A performance of Seven Jewish Children by Rooms Productions in Chicago, (Part 1) (Part 2)
What happens when the stories you were told as a child give way to a more disturbing reality in your adult life? What do people risk to discover uncomfortable truths about their past? More and more, Jews living in North America are beginning to face a shifting cultural narrative where their idealized conceptions of Israel and its historical foundations are coming into question. Voices from the Dark and Testimonies reveal some of the internal dialogue and external challenges faced by a section of those boldly choosing to speak out.
A collaborative project of the Independent Jewish Voices IJV-VJI http://ijvcanada.org/
Creative and technical crew: Mary Ellen Davis, Martin Duckworth, Dave Ron
Voices from the Dark includes excerpts of Caryl Churchill’s play “Seven Jewish Children”.
Packed house for provocative play
Seven Jewish Children; Work called anti-Semitic by some, ‘beautiful and elusive’ by others
BY JAN RAVENSBERGEN, THE GAZETTE
MAY 4, 2009 4:01 AM
An increasing number of voices from within Montreal’s Jewish community have begun to elbow aside the traditional leadership to convey public dissent over Israel’s actions in the Gaza, Jewish-community activist Devora Neumark said yesterday.
“On campuses, a growing number of young, undergraduate and graduate Jewish students are involved in pro-Palestinian activist events,” she added.
“They are really accepting to speak out and say: ‘We are tired of being painted as part of this monolithic Jewish mainstream voice.’ “It is amazing to see the dynamism and the active engagement of these students on the Concordia campus, the McGill campus, who are saying: ‘We have to speak up,’ ” she said. Neumark spoke up after an unexpectedly strong turnout by local theatregoers prompted Independent Jewish Voices Montreal to add an extra Sunday-afternoon performance at the last minute of a provocative new play by English playwright Caryl Churchill.
The short play – Seven Jewish Children, A Play for Gaza – tackles themes ranging from the Holocaust to the recent Israeli incursion into Gaza.
Mainstream Jewish leaders have condemned the play without equivocation. Churchill’s play is “anti-Semitic and full of hatred,” Adam Atlas, incoming president of the Quebec Jewish Congress, formerly the Canadian Jewish Congress Quebec Region, has said. Sara Saber-Freedman of the Canada-Israel Committee said the play revives the ancient blood libel against Jews.
Regardless, more than 230 Montrealers took turns jamming into the 75-seat theatre at Espace Geordie in the Plateau district yesterday for what became three performances rather than the two originally scheduled.
It was the world premiere of the play’s French-language version. It also marked the play’s Canadian stage debut in English, said director Rose Plotek, a recent graduate of the National Theatre School in Montreal.
Independent Jewish Voices has about 30 active members in this city and several hundred in 18 chapters across Canada, member Scott Weinstein said. The three presentations raised close to $2,000 for the London-based organization Medical Aid for Palestinians, he added.
Toronto performances have been scheduled May 15 -17.
With each performance yesterday, the all-woman 10-member cast staged their 1,300-word reading first in English, then in French. Each performance took about 20 minutes, followed by audience discussion. Abby Lippman, an activist with the Voices group and one of the organizers, said she had invited “the most progressive rabbi in our city” to attend.
“But he didn’t,” she told the audience. Playwright Tony Kushner and journalism teacher Alisa Solomon, writing in The Nation, said the play “should be seen and discussed as widely as possible. “Though you’d never guess from the descriptions offered by its detractors,” the two wrote, “the play is dense, beautiful, elusive and intentionally indeterminate.”
© Copyright (c) The Montreal Gazette
Information about presenting the play:
Seven Jewish Children is Caryl Churchill’s response to the situation in Gaza in January 2009, when the play was written. Seven Jewish Children was first published in Great Britain in 2009 by Nick Hern Books Limited, 14 Larden Road, London, W3 7ST, in association with the Royal Court Theatre, London Seven Jewish Children copyright © 2009 Caryl Churchill Limited
Caryl Churchill has asserted her moral right to be identified as the author of this work. Typeset by Nick Hern Books, London ISBN 978 1 84842 047 2
Printed copies can be obtained, while stocks last, with all proceeds going to Medical Aid for Palestinians, from Nick Hern Books, address as above.
Seven Jewish Children was first performed at the Royal Court Theatre, London, on 6 February 2009.
The play can be read or performed anywhere, by any number of people. Anyone who wishes to do it should contact the author’s agent (details below), who will license performances free of charge provided that no admission fee is charged and that a collection is taken at each performance for Medical Aid for Palestinians (MAP), 33a Islington Park Street, London
N1 1QB, tel +44 (0)20 7226 4114, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org, MAP Web siteAuthor’s agent: Casarotto Ramsay and Associates Ltd, Waverley House, 7-12 Noel Street, London W1F 8GQ, fax +44 (0)20 7287 9128, e-mail email@example.com
This text can be downloaded free of charge from the following websites:
A PLAY EXPOSES MORAL CONFLICT ABOUT ISRAEL
By Yakov M Rabkin*
Parents know how hard it is to tell their children untruths or half-truths. We do so when we are morally torn, ethically embarrassed or intellectually inconsistent. The play Seven Jewish Children shows this with tact and compassion.
