game at the Meadowlands were like religious pilgrimages. So, I played football.

by Archman8

photo by archman8

I remember the first time I really got hit – got my “bell rung” as they say. It was at a practice where the coach had us get in two lines with the front of one line facing opposite of the other. The drill was that the two people at the front of each line would run and hit each other – no one was the defender or ball carrier – just straight-up collide in the middle and see who “wins.” I’m not sure if it was a physics experiment or if it had some instructional value about how to hit someone. I don’t remember whom I was up against, and I don’t even remember how ferociously or not I tried to hit them. What I do remember is not only getting knocked on my ass, but the force of the collision slamming into my head and as I got up off the ground slowly, my ears were ringing and the laughing and hooting of the coaches and players was coming through only dimly. I was confused. I was a little disoriented. Did I have a minor concussion? Maybe. Maybe not. People didn’t really seem too concerned about that in-general back then.

I didn’t play football when we started high school the next year. But I was every bit as much a football fan and remained so for many, many years. Some of my favorite father-son moments with my dad occurred around the New York Giants. I was able to instantly bond with my father-in-law over the New York Giants. Even though we live in Washington with its Football Team With a Racist Name, I made sure my son was a Giants fan. I can’t count how many male friendships over the years have been solidified over football talk in-general and the G-men specifically. But throughout that time while I was dimly aware of the violent nature of the game, its reality and consequences were out of view. Sure, there were guys whose knees were shot and tragic stories like Lyle Alzado’s whose health was ruined by steroids, but they were aberrations.

But over the past decade the revelations about the lingering impact of multiple concussions on the physical and mental health of professional football players has changed something for me. These men are doing permanent harm to themselves for my entertainment, harm that persists long after the season is over, long after their career is done, long after we’ve all moved on to the newest crop of faster, stronger players who repeat the same story with exponential violence.

People say, “But certainly these men knew football is a dangerous sport? No one forced them to play. They’re well compensated and with that kind of compensation sometimes comes consequences.” This ignores the fact that fan dollars and gargantuan television contracts feed the system that creates that kind of cruel logic. It ignores the fact that the NFL has gone to extreme lengths to keep the truth of the situation from both players and fans.

That’s why I won’t watch anymore.

William C. Rhoden put it bluntly in this weekend’s Times when writing about the recent settlement of a lawsuit between the NFL and a group of 4,500 former players who claimed to suffer lingering health effects from concussions.

The settlement has put all of us who watch pro football on a moral hot seat. Former players have taken the money, leaving the fans three ways to rationalize their addictive zeal for these weekly spectacles:
■ You love the product and don’t really care about its costs.
■ You are troubled by football but will continue to watch.
■ You will walk away.

Rhoden says he is going to continue to watch “as a cultural critic who thinks that football is merely evidence of erosion in the American soul.” When you’re a New York Times columnist I guess you can get away with that.

But I’m walking away. And not without regrets.

I love the game – the strategy, the execution, the disciplined aggression and the intense rivalries. Football teams are our modern American tribes and this decision leaves me tribe-less, which is a lonely way to be.

I haven’t watched a game these past two weeks. I haven’t watched highlights on SportsCenter or listened to the chatter about the Washington Football Team With The Racist Name on talk radio. I’ve avoided even reading about the games on the news websites I frequent.

And I’ve had several awkward conversations with friends that went something like this:

“Did you watch the game?”
“No, I’m not watching anymore. I just can’t bear it with everything we know about concussions. I feel dirty.”
“But I heard it was a pretty awful game.”
“Yeah. We got creamed. I gotta go.”

I can tell people don’t want to hear it.
I don’t want to hear it.
Does it really matter if one Giants fan doesn’t watch? Ratings are higher than they’ve ever been, so I guess not.

But I can’t be a part of this anymore.


Filed under Facts as we see them, Man Stuff

I Created a New Word For Little League Parents


Paterkinderschlagenangstentspannen (pater•kinder´schlagen•angst•ent´spannen) ¹ (noun) The feeling of dread a parent has watching their child batting in little league and the subsequent feeling of relief when they get a hit. ex: Josh was filled with paterkinderschlagenangstentspannen as the Wolvog swang the bat and hit the ball sharply past the third baseman’s outstretched mitt.

It came to me while I was watching the Wolvog at-bat. I needed a word. A word for that feeling a parent gets when watching their child bat during little league, particularly those early years of little league when they’ve taken the ball off the tee and are hurling it via a machine through the air for the kids to hit. And you can strike out. Ok, so perhaps we’re talking about a league where you get more than three strikes before you sit-down, so the training wheels aren’t all the way off, but still. It’s time to start learning that you’re going to fail sometimes. Some days you’re going to fail a lot. Just as tricky: parents have to learn that they’re going to have to sit there and watch their child fail sometimes.

