Ruth E. Gruber
When a group of Jewish stage and screen professionals sat down in Prague
recently to explore how Jewish themes are addressed in contemporary European
theater, a towering figure loomed in the background.
The figure, of course, was Shylock, the most famous - and infamous - Jewish
character in theater history.
For centuries, Shakespeare's grasping moneylender demanding his pound
of flesh defined how Jews were portrayed onstage and set stereotypes that
are still current.
Other stereotypes have since emerged, and on a continent whose Jewish
population was largely annihilated by the Nazis, they have long served
as theatrical shorthand for a cultural experience that is as little understood
as it is complex.
How to escape these stereotypes, play with these stereotypes, transform
these stereotypes and even engage these stereotypes is fundamental to
European artists attempting to translate Jewish experience into public
As such, they provided underlying themes for the Prague meeting, a two-day
seminar that grouped some 30 Jewish actors, directors, playwrights and
producers from a dozen countries.
"We all carry that image of Shylock in 'The Merchant of Venice' and
other anti-Semitic images; we carry it so strongly," said one participant,
the Swedish playwright Marianne Goldman.
"Writing Jewish stuff is a lonely and uncomfortable situation, so
why insist?" she said. "It's like a fever, an anger, a deep
longing for acceptance - both within the Jewish group and outside it."
Called "Jewish Spaces in European Theater," the seminar was
convened by the London-based European Association for Jewish Culture,
a grant-making organization founded in 2001 to encourage artistic creativity
that reflects the Jewish experience in Europe.
Some of the participants have worked on productions aimed at an internal,
Jewish audience, but most are engaged primarily in writing, directing
and performing for the general public.
They included, for example, a producer for the BBC, the deputy director
of the Danish directors guild, and the former artistic director of the
Theatr Clwyd in Wales.
"The term Jewish Space is a metaphor," explained the association's
director, Lena Stanley-Clamp. "The theater is one of the important
public spaces which becomes a Jewish space when Jews are projected and
represented on it, so it is important to discuss the wider implications."
Those implications, she said, include how to negotiate the issues of stereotype,
representation, censorship and self-censorship when dealing with Jewish
themes in the public artistic arena, and also how to address the role
of Jews - Europe's traditional "other" - within Europe's new
"Artists have to be aware of their responsibilities, but in order
to create, to write, they have to be free to say anything," Stanley-Clamp
said. "Self-censorship only leads to silence."
For many artists, these issues have assumed a new urgency at a time when
anti-Semitic violence and innuendo have again reared their heads in some
It was no coincidence, perhaps, that four participants in the seminar
are working on separate new productions of "The Merchant of Venice"
as a means of confronting stereotype and anti-Semitism.
"We have to deal with the Shylock complex," said Isabelle Starkier,
director of the Paris-based Star Théâtre, whose production
of the play will be presented later this year at the Avignon Festival
(if ongoing strikes don't stop performances) and elsewhere in France.
Starkier said that her staging presented mirror images of Shylock as a
victim of anti-Semitism as well as a villain, in a way that showed the
ambiguities and contradictions brought on by prejudice.
She said it was important to stage such a production now in France, which
over the past few years has been hit by a spate of anti-Semitic violence
linked to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. "If we
understand how anti-Semitism works, we can avoid the vicious circle,"
she said. "'The Merchant of Venice' is a key to that. Also, through
the play, other people will be able to understand why they themselves
The idea of a persisting "Jewish space" in Europe has taken
hold among some European Jewish artists and intellectuals over the past
The Paris-based cultural historian Diana Pinto coined the term in the
1990s to describe the place occupied by Jews, Jewish culture and Jewish
memory within mainstream European society. "Jewish space in Europe
is a place of interaction with non-Jews, a space that is full of potential,"
said Pinto, who attended the Prague meeting.
In engaging in this interaction, she said, Jewish artists often face particular
dilemmas. "Whom are we speaking to?" she said. "How do
we deal with the non-Jewish Other? Do we have to be visibly Jewish?"
The Italian actor and singer Enrico Fink said that the thrust and content
of his performances are influenced by the fact that Italians generally
know little about Jews and Judaism other than popular stereotypes. "I
have to throw in a bit of Judaism 101 with each performance, like candy,"
he said. Only about 35,000 Jews live in Italy, out of a total population
of 60 million. Fink has built his career on projecting a stage presence
that clearly identifies him as a Jew. To do so, he said, was a public
admission that he was "different."
"We European Jews have so long been the representation of the Other,"
he said. "We have become diagonal, oblique. We live out this obliqueness
by living a false identity." A centerpiece in Prague was the first
reading of a new play by the London-based writer Eva Hoffman based on
the World War II massacre of Jews by Catholic neighbors in the Polish
village of Jedwabne.
Revelations about Jedwabne three years ago touched off a lacerating debate
in Poland over Holocaust memory and complicity and culminated in Poland's
president making a public apology for the massacre on its 60th anniversary
in July 2001.
Called "The Ceremony," the play is the first dramatic work by
the Polish-born Hoffman, a former editor and writer at The New York Times
whose books have won a number of awards. Its theme is how contemporary
characters and, indeed, the contemporary audience itself, relate to the
horrific story that happened more than 60 years in the past.
"Although the play is grounded firmly in the specific facts of a
particular history," Hoffman said she hoped it would "have reverberations
for other events of a similar kind."
The revelations about the Jedwabne massacre came in the book "Neighbors,"
by the Polish-American scholar Jan Gross, that was first published in
2000 by the Borderland Foundation, a cultural association based in the
northern Polish town of Sejny. Borderland's director, Krzysztof Czyzewski,
attended the Prague seminar and was one of the few non-Jews who took part
in the meeting. He described how his foundation, which promotes education
and understanding of minority cultures, uses Jewish music, art and history
to teach local non-Jewish young people about the traditions of their country.
He said finding a common language was a challenge for cultural interaction.
Artists and performers, he said, were constantly breaking taboos. Still,
he said, he felt that only Jews themselves could really be self-critical
and deal honestly with both the positive and the negative aspects of Jewish
experience in their work.
"If you stop doing it can become a dangerous situation," he
said. "Only through you can these things be touched."
Ruth Ellen Gruber is the author of "Virtually Jewish: Reinventing
Jewish Culture in Europe."
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