Arts & Culture Artists Examine How Jewish Life is Reflected on the European Stage

With a theatrical sense of timing, Jonathan Metzger gestured ironically to an empty chair in a crowded Prague conference room.

“Here’s a chair for Shylock,” the young Swedish playwright and director told the gathering. “He is so present in our discussions.”

Shakespeare’s villainous moneylender from “The Merchant of Venice,” perhaps the most famous — and infamous — Jewish character in theater history, was indeed a looming presence as an international group of actors, directors, playwrights and producers met recently to explore how the complexity of Jewish life is translated onto the contemporary European stage.

“We’re obsessed with Shylock,” Metzger said. “We are casting ourselves in a marginalized role rather than a pivotal one. It saddens me, as I find myself acting the same. Can we get out of it?”

Called “Jewish Spaces in European Theater,” the June 11-16 meeting was a two-day seminar convened by the London-based European Association for Jewish Culture, a grant-making organization founded in 2001 to encourage artistic creativity that reflects the Jewish experience in Europe.

“This was a think tank seminar, with ‘Jewish spaces’ being a metaphor for Jewish culture and creativity on contemporary European stages,” said the association’s director, Lena Stanley-Clamp.

The 30 participants came from France, Italy, Britain, Germany, Scandinavia and Central Europe. There were also representatives from Israel and the United States.

Almost all of the participants were Jewish and many have produced works with specifically Jewish themes or content. But all of them work primarily on productions aimed at the general public.

The Paris-based historian Diana Pinto coined the term “Jewish space” in the 1990s to denote the place of Jewish culture and experience in Europe, regardless of the size or location of the Jewish population.

“The discussions were so fascinating because there were many different voices,” Stanley-Clamp said. “But at the same time there was a commonality of language, a shared set of references.”

“Some felt the main challenge for theater practitioners addressing Jewish themes on European stages was to address prejudice and stereotyping,” she said. “Others were ready to move further by seeing the Jewish minorities with their millennial diasporic experience as a bridge to cultural minorities in Europe.”

It became clear, she added, that “the forces that drive Jewish creativity are the constant need to explore one’s identity, to challenge perceptions of what being Jewish means and to take a stand on ethical and political issues of today.”

Among the main discussion questions at the seminar: To what extent are we responsible for the impact of the images of the Jews we project? What difference do we make to the audiences’ perceptions? How do we deal with the real or imagined pressures of censorship and self-censorship? How should we engage with events in Israel? What insights can we gain from the experience of the Israeli political theater?

“Jewish directors and writers often face a dilemma: ‘Is it good for the Jews?’ ” Metzger said. “There is sometimes a fear of voicing self-criticism in public, so to speak, washing dirty linen in public.”

But, he added, “if we acted as if anything we write could be used against us, then we would have to close shop.”

For many, these issues loom with particular importance at a time when anti-Semitism is perceived as a re-emerging threat and when, in some countries, Jews and Jewish institutions have become targets for anti-Israeli attacks.

It was perhaps no coincidence that four participants in the seminar are currently confronting the issues of stereotype and anti-Semitism in separate productions of “The Merchant of Venice.”

Isabelle Starkier, director of the Paris-based Star Theatre, said her staging of Shakespeare’s play focuses on its ambiguities and contradictions, and looks at images of Shylock as a victim of anti-Semitism as well as a villain.

“If we understand how anti-Semitism works, we can avoid the vicious circle,” she said. “Also, through the play, other people will be able to understand why they themselves are anti-Semitic.”

The issue of Jewish identity and the way one’s own identity — or perceived identity — influences his or her work was also central to the debate.

The Italian actor and singer Enrico Fink has built his career on projecting a stage presence that clearly identifies him as Jewish. To do so, he said, represents a public admission that he is “different.”

He explained: “There is nothing really comparable to the admission of a Jewish identity on stage than outing as gay, at least in the Italian environment. Normally, being Jewish is private. Once you do this, you step out of the group.”

In addition, he said, audiences in Italy — whose Jewish population is just 35,000 out of a total population of 60 million — know so little about Jews and Judaism that he had to include basic “Judaism 101″ information in his pieces.

A centerpiece of the Prague meeting was the first reading of a new play by the London-based writer Eva Hoffman. Called “The Ceremony,” it is based on the World War II massacre of Jews by their Catholic neighbors in the Polish village of Jedwabne.

Revelations about Jedwabne three years ago touched off a wrenching debate in Poland over Holocaust memory and complicity that culminated in July 2001, when Poland’s president making a public apology for the massacre on its 60th anniversary. The play is the first dramatic work by the Polish-born Hoffman, a former editor and writer for The New York Times and the author of several books, including “Lost in Translation” and “Shtetl.”

The play’s theme explores how contemporary characters and the audience itself relate to the story of a horrific event that happened more than 60 years ago. Characters include living people — local Poles and visiting Jews — at the 60th anniversary memorial ceremony, as well as ghosts of the victims who make their presence known in Greek-chorus fashion.

“Although the play is grounded firmly in the specific facts of a particular history, I hope it will have reverberations for other events of a similar kind, of which, unhappily, we have seen so many,” Hoffman said.

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