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Jewish Spaces in European Theatre

European Performing Arts Forum
Prague 14-16 June 2003



Session V: Navigating the cultural boundaries: who are the
audiences for Jewish themes?

A brief time under the spotlight: Jewish culture in Sweden

Marianne Goldman, playwright, Stockholm

It all started in 1989. 'Chaos is the neighbor of Finkelstein, a Jewish lifeshow' had its premiere at the Culturehouse in Stockholm, Sweden. It was indeed a collective effort (by Jews working with theatre and writing), but I am sure that without the producer Yvonne Rock and without my longing to "come out" as a Swedish Jewish woman writer, it wouldn't have happened. What was significant was that we both stood very firmly with one foot in the Jewish community and the other one in the Swedish society. Also in Swedish cultural life it was the right timing, the very beginning of the ethnic era!

Before that we mostly had lots of imported Jewish culture; Isaac Bashevis Singer, Joseph Heller, Philip Roth, Bernard Malamud, Norman Mailer, and last but not the least; Woody Allen. As you can see, not one woman!

Jewish life these days seems attractive, especially for young people. That hasn't always been the case, not for me and a large part of my generation. Together with the well-known Jewish warmth and care, we got our share of silence, guilt and fear both from Jews and non-Jews. Our parents' generation was marked by the war, regardless of class or country of origin.

Life in the community sometimes made you feel as if you lived in a ghetto, and you had to wrench and wrestle in order to get out, if you wanted to grow, as a woman and a human being. But where could you go? How should you live, if you wanted to be both Jewish and Swedish? It was difficult, not least because of the double and contradictory message from our parents: Be proud of the fact that you're Jewish, but don't talk about it among the non-Jews!

In that sense 'Chaos is the neighbour of Finkelstein' was a historical event. We wanted to explore the uniqueness of Swedish-Jewish reality and open up our living rooms to the wider audience.... The reception was incredible. For the first time the Swedish Jews could see themselves on stage as if in a mirror and the Swedish audience was amused and fascinated.

But there were critical voices already then, for example among reviewers who thought that we were cowards who didn't deal with our relationship to Israel. And that meant of course criticizing Israel. Yes, this was indeed before the Intifada. And this criticism, this thinking that a Jewish artist, a Jewish intellectual has to define herself in relationship to Israel has always been there. Today, after the second Intifada there are lots of petitions circulating against the politics of Sharon whom they all compare to Hitler, and I have to defend myself for not wanting to sign. Why is it so important for the cultural elite in Sweden that Jews take a stand on Israel and its politics? Deep down antisemitism? Perhaps. Or a need, in the old leftist way, to take a moral stance, to look at the world in black and white? Perhaps. A third reason could be that most Swedes have no relationship to Jews as a minority group. What's more, they have difficulty in comprehending the oddity of having two identities, so the only thing they can relate to is "these strange ties to Israel". Finally, what really threatens me the most as a playwright.
is the Swedish lack of interest and curiosity not only towards Jews but towards other minority groups as well (Kurds, Iranians and so on).

And why is that? Because such an important part of my creativity gets nurtured by this duality and wants to explore all this: the inner life of my stubborn people with such a tragic background, the contradictions in terms, the hypocrisy and dependency within this group, but foremost this twisted relationship between the Jews and the Swedes. Immigrants and Swedes. For instance, I wrote a play, which was produced last year, about a Muslim girl who gets killed by her brother. But it's very difficult to defend such plays, to get them produced by the theatrical establishment no matter how "universal" the bottom line of these dramas tend to be. One important reason for this is that minority plays, (I definitely count women-focused plays in that group) are not considered "high brow culture", which is the norm for quality theatre. Quality theatre must be created by white Anglo-Saxon males. So in this sense the difficulty has very little to do with society's relationship to Jews.

For a long time we have had a socio-democratic society and culture, which stresses equality between people rather than diversity. Swedish people are more interested in justice then complexity. Is Sweden welcoming to minority cultures? Yes and no. Yes - if you quickly adapt to the Swedish society. If you don't insist on eating kosher meat or circumcising your boy or wearing a burka. Yes - if you write or produce a film or play, which depicts a minority family in a charming way - as I did with the script for the film 'Freud moves away from home'. This movie was followed up by other minorities in Sweden, who produced their own versions of young girls breaking away from family and traditions. So, yes if you crack a few jokes or depict Jews as victims of the Holocaust. Jews as victims...people like that.

So in reply to the question: Is there an audience for Jewish plays? The answer is yes and no. No, if you want to dig deep, if you want to investigate the touchy and complex issues, if you want to be particular and not general. The cultural obstacles are simply too many.

So far I have been concentrating on the non-Jewish audience… But what about the Jewish audience? I will tell you a little bit about the reception of my play
'Day of Atonement', which was performed in 1998 at the Jewish Theatre of Stockholm. The entire drama takes place in a synagogue during a Yom Kippur service. Some Jews were immensely provoked. Firstly, by the room itself and secondly, by the characterization of one Holocaust survivor in the play. We made this icon of Jewish suffering talk and think, and not only mild, warm thoughts about people, but mean thoughts. She was mean and religious...

One woman wrote: Why not just leave these people alone, haven't they suffered enough? My response was, and still is, that I am not questioning the pain of the victims, their suffering is immense and can hardly be described by others. But I am dealing with how that pain has influenced their children and their surroundings: the well-known trauma of the second generation. My position is that even if it seems cruel on the outside criticising a human being who has already suffered and still suffers, I am humanizing her in that process, contributing to people's understanding by transforming her from an icon to a human being.

The second taboo was that I let people talk about money in the synagogue.
Cheat each other. The talk about money is such a big and interesting part of my childhood, as a Jew I wanted to give it shape. But that was really a no - no! We all carry that image of Shylock, in the Merchant of Venice and other antisemitic images...we carry it so strongly. And Jews and money is an extremely sensitive issue even today.

So to bring my remarks to an end: writing Jewish stuff is a lonely and uncomfortable situation. So why insist on doing it? It's like a fever, a lust, an anger, a deep longing for acceptance...within the Jewish group, outside the Jewish group. After 'Day of Atonement' I never thought I would write a Jewish play again... the title is 'Nights with family Cohen', it's about a Jewish family today in Sweden and it takes place during the 70s, 80s and 90s...