Monday, September 14, 2009

The Jewish Pigeonhole

A new Jewish play called The Retributionists, by Daniel Goldfarb, opens tomorrow. I mention the play in particular because The New York Times had a fascinating article about the play a few weeks ago, called At Ease in His Own Pigeonhole.

In it, Goldfarb talks about the difficulty of being a modern playwright labeled specifically as a Jewish playwright. According to the article, the younger generation (my generation, in fact) of Jews is no longer comfortable with seeing themselves onstage. Jewish culture is no longer a draw for young Jews.

During the Jewish theater conference, I noticed that some of our speakers (among them Israel Horovitz and Donald Margulies) clearly were uncomfortable with classifying themselves as Jewish playwrights. They, too, seemed worried about being pigeonholed, about being assigned to a genre which they could not escape.

Oddly, the playwright most comfortable with the association was Itamar Moses, another in the younger generation of playwrights. Although he did not write specifically Jewish plays, his closing speech embraced the idea that his plays are shaped by Jewish ideas.

I struggle with this question personally, as well. Many of my plays have Jewish themes, though some do not. But do I embrace the genre, if it is a genre? The problem with genres is that, to the uninitiated, they are defined by stereotype. Jewish theater is defined by Fiddler on the Roof or plays about the Holocaust, and anyone writing another sort of drama might well wish to step away.

In some ways, it reminds me of the dilemma that Vonnegut writes about regarding the science fiction genre. Vonnegut resisted being termed a science fiction author. As he said: "I have been a soreheaded occupant of a file drawer labeled 'science fiction'... and I would like out, particularly since so many serious critics regularly mistake the drawer for a urinal."

Personally, I felt in many ways my play Doctors Jane and Alexander would have been more reviewed had it NOT been included in my Festival of Jewish Theater and Ideas. After all, it was about a Jewish family (my own), but in its themes it could have applied to anyone.

And yet...I stubbornly call my science fiction work science fiction and proudly identify as a Jewish writer. There is a pride in being connected to great works from the past, even as I wince when being connected to work I am less fond of. And truth to tell, much of my work is Jewish. Why play games with wording? I resent the need, if there is a need. My ideas are often based on Jewish ideas. My experiences are the experiences of an American Jew. So my work is Jewish and it is American. Doctors Jane and Alexander is even more than that. It is a science play, it is a documentary play, it is a found text play, it is a family drama, it is a comedy, it is a play with music, it is an autobiography. Why reject any of it? Each is a genre of sorts and each informs the play.

And each is a pigeonhole that limits me some audience member or critic that says - you know, I just don't like that sort of play. And each is a doorway to a fan of the genre. So does it help me or hurt?

I don't know. It is.

Edward Einhorn

1 comment:

  1. This seems like a good opportunity to respond to Edward Einhorn's blog "The Jewish Pigeonhole." We Jews are a diverse people, yet a single nation. Some of us feel trapped in the past; others exult in the eternal relationship only we have as Jews with our G-d; still others repudiate any connection with a Jewish identity and live in constant self-abnegation.
    Let us not pigeonhole ourselves. Let us not stereotype ourselves. Let us not forget who we are. Edward's final sentence encapsulates the Jewish phenomenon in its truest essence: It is.
    Our Jewish ancestors made the commitment to uphold and protect the Law. It was their consent to become stewards of a rigorous sacrosanct record of Divine laws and commandments whose adherence would elevate its participants to the loftiest of all human endeavors: tikkun olam.
    My plays attempt to reflect on this solely Jewish phenomenon: the Pintele Yid. As Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson claimed in his sermon for the weekly Torah portion Be’Ha’alot’kha on June 17, 2006 (21 Sivan 5766): "G-d is not only within each Jewish soul, but G-d’s name becomes, in effect, each Jew—no matter how non-observant, no matter how far removed from a life of holiness or of mitzvot." Every character in every play of mine, then, dons the garment of a Jew who actively seeks his or her place in Jewish history. There is no sunning away from our inheritance as Jews. We cannot remove ourselves from our identity as upholders of the Law. . . even if we want to. It is not a matter of being caught up in the maelstrom of our Jewish entitlement; on the contrary, it is our Jewish entitlement that is an endowment which we cherish through our every human deed, mitzvah, tzedakah, Torah study, and teshuva. For those of us who are nonobservant Jews,we are still Jews. Our words and our actions still speak for us on the world's stage. The characters we create in our plays enact our worldly--and, sometimes, otherworldly--hopes, dreams, imaginations.
    I do know that I speak in my own time, in my own space with those around me who share that time and space. . . and for those who were here in this world before me, whose voices have been silenced by their mortality, but whose earthly presence have been my Jewish largess, my Jewish blessing, which offers succor in my own search for my Pintele Yid.