Being Better Jonahs

Franny Silverman
September 4, 2012
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It is dusk on a hot summer night on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, and I detour to a certain Judaica bookstore which I find preferable to the ones in my Flatbush Brooklyn neighborhood.  In this more Jewishly diverse neighborhood, no one blinks when my oh-me-so-sweaty-mini-skirt-clad-self walks in and asks to see the B’reshit Rabbah with English translation and several different commentary volumes on the Book of Jonah.

I pass on the three-volume B’reshit Rabbah, nerdily wondering if I dare ask for it for Chanukah, and leave with a book of stories by some of my favorite teachers and the ArtScroll Commentary and Translation of Jonah.

This year I’ll be spending the high holiday season in the Midwest as Artist-in-Residence at a large Conservative synagogue, away from my progressive/alternative/magical New York community for the first time in almost ten years.  One of the programs I pitched was “something Jonah” at the Kol Nidre Family Service. “Since not everyone is around for the mincha reading,” I suggested, “I could do some interactive monologue as Jonah or maybe as the whale and link it to vows and stuff a la kol nidre.”  That was my pitch.  They bought it.  Now I had to deliver.

I spend the rest of my night poring through the surprisingly thin, but dense volume.  Though I had done a fair amount of Jonah research in the past, it was almost exclusively via the internet and I was enjoying turning tangible pages.
As I move forward, occasionally, I flip back to a page I dog-eared early on.
Not even a third of the way through the lengthy overview, is written the following:

…God wished to bring a spirit of repentance to Nineveh.  As his emissary, He chose Jonah.  But Jonah did not wish to go.  Why?
He had two reasons.  The nations were ‘near to repent’… They would heed Jonah’s call and earn God’s mercy, but if that were to happen, it would point the most accusing of fingers at sinful Israel.  God had appointed a multitude of prophets to chastise Israel, yet it refused to heed their call.  God’s chosen people, His first-born, spurned His pleas for their repentance.  How could anyone justify Israel’s obduracy in the face of Nineveh’s compliance?  Were Jonah to go to Nineveh he would be the instrument of a terrible condemnation of Israel.  Jonah had to choose between obeying God and defending the honor of Israel.

I’m reminded of a conversation among some Jewish theatre artists in a Brooklyn living room early in the summer.  We were discussing current events related to Israel in the world.  These included the call by the BDS movement to the 2012 World Shakespeare Festival in London to boycott Israel’s Habima Theatre’s production of “Merchant of Venice” due to Habima’s formal stance agreeing to perform in West Bank settlements even after a number of actors refused to participate in such productions, as well as the violent protests in Tel Aviv against African refugees and asylum seekers in Israel.  Not long into the conversation, someone shared a familiar phrase from his parents’ lexicon:
“Bad for the Jews.”
The room nodded in chorus.
He wasn’t making any specific link or even voicing a direct opinion, just connecting some dots. Bad for the Jews? Oh, yes these two pieces of news fall into that category.
Whoever said there’s no such thing as bad PR?

His parents weren’t the only ones who hung their heads and muttered those words upon hearing the last name Madoff or reading about settlement expansions or the latest news about the African refugee deportations.
“Bad for the Jews,” heads shook.
“Bad for Israel,” brows furrowed.

Apparently, we haven’t changed much as a people.
Because ancient rabbis posited that Jonah felt the same way.  He was scared that encouraging Nineveh to mend their evil ways would be, “Bad for the Jews.” “Bad for Israel.”

Suddenly the image of Jonah in my mind shifts.  Sans toga, Jonah is now in a tailored suit.  He is called to address the brokenness in the universe, “Kooooooom!!!” the voice commands, “Get up!!!” and points him in the direction of goodness.  “Get up and preach goodwill and repentance!  “Get up and shed light on this truth!”  “Get up and make a change for the better, you have the capacity to do it!”

And in spite of Jonah’s own conscience, his notion of basic goodness, the nagging feeling that accompanies any person’s sense of “what is right,” he looks the other way.  He runs the other way.  He buys a one-way ticket on a ship bound for the other direction because he fears that if he acts, his people, his land, his nation, history, family, will look bad.  And not in a way that can be written off as a misunderstanding. Israel will look bad because Israel is behaving badly.

But ultimately, Jonah made the wrong decision.  A storm of truth rocked his boat, sending him overboard, as the story goes, only to be swallowed whole by the biggest fish in the universe, created expressly for this moment, and then spit up on the shore three days later – granted a second chance to follow through with the mission he ran away from in the first place.
His obligation at that moment was not to protect Israel from a PR fiasco.
His obligation was to convince a bunch of people who were behaving badly in the world to behave better and to repent.
His obligation was to bring the world one step closer to better.

Back in Brooklyn, pen and book in hand, against an aural backdrop of some vaguely 70s psychedelic rock, I wonder: Can we be better Jonahs?
As an educator, as a theatremaker, as a cultural emissary in the Jewish world, with my voice, my dollar and my vote, around the dinner table, on my social networks, with my religious family and with my non-Jewish family, to the choir and across all party lines, can I be a better Jonah?

Jonah’s full name in the Hebrew is Yonah ben-Amittai.
It’s literal meaning: Dove son-of-My Truth.
Jonah, the prophet, is a dove, a symbol of peace, sent as an emissary to deliver the truth.
Even if it is scary.
Even if it feels like right now, it could be bad for the family, for our people, for the Jews, for Israel.

What happens if we bravely choose truth and all her unknowns over letting our fear get us swallowed by the biggest fish in the sea…

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Franny Silverman is a Brooklyn-based actor, theatre-maker and educator. She is a co-founder of warner|shaw, and received Indiana University’s Jewish Studies Program’s 2012 Paul Artist-in-Residence for warner|shaw’s The Latvia Project. Franny has created and performed numerous new work for stage and ritual settings around the country as a founding company member of both Storahtelling and Northwoods Ramah Theatre. Performances with other companies include Brave New World Rep, The Culture Project, Estrogenius, Terranova Collective, Ensemble Studio Theatre, Epic Theatre, Passage Theatre Co, the Ontological-Hysteric, Little Lord, CUNY Grad Center, New Worlds Theater Project, NY Fringe Festival and Jewish Plays Project. Franny’s interactive seder installation,UnSeder|DisOrder, was presented by Chashama’s “Process is Fundamental” and she is the director of Ayelet Rose Gottlieb’s song-cycle Mayim Rabim/Great Waters (BRICLab, PS122, Wexner Center, Chicago Cultural Center). Franny is the Director of Youth Education at Brooklyn's progressive synagogue, Kolot Chayeinu. She is also a new mom to Sunhillow Belle.


  1. The African refugee situation in Israel has escalated to extremes since the article I linked to above (about the riots in May). Refugees have been trapped between the Israel and Egypt borders for 5 days and reports included that a pregnant woman among them has miscarried. Please read here for more info in English:
    Here is a video report in Hebrew:
    Thanks to Dan Sieradski and for seeking out this media and providing info below on how to take action from here.

    Please contact your local Consulate General of Israel and share with them your outrage and this completely inexecusable act of indifference to human need and suffering.

    Atlanta, 1.404.487.6500
    Boston, 1.617.535.0200
    Chicago, 1.312.297.4800
    Houston, 1.713.627.3780
    Los Angeles, 1.323.852.5500
    Miami, 1.305.925.9400
    New York, 1.212.499.5400
    Philadelphia, 1.215. 977.7600
    San Francisco, 1.415.844.7510
    Washington D.C., 1.202.364.5500

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