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Jewish Spaces in European Theatre

European Performing Arts Forum
Prague 14-16 June 2003



Summing-up of Conference

Dr. Miriam Sivan, University of Haifa

Pamela Howard opened our conference by saying Jewish space was making something out of nothing. This is a definition that is not only about physical space and theatre, a point she made clear with her Venezuelan story about El Turko and his suitcase of fabrics. Making something out of nothing is the archetypal construction, if I may be so grandiose, of Jewish civilization. Abraham conjured a monolithic God who could not be seen, who could not be touched. Here was a God who could only be defined abstractly, a deity without hard lines. Yet one who possessed hard or even harsh words, one may say, which brings me to the second construction of Jewish philosophy -- that other something out of nothing which, after monotheism, defines us as Jews: words, texts. Jewish texts. George Steiner called them our virtual homeland, the way we forged our identity and gave, and continue to give, meaning to our lives from Sinai and until this very day. In the Talmud, Tractate Berachot, it says that God created the world from the alef-bet. First there was the abstract material of language and then out of the intangible void -- something, the world.

So much can and has been said about Jews and their relationship to text, to culture, both among themselves and in relation to other nations. What is particularly interesting about this conference is the relationship, with its intrinsic tensions, between the re-creation of this space and the European venue. As an American who is now an Israeli, my perspective is different than many of you sitting here. Israel is the only place in the world where the Jew is the Subject annot the Other, and 'that has made all the difference,' as the American poet Robert Frost said (in reference to something else entirely). For as much as it's not comfortable, and as much as it is rich in complexity, it seems to me a fact that moving the Jews from the marginalized Other to a pivotal Other should be the goal of contemporary European Jewry in general, and its artists specifically. (This has clearly happened in the U.S. Just look at television there and you will see what I mean. Seinfeld, -- who by the way had an episode where he and George pitched a show to a television producer which was going to be about nothing -- is mainstream American entertainment, but like so many American comedies, it is so Jewish in its wryness, its shtick, its emphasis on language). Faynia William's pro-active position, Vittorio Pavoncello's proposed manifesto, I think, are part of this call to arms. You need to move from being the marginalized to becoming the pivotal Other, for Other you will always be.

Diana Pinto addressed the question of the formation of a new Jewish identity in today's Europe. Most of us will remember the challenge she threw out: is it a post-modern or post-mortem identity? How does a Jew, with the Shoah breathing down her back, become part of the euphoric European unity? How dare she not?

Eva Hoffman spoke of the tensions that exist between history and memory, the competition that arises in a heterogeneous population and the need to find a common language in order to ameliorate potential conflicts. I want to add that this split between history and memory does not really exist in the Jewish world view. Yerushalmi, in his classic book, Zakhor ('Remember' in English), writes that for the Jews memory and history are one. We are commanded to remember scores of times in the Torah what God did for us, what Amalek did to us. But this is not a function of memory only. Yerushalmi claims that the conception of history, in the modern sense, was born in this narrative of Israel, for it is a God who works through time, who works in time, and commands his people to keep the knowledge of this working in and through time and to make this a prescient fact in the construction of their lives, a place where history and memory merge.

This is the second defining characteristic in my opinion of Jewish art, whether it's made in New York, Haifa, or Prague. The convergence of memory, collective memory -- and I include Jewish and Christian experiences, for the Shoah happened to all of Europe, just like the fighting in the Gaza Strip disables Palestinians and Jews alike -- existentially and ethically -- and history is Jewish space. Yet the notion and even experience of hostility is what makes the creation of this space so different in Europe today. Julia Pascal and Jonathan Metzger spoke about censorship and the dangers of self-censorship, as Jews. It has been noted that sometimes in overtly oppressive regimes a writer is freer to express herself, for then she is clearly identified, by herself and her community, as renegade and is often lauded for displaying courage. Ironically, in a freer political climate, it is harder to fight the more insidious repressive forces and so one battles oneself, winning some, losing some, and more often than not feeling more a coward than a liberator.

