Why Do a Reading of Caryl Churchill’s “Seven Jewish Children” at a Jewish Theater?


Cross-posted on the Makom website

You can understand the outrage. Imagine it: a non-Jewish, British playwright has the temerity to write something as provocative as the line, “The Jews do not belong here” and a Jewish theater, in a fit of obvious self-loathing, gives that voice a venue by placing it on its stage. I am not speaking of the sudden controversy surrounding Caryl Churchill’s short-play, Seven Jewish Children which the Washington DCJCC’s resident professional company Theater J will present readings of this week. Rather, I am referring to the same Theater J’s production of David Hare’s Via Dolorosa nearly a decade ago, in the fall of 2000.

Back then we knew we were undertaking something with the potential to be controversial for its outsider’s observations of the Israel-Palestine conflict. We braced ourselves for outrage. We prepared our leadership for potential protests, even boycotts. We were not doing this merely for controversy’s sake, but because of our belief, that the work – consisting mainly of Mr. Hare’s channeling the voices of the various Israelis and Palestinians he met – confronted us with a challenging and artful portrayal of ourselves and our Israeli cousins. But so concerned were we about the potential for outraged audiences that we built into the presentation of the play a response vehicle, “The Peace Café” co-created by artistic director Ari Roth, Theater J councilmember Mimi Conway and a frequent participant in Arab-Jewish dialogue, restaurateur and Iraqi-American Anas Shallal. Following the performances, audiences gathered around tables, broke bread and picked from a menu of discussion questions and quotations of some of the play’s most provocative lines.

In spite of all our fears, or perhaps because of them, the tidal wave of controversy never materialized, but the Peace Café experience gave us a model with which to engage more controversial material in the years to come. Meanwhile, the work itself, Via Dolorosa has gone on to productions both at other Jewish theaters and in Israel itself.

If you have an opinion in this matter I hope to G-d you’ve taken the time to read the seven pages of verse that’s causing all the ruckus. I have neither the space nor the charge to do an explication of the work here, but if this is to be a Jewish argument, which is to say, an argument amongst Jews, then I hope we can all work from the source text and not just the commentaries.

So what’s different about Seven Jewish Children? Via Dolorosa was the theatrical equivalent of a documentary in its specific attribution of comments and ideas to individuals either named, like Benny Begin and Shulamit Aloni, or unnamed but definitely real, like the American settler couple Mr. Hare spends Shabbat with on the West Bank. Ms. Churchill’s work goes as far in the other direction as possible: neither the speaker nor to whom they are speaking, nor when they are speaking are ever made explicit. Ms. Churchill doesn’t assign statements to individual actors, instructing instead that,

The lines can be shared out in any way you like among those characters. The characters are different in each small scene as the time and child are different. They may be played by any number of actors.

The result is that it becomes difficult to find an authentic and specific Jewish voice in a work so broad that it is somehow attributable to all Israelis and no Israelis, to all Jews and yet no one Jew. Which speaks pointedly to the fact that while David Hare traveled the land of Israel gathering the cacophony of voices in his play, Ms. Churchill participates in an obstinate cultural boycott of Israel and does not even permit her works to be performed there. So there’s two strikes against Ms. Churchill. Let’s even throw in for argument’s sake that maybe she’s also a bit of an anti-Semite. That doesn’t take away from the power and verisimilitude of the compressed language she puts on the page for I would argue, five-sixths of the short work. That last part, suffers not from the caricature of a racist, belligerent, ultra-Nationalist (anyone caring to read material equally offensive but of more estimable provenance need only peruse Amos Oz’s essay “The Tender Among You and Very Delicate” from his collection In the Land of Israel); but its lack of attribution.

So why bother putting her generic opprobrium on our authentic Jewish stage? Why sully ourselves with the association? Because the only way to parse that which carries the merit of specific resonance from that which sinks under weight of shapeless assumptions is to inject the Jewish voice back into the monologue. To engage the work and respond to it with Jewish voices like Robbie Gringras and Deb Margolin, and the intelligent audience members that have sought us out for years now because of our mission to engage and discuss the most pressing moral and political issues of our time. To decide for ourselves after hearing a collection of generic poetics placed in the mouths of specific actors whether they land with the force of truth or disappear with the speed of your average smoke screen and with just as much substance.

Speaking only for myself, there is plenty of both in Ms. Churchill’s work. One may decry the ideological axe she brings with her, but one would be hard pressed to simply dismiss her mastery of craft and phrase. She has created a compelling work. And for every line as politically artless as “Tell her we killed the babies by mistake” there are aching verses that acknowledge the complex and contradictory world we Jews inhabit:

Tell her there are still people who hate Jews
Tell her there are people who love Jews
Don’t tell her to think Jews or not Jews

Ultimately, precisely because it is about us, we owe it to ourselves to apply our skills as artists and our intellectual rigor as audiences to divine what the worth of this piece is. I suspect Israelis are going to want to hear for themselves (although I would demand that they be allowed a production of Top Girls or Cloud Nine in exchange) and decide on their own whether or not they feel blood libeled. Ultimately, what Ms. Churchill has written “for Gaza” will be less important than the conversation Israelis have with each other as new accounts by IDF soldiers are published in Ha’aretz and Ma’ariv.

And while she’s no Shakespeare, the Bard himself never visited Italy, but still managed to write The Merchant of Venice. On second thought, let’s not go there. Not today.

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3 Responses

  1. “one would be hard pressed to simply dismiss her mastery of craft and phrase. She has created a compelling work.”

    I read it,and deny it. So did the reviewer for the Times of London, Christopher Hart, who wrote:

    “Seven Jewish Children isn’t art, it’s straitjacketed political orthodoxy. No surprises, no challenges, no risks. Only the enclosed, fetid, smug, self-congratulating and entirely irrelevant little world of contemporary political theatre. Fresh air is urgently needed. But I’m not holding my breath.”

  2. Dear Sir/Madam,

    I am writing from my home in the United Kingdom.

    Ari Roth’s self-indulgent action in staging a reading of Ms Churchill’s nasty little political diatribe at the Washington JCC shows a lack of common sense.

    Here in England, we have enough of a battle against rising anti-Semitism without having to cope with the effects of his action.

    We still do not know enough about the facts concerning the recent fighting in Gaza to be able to judge the methods used by Israeli forces.

    But it is clear that comparisons between Israeli and Nazi actions are wholly wrong.

    As someone who had a miraculous escape from the Nazis as a Jewish baby in wartime Hungary, I have felt it a duty to advocate policies and actions in Israel that protect Palestinian as well as Jewish children.

    However, Churchill’s premature piece, whatever its artistic merits, is an exercise in hostile political propaganda.

    Sincerely,

    Michael Pinto-Duschinsky

  3. […] doors. Others threatened to end their subscriptions to the theater. Here’s one opinion on the controversial […]

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