Here’s something I’ve learned: that doesn’t get easier. This is the second year of baseball for the Wolvog and I die on the inside a little bit every time it’s his turn at the plate. I hope he gets a hit. I hope if he hits it right at a player from the other team, that the fielder drops the ball, or mis-fields it, or blows the throw to first base. Worse than that, I hope that if there’s other runners on-base that they tag that kid out rather than my kid. But I hope above everything else that he doesn’t strike out.

This particular fear of the strike out runs counter to current practice in major league baseball where striking out has reached all-time highs. Perhaps earning an average of $3.2 million takes some of the sting out of walking back to the dugout after whiffing. Perhaps reaching the highest level of professional sports gives them the confidence not to care very much more if they strikeout rather than pop or ground-out. An out’s an out after all. Get ‘em next time.

But for some of us (and our children) who have not achieved those heights, the strikeout is synonymous with utter failure. You even look a little foolish, swinging your bat through the air, a little off-balance, while the ball sails by unmolested. You end up looking and feeling unbalanced, awkward, exposed and impotent. That moment when you swing the bat and don’t make contact with the ball can feel like everyone at the ballpark is pointing and laughing at you in slow motion. It’s embarrassing. The greatest choreographer couldn’t come up with a movement more filled with futility, frustration and raw failure than the feeling of swinging and missing that third strike. (Sexist linguistics aside, there’s a reason a guy unsuccessfully hitting on a girl at a bar is said to have “struck out.” Failure + a dose of humiliation = struck out.)

But of course, you have to keep all of that on the inside. You need to tell your child the exact opposite. Everyone strikes out – Babe Ruth struck out all the time. You’ll get ‘em next time. Choke up on the bat. Shorten your swing. Remember to step toward the plate, not away. Keep your eye on the ball. No tears. Keep your confidence up, half of hitting is mental. There’s no crying in baseball. Which is bullshit. But in any case, learn to keep your shit together even though you’re dying on the inside. It’s an important life lesson and there’s no easy way to learn it. Sorry kid. You think this hurts, wait ’til you fall in-love.

But. If he hits the ball, it can feel like disaster averted. A call from the governor. The sun bursts through the clouds and the angels sing the Hallelujah chorus. Your child will be filled with confidence. And even-tempered, well-adjusted and sociable. They’ll say later in life that they were blessed with a happy childhood and not hate their father for making them play baseball!

There’s no word for that, so I turned to the Germans who have a word for everything, but unfortunately do not play baseball. Or at least don’t play it very well. While I was sitting and watching the Wolvog’s team in the field I cobbled together a new German word — because if they can have words like Verschlimmbesserung (a supposed improvement that actually makes things worse) and Fingerspitzengefühl (the ability to think clearly about many individual complex events and treat them as a whole) then why not a word that contains all the emotions detailed above.

Thankfully Google Translate made the task fairly easy and thus I came up with Paterkinderschlagenangstentspannen. Pater (father) kinder (children) schlagen (hitting) angst (fear) entspannen (relax).  Please send a nickle every time you use it from here forward.

You’re welcome.

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Passover Amicus Brief for Gay Marriage

Last night, in the waning hours before Passover began I had this feeling of anxiety.

That’s a fairly common emotion for many Jews prior to a holiday that requires us to be completely rid of anything made of bread, anything that could be made into bread, anything with bread in it as well as anything that might conceivably be confused for bread or the products necessary to make bread (this last category particularly annoys me, but alas, for another post).

But I know our home is all set, so that wasn’t it.

Perhaps it was because the Passover ritual meal – the Seder – is a huge production with weighty decisions to make and execute regarding everything from the particulars of re-telling the Exodus from Egypt to the mass quantities of food being served. But, no. We’re attending other peoples’ Seders this year. So that wasn’t it.

Then I saw the tweet:

And I remembered, the Supreme Court is hearing oral arguments tomorrow in the case against DOMA and Prop 8. In the past few days a rash of politicians have conveniently announced their support for gay marriage just as public opinion polls make it clear that the majority of the country now favors the right of LGBT couples to enjoy the same rights as us straight folk. As the tweet makes clear, time is running short for public figures to position themselves on what feels like the inevitable side of history — who wants to be remembered as still being on the side of “separate but equal” until Brown v. Board of Ed?

It can take time for some people to stop swimming against the tide of rising freedom. The Supreme Court ruled that it was illegal for the Commonwealth of Virginia to outlaw interracial marriage in 1967. In 1983 more Americans still disapproved than approved of interracial marriage. Now 86% approve. A lot of people, over a lot of time, have changed their minds. Or at least they’ve come to understand that it is socially unacceptable to tell a phone surveyor from Gallup that you disapprove of interracial marriage. Either way, call it progress.

After all, Moses had to go to Pharaoh ten times to ask for his people’s freedom — and Pharaoh never really got behind the idea…with catastrophic consequences.

It is time for this country’s highest court to put itself on the right side of history.

