Timely Voices


Middle East Dramas Play Out at DC Jewish Center

They say art imitates life, but art can also facilitate life by opening communication channels. The performances that constitute the Voices from a Changing Middle East Festival at Theater J in the Washington DC Jewish Community Center aim to do just that.

“What’s most uncanny is just how timely and relevant they are,” said Ari Roth, Theater J’s artistic director.

“The Accident” by Hillel Mitelpunkt, which runs through March 8, is a biting look at upper middle-class life in a Tel Aviv suburb, where a split-second roadside collision with a Chinese foreign worker forces a moral reckoning for two couples whose acts of omission and commission come back to haunt them.

The show serves as a metaphor for the collateral damage caused as Israelis pursue their everyday affairs, according to Roth, who paralleled it to the violence earlier this year in Gaza, which he said shows how Israelis are responsible for the deaths of people they never intended to kill as they pursued another objective.

More controversial subject matter is confronted — from an Islamic perspective — in “Waziristan to Washington: A Muslim at the Crossroads” on March 23. The one-man play was written and performed by well-known Islamic scholar Akbar Ahmed, who seeks to explain his culture to a post-Sept. 11 West hostile to his people. Roth noted that Ahmed, the chair of Islamic studies at American University, “has sought to educate and re-engage the West in a dialogue with the Islamic community.”

Tensions between the West and Iran are given a timely treatment in “Benedictus,” running from March 14 to 29. The Israeli-Iranian collaboration touches on many of the options that the Obama administration is debating with regard to Iran, starting with the “last resort” on the table. With 42 hours before the United States launches an attack on Iran, two estranged childhood Iranian friends, one Jewish, one Muslim, meet with an American ambassador in Rome to try to pre-empt the pre-emptive strike.

The play posits three questions: How did Iran’s Islamic Revolution of 1979 become a global threat? Is there a chance that a reformist movement could take power and begin a dialogue with the West? And what can the West do to facilitate this?

Three main interconnected characters work to answer those questions, each coming from very different perspectives. One is an Iranian Muslim who had been a socialist but joined the Islamic Revolution when Ayatollah Khomeini took power in’79. Another character is an Iranian-born Jew who fled to Israel after the Islamic Revolution and became an arms dealer working with the U.S. government. The third character, the ambassador, befriended the Iranian Muslim while imprisoned at the U.S. Embassy during the Iran hostage crisis.

“Benedictus” playwright Motti Lerner examines how the ambassador’s experience as a hostage colors his political views of the impending attack on Iran. “Through his eyes, we explore the changes in American policy, the rise of neoconservatism in American policy, and how it affected the relationship with Eastern civilization,” Lerner explained. “The new conservatism didn’t allow any kind of dialogue with Iran,” he added.

“These three people have the rare opportunity to change the course of events and to propose a plan that would stop the attack, or at least delay it for a long time…. They enter negotiations, and through their negotiations, we discover how difficult it is to reach an agreement. And on the other hand, we realize how necessary it is to reach an agreement,” said the playwright, who lives outside Tel Aviv.

“It seems Iran is on the way to having nuclear weapons. We are very, very scared that once Iran has nuclear weapons, it will accelerate the clash of civilizations, as was defined by the late Samuel Huntington,” Lerner added, referring to Huntington’s famed 1993 Foreign Affairs article about the cultural schisms that drive global conflict. But Lerner — who writes plays about his fears to deal with and understand them — said that in writing “Benedictus” he came to believe there are always options. “I disagree with Huntington,” he said. “Today it is still a possibility to include Iran in the family of nations, that Iran could play a much more constructive role in the world of diplomacy than it does today.”

“Benedictus” director Rahaleh Nassri, who was born in Iran, said the play made her nostalgic for her homeland, which she left with her family 30 years ago. “It has become this confluence of everything that is historical and everything in my past that is both personal and professional — in my past and what I do now — and also current events,” said Nassri.

She hopes the play will spur discourse. “On the grand scale, the reason for creating art like this is to have some, even a minor impact at stopping the waste of human life when things get out of hand,” she said.

To encourage dialogue, Theater J hosts Peace Café meetings and Artistic Director’s Round Tables following the performances and on Sundays, respectively. “It’s an ongoing discussion,” Roth said of the meetings. “It’s not only politically oriented. It’s really designed to have art act as an agent by which people can get to know each other better.”

“Voices from a Changing Middle East: 2009 Festival” runs through March 29 at the Washington DC Jewish Community Center (DCJCC), 1529 16th St., NW. For a complete schedule and ticket information, please call (202) 777-3210 or visit www.washingtondcjcc.org.


Exposing Jewish Gangsters

While on a trip to Berlin that took American Jews to vibrant Jewish communities, Wendy Fergusson found they were not that vibrant. Tired of seeing Holocaust memorials and empty spaces where Jewish homes once stood, the director of the Washington DC Jewish Community Center’s Ann Loeb Bronfman Gallery sought refuge in a local library. There, she discovered a Jewish underworld that isn’t so hidden.

Fergusson discovered a two-volume set about a painting exhibit on Jewish gangsters that had toured Europe. Additional research uncovered scores of books about the criminal figures. Fascinated, she decided to curate the first Jewish gangster exhibit in the United States.

“Real Machers: Pat Hamou’s Portraits of American Jewish Gangsters, 1900-1945” looks at the world of “machers,” Yiddish for “big shots,” with 46 watercolors based on archival images including mug shots and newspaper photos — such as gangster Harry “Pittsburgh Phil” Strauss in handcuffs.

“It was a time when immigrants came into New York and they had no money, they had no power,” Fergusson said. “These figures actually watched out for their communities. A lot of times they were committing crimes to better their community.”

A lot of the men — and all the paintings are of men — tried to save women from prostitution, for example. “These people were more powerful than the police,” Fergusson noted.

In addition, she pointed out that this was a time, right around the Holocaust, when Jews were seen “as pale and weak and stereotyped — big nose — and here you’ve got these figures who are completely the other side of that.”

To capture these details, Pat Hamou used a tan watercolor base, a rapidograph pen to draw the outline of the face and white pencil for shading. “If you look really closely, you’ll see all the hatch marks,” Fergusson said. “He drew every single hair, which is an effect you don’t get with oil on canvas. This is really tedious and time-consuming work.”

It’s also controversial “because this is something that we’ve successfully pushed under the rug,” said Fergusson. Yet at the same time, “it hasn’t been fully pushed under the rug because there have been countless books written on the topic. I’m thinking, ‘People just don’t want to see these figures. They can read about them in text, they can close the book and put them away, but when it’s in your face in an exhibition, it’s a whole other medium.’

“This is probably the only space in the District that could have pulled off a show like this” without looking anti-Semitic, she added. “The beauty of Judaism and why I love being a Jew is that we can talk about controversial issues and be critical of ourselves.”

Fergusson also hopes the exhibit gets other people talking. To facilitate that, there will be a panel discussion on March 12 about modern-day Jewish criminals titled “From Meyer Lansky to Bernie Madoff: Talking About Jewish Criminals.”

“Real Machers: Pat Hamou’s Portraits of American Jewish Gangsters, 1900-1945” runs through May 17 at the Ann Loeb Bronfman Gallery of the Washington DC Jewish Community Center, 1529 16th St., NW. For more information, please call (202) 777-3208 or visit www.washingtondcjcc.org.

About the Author

Stephanie M. Kanowitz is a freelance writer in Arlington, Va.