The Theater of Individual Voices and Collective History

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May 1, 2006
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Basmat Hazan Arnoff

Just after I was drafted into the Israeli army eighteen years ago, a young Israeli writer named David Grossman published a book about the Holocaust. The name of the book was See Under: Love . At the same time, a popular young rock musician, Yehuda Poliker, released the album Dust and Ashes . And Orna Ben Dor released her documentary “Because of That War” about Poliker and his partner Yakov Gilad making music about the Holocaust as descendants of Greek and Polish families murdered by the Nazis.

These were the artistic works that changed the lives of my generation. Coming of age in Israel in the 1970s and 1980s, living in a country that was still trying to understand how to experience the memory of the Holocaust, my friends and I were accustomed to relating to the Holocaust in grand, untouchable terms like “destruction,” “disaster,” and “martyrdom.” From first grade on, our teachers had struck our ears with the words of terrifying songs and stories. We had seen awful photographs. We had heard, often by accident, the shadow conversations of grown-ups describing medical experiments on human beings, how the Nazis had made soap out of Jews. Each year we sang anthems and prayers to commemorate unexplained and unexplainable losses.

Seemingly from nowhere came three fresh, beautiful, creative works offering a completely new perspective on the Holocaust. Grossman, Poliker, and Ben Dor wrote, sang, and spoke about the Holocaust in “our words” – a new vocabulary and sound that related the experience that had directly shaped our lives, but until then had never truly been discussed. The Holocaust had been the property of the survivors, not us. Then a few artists created an opportunity to actually feel the Holocaust after having lived with its invisible toxic heat, the aftermath of its radiation.

Many artists later joined this wave of creativity and strengthened and changed the ensuing dialogue, but I always remembered that See Under: Love had shaken me to the core.

I recently began directing a theatrical adaptation of the second of four sections of See Under: Love ; it is called “Bruno.” As I began the project of bringing “Bruno” to the stage, I reentered the edginess and the madness of the book. Unlike the reading as a teen, I now saw the text from the perspective of an adult artist. I began to see new visions within the story, understanding for the first time that the journey undertaken by the hero of See Under: Love is a path toward redemption.

See Under: Love is a secular, Israeli book attempting to make sense of contemporary Jewish history. I began the process of adaptation – with a group of students from The School for Theater Arts at the Kibbutzim College (the Israeli equivalent of an MFA program) –   by closely studying the book in a “theatrical beit midrash.” Through immersion in Jewish and non-Jewish traditional and contemporary texts, we are building an aesthetic vocabulary that will serve the actors throughout the collaborative experience. Through the lens of pluralistic Jewish study, we intend to bring to the stage the journey of Shlomo Neumann, the hero of “Bruno,” a second generation survivor of the Holocaust, as he moves toward his personal redemption. When I was a theater student, the idea of bringing Jewish text study to a group of secular actors would have seemed radical or distant, and might not have been possible. Today, secular students are excited to meet within a textual conversation for creative, rather than specifically religious, engagement.

A quiet revolution is slipping across Israel’s secular/religious divide. Jewish study is now seen as a mode of balancing and enriching contemporary creative dialogue. In some way, this change might be a protest against the proceeding generations’ stubborn division between so-called “secular” and “religious” pursuits, each camp attempting to justify its own ideologies by blocking itself off from any and all aspects of the other. Slowly, divisions are breaking down, particularly in the realm of the arts, and it is becoming clearer that differences in lifestyle and understanding can enrich partnerships, that rigid identities stifle creativity. It is now possible to be a secular Israeli who is open to the study and influence of Tanach just as it is possible to be a religious Israeli and make good theater. Paradoxically, in an Israeli society where ideological boundaries between political, social, religious, and racial groups are still apparent, some cultural divisions have blurred.

Living in Israel at the beginning of the 21st century is not simple; economic hardship, security threats, and political and social pressures sometimes leave people little room to breathe. But almost 60 years after the establishment of the State, there are growing cultural fusions that have never been here before. Israel emerged from a Zionist vision emphasizing the collective over the individual voice. Now individual voices seeking roots, identity, tradition, and family history and culture are louder, clearer, and more acceptable. Personal creative expression is retelling collective history in modes that urge all of us to replace the extremes of stereotypes and slogans and silence with a dynamic language breathing new meaning and soul into our public life. If conflict is the driving force behind all great theater and art, perhaps in Israel, where conflict exists on so many levels, the arts have a very special role to play: Israeli art forges beauty and meaning out of struggle and leads Israelis toward new ways of redefining themselves.

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Basmat Hazan Arnoff, married to Stephen, is the mother of two girls, a teacher of Jewish text, and a theater director living in Jerusalem. Her first novel – Mayyim Hafuchim – will be published by Kibbutz Hameuhad Press in Summer 2006. Translated from the Hebrew by Stephen Hazan Arnoff.

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