Editors’ note: Since the publication of this article, the performances of “Swimming in Jerusalem: A Modern Musical Parable” scheduled for Feb. 8-11, 2024, have been postponed.
(New York Jewish Week) — In Jerusalem, a group of teenagers meet every day at a local YMCA for swim practice. Coming from both Palestinian and Israeli backgrounds, for years the swimmers followed an unspoken rule: No politics in the pool.
But, like so many other things, that all changed on Oct. 7 when Hamas terrorists invaded Israel. The attacks, and the subsequent violent war, forced swim team members to reckon with their differences. Some of Palestinian swimmers believed that the attacks were justified, which horrified the Israeli swimmers, while some of the Palestinian swimmers felt that the world often ignores their plight.
The tension among members of the Greater Jerusalem swim club — and, hearteningly, the subsequent cooperation — are documented in an 1,800-word feature story in the New York Times, published on Nov. 15, titled “Palestinian and Israeli Teens Swam in the Same Pool. Then Came Oct. 7.”
According to the Times piece, the point of the club is “to foster unity among young people in Jerusalem, a city where Israelis and Palestinians regularly interact in the daily life of shops, restaurants and university classrooms but remain divided by festering conflict.”
And now, the heartwarming article has inspired a new musical on the other side of the world: “Swimming in Jerusalem: A Modern Musical Parable,” which premieres off-Broadway this Thursday at Theater555 in Midtown.
“I felt like I had to do something” in response to the Israel-Hamas war, said Eric Krebs, the musical’s producer who is also the owner of the theater.
Krebs, who describes himself as “part-Jewish, way back when,” said he considers himself a “rational humanist” who, inspired by Jewish values, likes to help people.
Krebs read the Times article and knew this was the story he wanted to help share with the world. “I thought, ‘Wow, that’s, that’s the solution for the whole thing,” he said. “As the article says, when they’re in the pool, you can’t tell them apart.”
Indeed, as the article describes: “At the pool last week, it was impossible to distinguish Israeli from Palestinian swimmers. They all wore goggles and swim caps as they completed sets of freestyle and breaststroke. Conversations were cheerful and safe. Alex [an Israeli teen] teased Mustafa [a Palestinian teen] about beating him at butterfly.”
Krebs reached out to a friend, composer Michael Roberts, to see if he could write some music for a show based on the article in two weeks’ time. Krebs said he wanted to start working on the show immediately, promoting its ideals of cooperation while the story was still relevant. Of course, “I had no concept that this [war] would be going on three months later,” he said.
The result is an hour-long show with a cast of six — a narrator, four swimmers and the coach, who, in the musical, is Catholic. (In real life, he is Emanuel May, an Israeli “with a gentle demeanor” who grew up on a kibbutz.) In the musical, the swimmers must overcome their different opinions about the Hamas attacks and Israel-Palestine politics in order to prepare for a big upcoming meet.
“They first break apart in anger — and then they come back together in harmony and peace and work for the team,” Krebs said, calling the musical a “parable” for what he believes is the only solution for the foreseeable future: peaceful coexistence. “Believe it or not, it is a musical with some joy and some humor in it.”
Krebs said he and his team were not able to get in touch with the swim team while putting the musical together, but credits them for the inspiration — and, though the play is being performed free of charge, Krebs and his crew are collecting donations to support the Greater Jerusalem swim club.
The musical is “a one-hour response in art and music to the current situation and how I view it as a kind of an outsider,” Krebs explained. “At the end of this, everybody is still going to live there and they have to work it out. We have to find some solution other than slaughtering everybody. That’s what the core of ‘Swimming in Jerusalem’ is about.”
As the swim team’s coach told the New York Times: “The spirit here is to swim together, just human beings.”
“Swimming in Jerusalem: A Modern Musical Parable,” will be performed Feb. 8-11 at Theater 555 (555 West 42nd Street.) with a talkback to follow. Reserve tickets here or email boxoffice@Theater555.com.