Many Jews try to come to terms with the contradictions between the Judaism they profess to adhere to and the Zionist ideology that has taken hold of them. They are torn between the values of social justice that permeate the Jewish tradition and their semi-automatic loyalty to the State of Israel. I was not surprised when, on a recent visit to the Aboriginal Heritage Centre in Melbourne, I was told that the main private supporter of the Centre is a Jew. The Hebrew Bible mentions the prohibition to oppress a stranger thirty-six times, more than any other injunction, and often adds, “because you were slaves in the land of Egypt”.
The play begins in Europe, during the tragedy of the Nazi genocide. The parents do not know how to put the reality of that danger to the child without frightening her. Even after the war, they still do not want the daughter to know that it was a mass murder machine that consumed her relatives. They want their daughter to see love, not hatred, in the world. When they decide to leave Europe, they are ambivalent; they do not want her daughter to believe she doesn’t belong in her country. Nor do they want to calm her with the belief that the country they are going to had been given to them by God. They themselves are not quite sure.
Once in Palestine, they witness the ethnic cleansing of local population. They are lost. Against their best moral judgment, they are afraid to let her daughter play with Palestinian children. They are confused, they regret their decision to come to Palestine: “Don’t tell her they said it was a land without people, don’t tell her I wouldn’t have come if I had known.” But the Israeli victory in 1948 inebriates them: “Tell her we have won, tell her we’ve got new land.”
Moral qualms seem to have been pushed aside. Not for long: how to explain to a child the destruction of Palestinian homes and the uprooting of their olive groves? The only explanation is that “they” are intrinsically nasty: they hate us for no reason. They set off bombs in cafés and don’t understand anything but violence.” The parents don’t quite believe all this themselves as they continue to claim they want peace, while taking her swimming in the water that could have irrigated Palestinians’ fields.
The final scene is climactic. A really ugly outburst of brutal cruelty is about to occur during the recent onslaught on Gaza, when they play was written. “Tell her we are better haters, … tell her we are the iron fist now”. But at the same time, “don’t tell her her cousin refused to serve in the army, don’t tell her how many of them have been killed”. Finally, they never tell her anything. They play ends where it begins: “Tell her we love her. Don’t frighten her.” Moving to Israel has solved nothing. It compounded one tragedy with another.
Many people wonder why left-wing Zionists standing for equality and justice have become an endangered species. Zionist Left used to be robust. Nationalists who considered themselves Socialists (and were recognized as such by others) were the ones who proclaimed the state of Israel. And yet, they slowly evolved into irrelevance. Israeli elections confirmed this earlier this year. They produced a government of unabashed ethnic nationalists who no longer hide behind progressive rhetoric. It is their real rhetoric that one hears in the outburst in the play’s last scene. This is no longer fiction.
The inherent logic of the Zionist state, based from the beginning on dispossession and exclusion of indigenous population, has finally produced a government that Israeli media openly call fascist. Quite a few of my Israeli friends used to be left wing Zionists. Some of them remained left wing but had to repudiate Zionism. They followed the example of Abraham Burg, the former Speaker of Israel’s parliament who considers the very concept of “Jewish state” suicidal and morally abhorrent. Others remained Zionists but had to repudiate their commitment to equality and justice. In the last elections, they voted for the fascists.
Fascists, not Nazis, and the distinction is important. The onslaught on Gaza, however cruel, was not an attempt at genocide. But this should not calm our moral qualms. To quote the Israeli novelist Amos Oz, who decries Israel’s immorality:
Our sufferings have granted us immunity papers, as it were, a moral carte blanche. After what all those dirty goyim [non-Jews] have done to us, none of them is entitled to preach morality to us. We, on the other hand, have carte blanche, because we were victims and have suffered so much. Once a victim, always a victim, and victimhood entitles its owners to a moral exemption.
This moral corruption is what the play Seven Jewish Children is all about. It should touch many of us whose commitment to Judaism’s moral values tears apart.
* The author is Professor of History at the University of Montreal, a member of Independent Jewish Voices Montreal, currently Visiting Scholar at La Trobe University. His recent book is A Threat from Within: A Century of Jewish Opposition to Zionism. These comments were made at the State Library of Victoria, Melbourne, after the play was performed there on May 18.
