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Jewish Spaces in European Theatre

European Performing Arts Forum
Prague 14-16 June 2003



Session IV: The politics of representation and the theatre

American-Jewish Theater: Standing on the hyphen

Richard A. Siegel, Executive Director, National Foundation for
Jewish Culture, New York

One of the major sessions at the recent conference of the Association of Jewish Theaters, held in Washington, DC this past March, was a panel of culturally-specific theater companies in the area. There was an Afro-American theater company, a GLBT (gay, lesbian, bi-sexual and transgender) theater company, an Irish-American theater company, a women's theater company, an Asian-American theater company, and of course an American-Jewish theater company. What was interesting about them was that they were all the same. The all had the same goal: to present the X experience to a diverse audience; they all had the same problem: how do you get X, let alone non-X, into the theater; and they all had the same solution: cross-market to other culturally-specific communities.

A colleague of mine, upon hearing about this, observed that the hyphen is passé, at least in America. Hyphenated identity is out. While we all have come from somewhere, the distance between where we have come from and where we are now is so large, that we should stop trying so hard to be different and just accept the fact that we are Americans. After all, that is certainly how the rest of the world sees us. The ethnic, cultural, religious, language and regional differences that sometimes take on such great importance here, are barely recognizable outside these shores.

For Jews in particular, some have argued, it's long past time for us to give up the affectation of being outsiders and finally admit that we have made it in America, that we are Americans. Last November, the National Foundation for Jewish Culture published "The Commission Report on the Future of Jewish Culture in America." One of the respondents, Leon Botstein, the President of Bard College, argued that there is nothing distinctive about being a Jew anymore. "Exceptionalism existed and thrived at a price. If we do not have to pay the price anymore, we're not going to be exceptional." And if there is nothing exceptional about being Jewish, then Jews will end up being "an undifferentiated part of the white suburban upper middle class contingent of America," as he put it. Similarly, another respondent, Ruth Wisse, professor of Yiddish at Harvard, observed the diverse manifestations of Jewish life in America, but wondered whether they signified anything meaningful or were just "colorations," distinctions without a difference.

I demur. I'm not ready to abandon the hyphen. Not for any atavistic survival reasons, but because I believe that there is still something exceptional about being Jewish, even if the price was paid long before us. Is not our founding myth, recited at every Pesah seder, "This is what the Lord God did when He brought me forth from Egypt"? We, even now, participate in the entire spectrum of the Jewish experience, and it is an exceptional experience. I'm not ready to abandon the hyphen because I believe that there is still great meaning in this experience which can enhance the quality of our lives and that of the people around us. And I would argue further that it is our artists - perhaps even more than our rabbis and teachers - who can best discern the meaning, extract it and bring it forward most effectively in the contemporary world.

How is this manifested in American-Jewish theater? First, let me make clear that when I use the term American-Jewish theater, I am not referring to the religion or ethnicity of the playwright. There are American-Jewish plays written by non-Jews, and conversely not every play written by an American Jew is Jewish. The only thing that interests me is the content, and I would go so far as to say that more than the content, the intent of the work itself is crucial. Did the playwright intend, either consciously or unconsciously, to draw from the wealth of the Jewish experience in order to reveal a contemporary truth? If "Yes", then I have no problem calling it an American-Jewish play.

Take the case of Tony Kushner's "Angels in America." Is "Angels in America" an American-Jewish play? It is certainly is an American play. Not only does it say so in the title, but where else could it have been written? But is it Jewish? It is certainly gay. It says so right in the sub-title "A Gay Fantasia on National Themes." But is it Jewish?

I would say, "Yes." Because Jews who see it will think differently about their own Jewish identities. And because non-Jews who see it will think differently about what it means to be a Jew in America. For instance, in pitting Roy Cohn against Ethel Rosenberg, Kushner asks a quintessential American-Jewish question, "Does being Jewish have anything to do with human rights?" His answer is "Yes, butů" You have to dig below the surface to find the essence, as he understands it. Kushner is certainly conscious of his choices here.

This construct raises the question as to whether it is possible to have "unconscious intent." Can a play draw from the wealth of the Jewish experience without the playwright being conscious of it? I would argue that this is the case for much of Arthur Miller's work. Lots of folks would swear that "Death of a Salesman" is an American-Jewish play. Willy Loman is the quintessential second generation mid-century American Jew, no longer on the margins, but now caught in the middle. But Miller never identifies him as such. However, he does so intentionally. Because he intentionally decides NOT to make him Jewish, "Death of a Salesman" is an American-Jewish play in my book.

Irving Howe famously argued that after the second generation, there would be no more American-Jewish literature. Writers would run out of subject matter. He was wrong in literature. And he is wrong in theater. Playwrights are now digging past the recent experience of immigration and assimilation to plumb the insights which our 4,000 years of a lived experience can shed on the contemporary condition. This is where the endurance of Jewish exceptionalism resides. This is where the meaning of Jewish distinctiveness resides. Not just in the dramatic act of emigrating from one country to another, of moving from one social reality to another. But in the accumulated wisdom that made this most recent evolution of Jewish civilization possible in the unique, complex, embracing and overwhelming context of America. This deserves a hyphen.