The self-consciousness of the Jews is Europe is a reality that cannot be airbrushed away. Whenever I visit here, and it's not infrequently, I feel I am Other again. Once again I need to use footnotes to explain who I am and why. (And as an Israeli, often to Jews as well.) Miriam Yahil-Wax spoke of a different kind of self-consciousness when she recounted the fiasco surrounding The Jerusalem Syndrome's production. In Israel, the question of what will the goyim think, is not relevant. Ben Gurion once said that it's not important what the goyim think; what's important is what the Jews do. In the crises surrounding the Joshua Sobol play, we heard a lot about Jews doing a lot of nasty things. And what is the relevance of this for Europeans writing in a post-Shoah venue? It's the doing. It's putting aside as much as is possible the internal and very real external censors (effects on funding, available venues, etc.) and trying to create theatre that breaks the taboos, that explores the issues that are authentic to you (even if stereotypes are reinforced), forcing open the silences surrounding dirty laundry and internal schisms -- for the Jews, the Christians, the Moslems, and everyone in between.

Which is what Enrico Fink was telling and showing us this morning with his play: the silence of an interrupted history finally given words, finally shaped into narrative. He claimed that the Jewishness of young Europeans is artificial. It need not be. Not if the pain of truncated lives is met head on. It is not a Jewish responsibility to make things comfortable for Christian audiences. It is the responsibility of Jewish artists to speak authentically from their own experiences, as Irena Kraus and Marianne Goldman both said. It is the creation of a space where dialogue can take place, using words, music, faces, and hands, as Krzysztof and Malgorzata Czyzewski showed us is so movingly possible in their Borderland Centre and in her film.

Diana Pinto had said that a Jewish space is not exclusively Jewish. The work of the Borderland Centre, your work with theatre professionals and young people of many backgrounds, and the overlay of stories and histories, is all proof of this. Jewish space, in my opinion, is embracing the multiple layers of voices and points of view. It acknowledges that in the creation of something out of nothing, that multiple influences will be felt. The Second Temple in Jerusalem was designed according to the principles of the then contemporary Greek aesthetic. Whether there was an indigenous Jewish architectural aesthetic at the time, appropriate for large monumental buildings, I do not know. But I do know that adopting the popular style of the time did not make it any less holy to the people of ancient Israel. We are a hybrid people who received our Torah outside the promised sacred space. We are a people who know from the inside the power of memory and the forging of history. The re-creation of a Jewish space needs to address the complexities of this hybridity -- over cultures and over time.

Even though I am an outsider to theatre and to Europe, I would like to suggest my own opinion on how to create this space. For I too live with my own tension of hybridity and struggle with some of the same issues. I told this to Diana, by the way, and she will be incorporating it into the revision of the text she read to us. It goes like this: Diana told us that the Aschenbach piece had an unlit chandelier which was suspended from the ceiling to a waistline height. Underneath were black ashes symbolizing the Shoah. Above, loomed the high ceiling of European potential. Waist height, according to Jewish law, is the demarcation between private and public space. What's below is private. What is above, is in the public realm. This has implications for Shabbat and for the prohibitions against carrying in public space, for example. I told her that I would not at all be surprised if Jacob Neustein, an Israeli artist, knew this and even if he didn't, I know it, and so I see in his piece a possible link to the creation of Jewish space: privately, we must continue to deal with the Shoah but publicly, we must both deal with the trauma and join the larger space of Europe (or America, or even the Middle East). It's a dual agenda that links us to the larger world we very much need to belong to, yet it's not about denial or apologies. It's about creating a new Jewish identity out of the void, the nothingness rendered by the Shoah. It is about celebrating the something of Jewish civilization and continuity, its vulnerabilities and tenacity, its uniqueness, its texts, its magic and its golems.