Even if you see it, you might not believe it
THEATRE REVIEW: SEVEN JEWISH CHILDREN: A PLAY FOR GAZA
Theatre Passe Muraille Backspace
To dispose of some things that would be essential in most theatre reviews but are probably inessentials in this one: The performance of Caryl Churchill’s 10-minute play Seven Jewish Children: A Play for Gaza, at Passe Muraille this past weekend, was admirably directed by Rose Plotek as a kind of spoken concert. Its 10 actors took turns reading the text at music stands, and most of them did it very well. Rosemary Dunsmore and R. H. Thomson were especially good
But that probably isn’t what you want to know. You want to know if Churchill’s already notorious play is anti-Semitic. It isn’t. And it isn’t just about Gaza. It’s about facing the intolerable, either as a victim or as a possible aggressor, and especially about how you help your children to face it. The piece, more of a stage-poem than a conventional drama, is composed entirely of speeches. Each shows a parent debating about what to tell the child. How do you balance caution with reassurance? It’s the most basic of parental challenges, taken to hideous extremes. The play presents situations in which it’s rarely possible to know the right thing to do and never possible to know the right thing to say. It covers, in its short span, a remarkable amount of ground, historically and psychologically. As well as being about what people say to protect their children, it’s about what they say to protect themselves.
We start with hiding out during the Holocaust: “Tell her it’s important to be quiet … Don’t tell her they’ll kill her.” Then to the post-war revelations about the camps: “Tell her her uncles died … Don’t tell her they were killed … Don’t frighten her.” Then, immigration to Israel: “Tell her it’s sunny there … Tell her we’re going home.” Then about the fact there are Arabs there: “Don’t tell her I wouldn’t have come if I’d known … Tell her maybe we can share … Don’t tell her that.” Then about the Six Day War: “Tell her how big their armies are … tell her we turned them back.” That, the briefest section, is the only one without negatives. But it’s immediately balanced by a section on the first intifada: “Don’t tell her they throw stones … Tell her they’re not much good against tanks … Don’t tell her they set off bombs in cafes … Tell her, tell her, they set off bombs in cafes.” That last line, by the way, disposes of the allegation that the play is fixated on Israeli atrocities and doesn’t mention the Palestinian. (If the Israeli army hasn’t committed any atrocities, then it’s unique among all armies in world history. And though I’m Jewish, and generally pro-Israeli, I find that hard to believe.)
But then, it’s amazing how much of this play’s commentators have managed to ignore, including the “tell her … don’t tell her” alternation that is both the play’s foundation and its bell-like refrain. (A review of the published script in Saturday’s Globe and Mail managed to leave half the play out of its account, quite a feat with a work this short.) Most of the criticism has focused on the last section, the one that deals with the war in Gaza. It ends with a vengeful speech whose paragraph length, in contrast to all the previous measured one-liners, suggests hysteria. It ends: “tell her I look at one of their children covered in blood, and what do I feel? Tell her all I feel is happy it’s not her.” You can read that as generalized bloodlust or as a resurrection of the blood-guilt libel, but you’d have to ignore the last three words to do so. What we’re being told is the plain truth: that the first instinct of any decent person in a war zone hearing of the death of a child would be relief that the child wasn’t his or her own. And the second instinct would be to be ashamed of the first instinct, which is the progression for the speaker here. She draws back and says, again, “Don’t tell her that.” And then, “Tell her we love her.” And then, “Don’t frighten her.” What else could she say?
Probably the experience of being in an enclosed space with this play is different from that of reading it. It makes you more inclined to empathize with the characters, less inclined to judge them. That’s true even in this production’s rehearsed-reading format, which precluded any heavy “acting” or remotely realistic staging: both, I’d say, to the good. It does begin, after all, with the Holocaust — a subject on which, unlike the present-day Middle East, there’s no room for moral or political debate — and that beginning hangs heavy over the rest of the play; we aren’t exactly given time to forget it. The later line “tell them they can’t talk suffering to us” is as resonant as any in the play. (It was spoken here by Diana Donnelly, last seen as the descendant of Holocaust victims in East of Berlin.) Yes, I realize it’s double-edged. I realize, too, that I’ve been going in for a certain amount of devil’s advocacy. Churchill’s own stated opinions outside the play are uncompromisingly pro-Palestinian, and I doubt if the play has got her into any fights with her chums at the Royal Court. But a playwright’s ex cathedra attitudes aren’t the same thing as her play; she probably wouldn’t be much of a playwright if they were. Churchill at her best is a very good playwright and she’s at her best here, with each apparently simple line carrying very complex freight. It dramatizes doubt — unlike the eponymous Broadway confection that merely drops the name. Of course, a play so brief leaves a lot out. (The last major event at Passe Muraille was the marathon City of Wine. This theatre seems to like its plays very long or very short.) One could certainly conceive of a play that would examine the conflicted emotions of an Arab mother as she straps a suicide bomb onto her son. I doubt if those who hate this play would like that one very much either.
© 2009 The National Post Company.