Vienna, Detroit, Jerusalem:
Thought-provoking Jewish theatre conferences on three continents

While driving from Philadelphia to Michigan, I found it difficult to imagine a conference that could match last year's spectacular International Theatre Conference in Vienna, Austria.  However, the Association for Jewish Theatre (AJT) and the Jewish Ensemble Theatre’s (JET) Artistic Director Evelyn Orbach ensured that this year’s conference in Detroit brought together some of the best Jewish and pro-Jewish theatre professionals and board members from the US and Canada, and from as far as Berlin, Sao Paulo, and Tel Aviv, who conducted many engaging workshops, eye-opening performances, challenging seminars, and one enlightening discussion after another.

Because of the diversity and caliber of their work, I witnessed a range of outstanding performances and a depth of discussion that at times challenged me deeply.  

Every morning, some conference participants met to hear Michael Posnick present texts by Martin Buber and other philosophers, leading to deep discussions about the spiritual aspect of theatre.  Ellen Schiff’s presentation on how actors and playwrights could draw upon a collective experience or “racial memory,” forced me to grapple with issues of race and identity.  Her talk challenged me, because whenever I think about the Jungian notion of the collective unconscious, I juxtapose it with the possibility that any so-called racial and cultural identifiers might be little more than social constructs.

I was also intrigued by Rick Stein’s report about the recent IsraDrama Festival, where many Israeli playwrights tackled the Israeli-Palestinian conflict head-on.  It seems that the opposite takes place in the United States, where in the absence of large subsidies, commercial success often dictates the choice of plays, and political theatre suffers.

However, JET did not shy away from controversy when they presented one of the conference’s most thought-provoking events: their performance of a scene from Women’s Minyan by Naomi Ragen, which turned the small stage in Detroit into a classical Greek theatron—a “watching place.”  Here, the audience witnessed the anguish of one soul after another, as her plot took us deep into the heart of Orthodox darkness, showing ten women of all ages who each suffered differently under the confines of strictly-interpreted and enforced Judaic laws—an extraordinary play that succeeded in making audiences cry in theatres as far apart as Jerusalem and Detroit today.

For the conference’s Playwrights’s Forum, I hoped to dramatize these challenging themes and ideas, tying in notions of race and ideology in a scene from Mendelssohn Does Not Live Here Anymore.  LikeWomen’s Minyan, which Ragen based on real-life incidents, writing about one’s own family or group presents many difficulties, especially when their actions are anything but praiseworthy.  However, through the use of documents and other historical sources from the Third Reich, including letters from my father, I hoped to show that labeling other people racially—in this case, Jewish people that are considered “vermin”—can bring about disastrous consequences for both the abusers and the abused.  

I owe a great deal to the many people who made this conference an extraordinary event, including Norman Fedder, Diane Gilboa, Mira Hirsch, Ralph Meranto, Rick Stein, Kayla Gordon, and of course, the staff and many volunteers at JET.  Organized by Moti Sandak and Howard Rypp, next year’s conference will take place in Israel for the first time.  This non-Jewish writer has always wanted to say goodbye with a famous Jewish farewell.  On the last day in Detroit, and for the first time in my life, I had the opportunity to say to some of the most extraordinary theatre people one could possibly meet: “Till next year in Jerusalem.”  I felt damn good in saying it.  And I felt deeply connected.  

Henrik Eger, Ph.D.