Category Archives: Arts

Why I Chose Not to Program The Death of Klinghoffer and Why I Still Support It

Over the past week or so I’ve had many difficult exchanges with friends and family over social media around posts I’ve shared about the Metropolitan Opera’s production of The Death of Klinghoffer. I’ve shared articles defending the production, reviews of its artistic merit, social critiques of what the controversy represents and even parallel experiences of the production in other cities. Those who were convinced it was anti-Semitic remain firmly convinced. Those who believed the protests were just another example of right wing denial of any legitimate Palestinian narrative remain similarly unswayed. Depressingly, this episode has only reinforced the worst stereotypes each side had of the other in the ongoing shouting-match over Israel (can we really call it a conversation at this point?). The Jewish general manager of the Met Opera has been compared to a Nazi sympathizer and a supporter of Hamas. I’ve read comparisons of the actions of those who opposed the performance of the opera to a “book burning of Adams’ work.” By my rule of thumb, whoever calls his opponent a Nazi first loses — and it’s hard to find any winners in this encounter.

Achille LauroMy own feelings about the opera itself are mixed — I saw the film version created for Channel Four in the UK directed by Penny Woolcock in 2004. At the time, I was considering it for possible inclusion in the Washington Jewish Film Festival in my capacity as the Festival’s director. I remember being entranced by the music, disturbed by its portrayals of history and touched by certain images that have stayed with me over a decade later — such as that of Klinghoffer’s wheelchair sinking through the water after he has been murdered and thrown overboard. I chose not to include the film for a number of reasons, some practical (opera on film is a tough sell) and some artistic/thematic. While I appreciated the aesthetic strengths of the work, it felt far too removed from its subject to be included in a Festival in which other films dealing with the Israel-Palestine conflict spoke with greater authenticity and authorial intimacy. The work overall, felt like the product of outsiders to the conflict, looking to illuminate the tragedies and universal lessons for both sides. Firsthand knowledge of course, isn’t a prerequisite for great art, but when the subject is one that brings such passion along with it, one runs the risk — as Adams and his librettist Alice Goodman have certainly be accused — of naivety. That is why the work itself turns the characters themselves into archetypes more than real people, the terrorists are an extension of the chorus of exiled Palestinians and the Klinghoffers are extensions of the chorus of exiled Jews. One cannot blame Klinghoffer’s daughters for objecting to the opera — that is not their father up there (but neither should they have the last word). We are all products of our history, but the opera isn’t really interested in why these people were affected in the ways they were. It is why the captain is in many ways the most interesting character, he is also a product of history, but its effects on his character are more subtle and his choices stem from a much more personal, interesting and humanely flawed place.

A friend I respect greatly wrote me, “folks flying planes into skyscrapers, dragging gay men to their deaths behind cars,etc? They get no inner lives.” I simply can’t agree. Their inner lives may leave them twisted and deranged, committing heinous acts because of the person they have become, but to deny that their inner lives are not worthy of some kind of artistic exploration is to go too far. Why? Because to have that attitude is easy when you’re talking about Hitler, Osama Bin-Laden or Pol Pot; but there are a lot of shades of grey between them and the historical rungs of the ladder that the Achille Lauro terrorists occupy. To elevate Klinghoffer’s murderers to the level of genocidal prime-movers is to engage in a false equivalency that blurs our understanding of evil. It runs the risk of a turning a tradition which takes the weighing of justice most carefully, into a shrill hyperbole.

So, my defense of the opera has to be couched in the acknowledgement that given my own opportunity to program it, I chose not to. I think it is probably fair to say that even if I had wanted to program it, given the controversy that already surrounded the work, I might have faced internal and external opposition that would have made including it unwise and impossible. And it is that last acknowledgement that leaves me so unsettled. Because what was at stake in this debate was not the production of this specific opera in this specific venue. It was the freedom of artists, Jewish and non-Jewish, Israelis and Palestinians, to engage with the most sensitive and provocative topics in their histories and create music, theater, dance and stories from them, and for arts presenters to provide audiences with the opportunity to see and judge for themselves the results.

That is not a priority for many of the opponents of The Death of Klinghoffer. While there were some true arts supporters among the opera’s opponents, for many others (among them, the organizing core), the opera was another front in the total war for Israel’s survival. And while I can share their goal — that Israel survive — I cannot share their belief that this opera constituted a threat to that survival, or even that it was antagonistic to it (or for that matter, that its survival depends on a “total war” footing). I believe this as a Jew, as a Zionist, as a writer, and as someone who has first-hand knowledge of terrorism. But by mounting such a large, public and compelling campaign against an opera that most people will never hear or see, a profoundly chilling wind has been blown across the landscape of Jewish culture specifically and American culture more broadly. In development offices and board meetings across the land, well-intentioned but misguided leaders will ask themselves when faced with the prospect of presenting potentially challenging and controversial material, “Do we want another Death of Klinghoffer on our hands?” Only the most committed (and masochistic) will conclude that they are willing to risk it.

As I was getting this post together, another deadly chapter in this ongoing conflict was written in Jerusalem. A terrorist plowed his car into a crowded Jerusalem train station and took the life of a three-month-old baby girl; an attack which was initially reported in the A.P. as, “Israeli police shoot man in East Jerusalem.” Up in Ontario, an attack with still unfolding causes and consequences reminds us that terror, like that of the Achille Lauro, remains a frequent feature of our landscape. Events like these and their coverage illuminate how pro-Israel activists can see malevolence lurking around every corner and why their suspicions are not without a basis in reality. The urge to circle the wagons and put-off critical examination of ourselves and the “other” for the distant future is strong.

