Return to Haifa – If not now, then when?

January 28, 2011 by

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I’m feeling sad that the weather on the East coast prevented me from attending the performance of Return to Haifa at TheaterJ in Washington DC. The Cameri production of the theatrical adaption of Kanafani’s novella has been receiving wonderful reviews – I’ve never seen the show, but read the script.

Sitting, as I am, in a cold snowy hotel room in New York instead of in the audience at the show, I’m just left to reflect on two things.

1. TheaterJ and its supportive home at DCJCC continues to light a torch for serious examination of Israel in Jewish cultural life. Ari Roth, the artistic director of the Theater, is often condemned for his distinctly left-leaning politics, rather than praised for his deep belief in the centrality of Israel to the Jewish world. As he himself pointed out: “The deepest, most complicated issues about how we identify as Jews and how we see our role as those who celebrate our people and culture, and how we do battle with our heritage, are all wrapped up in engaging and identifying with Israel… It’s a huge component of who we are: Israel is the homeland of the Jewish people, not Rockville, not northwest D.C., not the Upper West Side. Israel is our center and we all have a little piece of it in our history.” The man is a thoughtful and committed Zionist!

2. The script itself is a gem of loving complexity. A couple of Holocaust survivors whose child was killed by the Nazis take ownership of an abandoned house in Haifa, in 1948. The house had been owned by a young Arab couple who left behind their baby in the chaos of the War of Independence. The Jewish woman reluctantly agrees to raise the child as her own. In 1967 the Arab couple returns to their old house, to look for their son. It turns out their son is now an Israeli soldier returning from a victorious 6-Day War campaign. Even on the page, the exchanges between the two mothers – the estranged and the adoptive – are heart-wrenching. I can only imagine the impact their scenes have on stage.

The play would seem to be a rare gem in the landscape of Middle Eastern theatre, in that it embraces the tragedy of the complex.

Too often the art and culture of both sides have embraced only half of Hillel’s key moral demands: “If I am not for me, who will be? And if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, then when?”

We tend to either be for ourselves, hold fast to our own narrative, and ignore or deny the other’s opposing narrative. Or we work so hard to embrace the narrative of others, that we lose all sense of who we are.

The true most difficult challenge is to be sure and clear of who ‘we’ are, and at the same time open our eyes and hearts to ‘them’. It is a far more demanding and painful process than the pithiness of Hillel’s proverb suggests. But we must embrace its challenge. If not now, then when?

TheaterJ is doing it now.

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