III: Europe's multicultural landscape:
Jewish themes fit in?
culture in France today: aspirations of universality
and representations of identity
Pierre-Jerome Adjedj, playwright and director, Strasbourg
What does it mean to be a Jewish artist in France today? What is the mission
of a Jewish artist? Is there a contemporary theatrical creation that can
be identified as typically Jewish, beside the creations commonly known
as community creations? Can this creation find its place somewhere?
I don't claim to answer all these questions in an exhaustive manner. Moreover,
this question refers as always, to a more general question: What does
it mean to be Jewish in the society in which we live?
As the purpose of this paper is centered around the question of the theatre,
in particular, I organized my thoughts by starting at the end of the chain;
namely, with the theatres that programme the shows. I restricted myself
to an analysis of the so-called municipal structures, as they throw some
immediate light on the relationship between institutions, population and
The staging of live shows
France has a very large network of public municipal theatres, partly due
to a massive investment by small and average size towns and municipalities
over the last twenty years. These theatres, for the most part, are sponsored
by local authorities, or sometimes work in association with them and they
are therefore an important political pawn for the parties in office. In
fact, these theatres are used as a tool to create social links with the
local population, as much as a showcase for the outside. For the theatre
managers, appointed by the political party in power, there is virtually
no room to make mistakes.
The first consequence of these high stakes is that often, the programming
fits into a standard format that you see repeated from north to south
and from east to west. The programme planners are under pressure from
the politicians, who require them to respond to the public's expectations:
expectations that they think have been clearly identified; therefore,
most of them provide a so-called balanced programming that we might call
eclectic, which is not necessarily a bad thing in itself. But what we
have here is only a veneer of eclecticism, an assembly of fashionable
trends, a synthesis of what comes out every year of the fringe festival
of Avignon. Basically, a condensed form of what "works''. Therefore,
the element of risk-taking is reduced over the years almost to nothing.
Instead of eclecticism, which would open up to possibilities for all kinds
of shows, we are actually dealing with standardized programmes. Shows
must match precise criteria concerning duration, subject and style. This
requirement is not explicitly formulated, but appears tacitly through
the choices and rejections of the programmers.
As for the
plays that can be identified as being Jewish cultural in nature, they
are mostly of two kinds: either ''ethnic'' shows like Yiddish musicals,
or plays about the Holocaust. The first category satisfies the trend for
multiculturalism, the second one satisfies the need for political correctness
and a clear conscience, independent of the quality of the shows. To this
we can add the strong emergence of one-man shows. But here again, the
phenomenon is due to a more general trend, that of ''ethnic'' stereotyping,
with stand-up comedians (such as the Marseillais, Jews, French Arabs,
As we can see, things are indeed well ordered in theatrical programming.
Let's say that they are made to conform, which brings us to another question:
what future is there for anything 'outside of the box'? What place is
there for the contemporary Jewish creation, outside of these two possibilities?
a Jewish artist in France
The relevant question that we should ask ourselves is: what is a Jewish
play? What defines it as one? Is it linked to the Judaism of its makers
(authors and directors), to the themes it approaches, or to the public
targeted by the play? To phrase the question differently, is a Jewish
play a play written by a Jew, who talks about Jews to Jews, or all of
these factors put together?
Since I limited my analysis to contemporary creations which are not created
by the community, let's start with the most simple assumption: a Jewish
play is the making of a Jewish artist. But what is a Jewish artist? For
the artist, answering this question means having already answered it for
himself, as an individual: What makes me Jewish? The answer will vary,
depending on the country in which he lives, and depending on the size
and the reality of the Jewish community.
In France, Jews don't really suffer from problems of integration. Therefore
the question of the artist's relationship to Judaism comes more from an
individual questioning, from a personal choice influenced by age, family
environment, and one's relationship to the religion. In any case there
exists a "right'', or let's say a possibility, not to claim one's
the supposedly serene context and the freedom of choice on which the French
Republic is based, remains at the mercy of the fluctuations of the international
situation. We have seen how current events, such as the war in Iraq, or
in a more permanent manner, events in Israel, can provoke in French society,
relayed by the French media, a hardening of attitude towards the Jews.
In some cases, this automatically transforms, by ricochet effect, the
artist into a Jewish artist, and the thinker into a Jewish thinker. At
this stage the personal definition that each person makes about his or
her own Judaism is thwarted by pressure from the gaze of society. As for
the artist, these outside pressures have an influence on his work and
his thinking, preventing an objective look at the work itself.
we are asked to explain ourselves as Jewish artists, and no longer simply
as artists. This creates a gulf that becomes very difficult to overcome.
And the problem for the artist, whatever he is, is to find his space.
This is even more true in times of crisis, when he must go beyond the
dominating discourse, and overcome it, without which art can no longer
exist and becomes propaganda.
to define the place and the role of the Jewish artist in France
If we try to define the place and the role of the Jewish artist in France,
we come up against a difficulty that goes beyond the artist's own position:
in France, the integration of the Jewish population creates a perception
in the majority of the population that Jews are linked to the religion.
We are supposed to be Jewish just as Catholics are supposed to be Catholic;
the notion of a Jewish people is often misunderstood, or seen merely as
a desire to be different from others.
leaving aside performances linked to our cultural heritage such as Yiddish
plays, what are the elements which can clearly define the artist's work
as being linked to Jewish culture?
the most important question should be asked from the point-of-view of
the artist - about the specific problems that he comes across, rather
than the question of typecasting imposed upon him by the public or by
professionals. In fact, we should ask ourselves if there is a specific
''mission'' that is incumbent upon Jewish artists, or specific themes
they should approach?
of course, an immense and obvious theme, one in which Jewish artists have
an essential role to play: the theme of the Shoah. Of course, this crucial
period in Jewish history has been covered over and over again, but most
of the time it has been viewed through the prism of memory, which is important.
But if the mission of the artist is to give a universal reach to the problems
he is treating, then one essential mission clearly stands out: to write
and interpret plays that aim to go beyond the principle of the uniqueness
of the Shoah, analysing the foundations of barbarism by going beyond the
strict limits of commemoration. Such plays should attain a universal vision,
which should constantly stress that, on the one hand, the capacity to
become a barbarian is within each man, independent of his nationality,
and on the other hand, that being a victim is not determined by fate.
You probably have to be Jewish to do this work, to avoid the accusation
of minimising, excusing or even worse, questioning what happened.
On this theme, we enjoy a freedom of speech that we alone possess, and
this puts us in a unique position, presenting us at the same time with
a challenge and a duty to be a Jewish artist. There probably are other
areas of expression as well where this specificity can be applied, and
it is our job to explore them.
In any case,
this is the personal conclusion that I have reached about my role as a
French artist, that I should seek to penetrate the gaps in established
thinking, and to enlarge them in order to attract attention. This might
be the opportunism of people who have, at the same time, a firm footing
in the temporal reality of the country in which they live and/ or were
born, and who bear in their flesh the wounds of a long wandering.