Yet, I do not believe that attacking straw men in the arts serves the long-term interests of the pro-Israel community. It conflates real terrorists with those who wish to understand why terrorism still attracts thousands to its cause; those who are ideologically committed to our destruction with those who wish to understand the historic grievances that feed such fundamentalism. Our tradition demands better.

photo by D. R. Walker, via Wikimedia Commons
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My Submission to the KCRW Independent Producer Project 24-Hour Radio Race: The Jewelry Box

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#RadioRace Journal

Radio Race Banner

 

 

 

 

12:50
Took a nap from 10:30 to 11:30. Woke up. Showered. Brewed a fresh pot of coffee and ate a bowl of Rice and Beans. Figured that would keep me going through the day and provide an aesthetic guidepost: keep it simple, nutritious and satisfying. Now sitting around waiting for the secret theme and realizing that I may be in way above my head, but…too late now.

2:08

The theme is “You Should Know”

I’m pursuing a couple of different angles and will pursue whichever one pans out first. But I feel like I should have known this was coming.

Thinking Face

 

 

 

 

 

3:03

Getting a little frustrated. I’ve got what I think is a good story, but having trouble getting in-touch with the subjects. Right now trying to crowdsource a work-around but am encountering obstacles. Tried calling the public information officer of a local police department to get some traction, but their voice mailbox was full. Have since texted and emailed them with no response. Thinking up Plan Bs in my head and wondering at what point I need to let go of this idea and try for a story that may excite me less but be more achievable in the time frame.

3:20 pm

First big breakthrough! Made contact with my source who I first read about on Craigslist. Didn’t notice that they had listed their phone number as a way of contacting them. Slapping my head, but they totally seem interested in what I was doing and are calling me back as soon as they’re done shopping at Costco. It was an incredible rush.

7:24 pm

So, I went and met the interview subject at the Costco. We agreed that it was too noisy at the Costco to do the interview and after a few false starts, we found a park nearby where his kids could play while we spoke. I wish I had insisted a little harder on a quieter place because I’m listening to the interview now and it has issues that I think could have been avoided if we had been indoors. My relative inexperience in radio is a major hurdle right now. Back home now listening to the interview and wondering if I need to re-record some of it — if the subject is willing. I’ve reached out to him and am waiting to hear back. It was extraordinarily nice of him to agree to do this once, so twice might be too much to ask for.

Waiting at Costco...like a real journalist

Waiting at Costco…like a real journalist

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

9:12 pm

Ok, so maybe I over-reacted about the sound quality. I’ve cut down the interview and played it for Melissa and it isn’t as bad as I feared at first. I still need to cut out another 45-seconds to get underneath the 4-minute limit, but I’m beginning to hear the story take shape. To know what the important ideas in it are and what can be lost. I’m really happy with how it ends. I’ll say this, it really helps to be interviewing a smart, articulate person. Turns out the guy is a journalist for Bloomberg news so he also knows how to tell a story.  I do have a long night of editing in front of me, but I’d give myself a solid “B” for the first 8 hours of the 24 Hour Radio Race.

10:14 pm

Under Four Minutes!

 

 

 

 
Sort of amazed that I’ve gotten the basic story under 4 minutes. There’s still a lot of work to do, but the arc is in place and under the time limit so I’ve got some room to play with secondary tracks and music. I think I might need a Diet Coke. Luckily, one of my former co-workers sent me one the other day.

Diet Coke for Josh

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2:25 am

Getting to the point where I need to get some sleep. I feel good with the first draft I’ve laid down. I even found some music on Soundcloud with a Creative Commons License that I can use for underscoring the story. I just hope I’ve done some sort of justice to the story I’ve been given, which I realize now I haven’t really written about yet. I’ve spent the past week listening to as many episodes of KCRW’s Unfictional as I could cram in. I listened while mowing the lawn, riding the metro, managing my fantasy baseball team or washing the dishes. One of the stories mentioned that they often got good ideas from Craigslist — which was such a simple idea, and yet it hadn’t occurred to me. So, I went online and fairly quickly I spotted this post in the Lost and Found section. It all worked out.

Ok. Going to sleep for a few hours.

9:30 am

Ok. So I slept a little more than I planned, but I’m still happy with my story this morning. Going to play around with some small edits here and there and then upload no later than 12:30 so I’ve got a safe buffer in case Soundcloud acts all wonky. I’ll embed the story here once it is actually up, but you should check out all of the stories that people are working on. Part of the thrill of this has been following the Twitter hashtag #RadioRace and seeing all the other teams posting from around the world. It was kind of like being back in college during finals week when everyone was cramming for finals at the same time or working in a computer lab on a big paper (I went to college in an era where if you wanted to write your paper on a computer, you had to go to a computer lab to do it.)

12:30 pm

Done! I turned it in. It was an amazing experience and I’m glad I did it. I learned so much along the way and given the chance to do it again, I think I’d do a much better job. But given the time-frame and the equipment I had available to me, I’m pretty proud of what I produced. It’s a pretty long-shot that my piece will make the Top Ten of the contest given how many actual employees of real radio stations are involved. I’ve listened to a couple of the pieces that have been turned in and they are very impressive. It’s a great project and a good example of how technology has really democratized media. I encourage everyone to check out as many of the projects as possible and perhaps even try your own hand at producing a piece next year!

 

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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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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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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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