Tonight we went to a family Seder hosted by one of the last members of our oldest generation. They are very traditional. At times I’ve bemoaned the fact that they continue to use an old Haggadah (the book used to tell the story of the Exodus from Egypt) full of all Thee’s and Thou’s as well as the exclusively patriarchal language to refer to G-d. While I love going to this Seder, it is a large, warm, raucous family affair, I have to admit, that I find the liturgy less than inspiring. Then tonight, we came to the following passage:

haggadah pic

Suddenly, this text from 1958 (I looked on the cover page) about an alleged event thousands of years old, struck me with the full revolutionary power of its narrative of freedom. The idea that in every age some new freedom is won. That in every age we uncover “formerly unrecognized servitude, requiring new liberation to set man’s [inset irony for patriarchal language] soul free. In every age, the concept of freedom grows broader, widening the horizons for finer and nobler living.” We are still in the desert, struggling to realize the full freedom we can achieve.

1958 — only four years after Brown v. Board of Education, 9 years before Loving v. Virginia, 15 years before Frontiero v. Richardson. 55 years before Hollingsworth v. Perry.

So, while I think it’s been pretty clear where I stand for awhile, let it not be too late for me (and for as many of you as possible) to declare that a truly free society must grant equal freedoms to its GLBT citizens. The Supreme Court should make unconstitutional any law that prevents marriage between two men or two women. We should support legislation that recognizes and codifies those rights — even though equal rights for a minority should not need to be put up to majority vote.

That’s my Amicus Brief. Happy Passover.


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Continuing Obsessions: The Irish-Jewish Connection

Wall_plaques_Irish_Jewish_museumWeekend Edition Sunday had a nice piece this morning about the Loyal League of the Yiddish Sons of Erin — an affinity group of Jews from Ireland that met regularly in New York and which over time has disintegrated as their offspring have melted into the rest of America. It is one of those quirks of history that repeats itself every so often, that Jews trying to get the hell out of wherever they’re fleeing, end up in some unlikely places: Uzbekistan, Shanghai, the Dominican Republic and in this case, Ireland.

There have been entire PhD dissertations written about the most famous Irish Jew, James Joyce’s Leopold Bloom from Ulysses (a book I’ve begun many times and never finished). Robert Briscoe and his son Ben Briscoe get trotted out from time to time as past Jewish Lords Mayor of Dublin (I actually got to work with Ben Briscoe’s granddaughter Carla when she was acting in the DC-area about ten years ago). Former Israeli President Chaim Herzog‘s father was the Chief Rabbi of Ireland. But I’ve always felt this hall-of-fame of Jews-in-Strange-places approach to Irish Jewish history missed some deeper themes which I’ve never truly seen explored.

I had proposed to study them at the end of college when I applied for a Watson Fellowship — my idea was to study the development of National Theater in Ireland and Israel. Why Ireland and Israel? Well, to be honest, they were both countries I loved visiting and have been to multiple times. But that’s not what I put in the Fellowship application. I pointed out that the countries share some very compelling similarities in their modern development as nation-states.

1) Both countries grow out of ancient cultures that were highly influential in the development of Western Civilization but only achieved independent Nation-State status in the 20th Century.

2) Both countries have a history of genocide and diaspora — the Jews, many times over the millenia and the Irish with the Great Potato Famine which reached its peak in 1847.

3) Both countries have a history of linguistic revival, although with varying degrees of success.

4) Both countries have unresolved issues of national territory that play-out very differently, but at their essence speak to a psycho-geography that extends beyond the physical boundaries of the state, and entangle them with competing claims to the land with another ethno-religious group.

5) Both countries struggle with the line between church (or synagogue) and state.

5) Both countries see themselves as victims of European history. The British in-particular play a strong adversarial role in the struggle for political independence in both national narratives.

6) Most significantly to the fellowship I was applying for at the time, both had National Theaters before they had actual Nations. The Habima Theatre began in Europe, but eventually established itself in pre-State Israel and began performing in Tel Aviv in 1929 (it wasn’t the official national theater until 1958). The Abbey Theater was established in 1904, well before independence as part of an Irish Literary revival lead by Yeats and Synge. The Irish national theater is much better known, but both played important roles in the self-definition of a modern national identity in the run-up to and following independence. As a result, the theatrical traditions in both countries are today still vitally connected to national issues and the continuing evolution of that identity. That was my thesis anyway.

I didn’t get it. Partly because the past fellowship recipient who interviewed me didn’t really “get” theater. When I tried to explain to him how theater could reflect and shape a national narrative I held up as an example Angels in America, which had recently won the Pulitzer. He hadn’t seen it, but his friend had and told him he hated it.

It also may have had something to do with the fact that after the interview I realized the fly on my pants had been down during the entire conversation. Certainly, that was a foible that Leopold Bloom would have appreciated.

Image: By RustyTheDog, via Wikimedia Commons

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