Jack Elliot: Still Ramblin’

ramblin-jack-elliott-newport jack.and.dylan jack.ash.poster

I went to the Throckmorton Theatre in Mill Valley last night to see Ramblin’ Jack Elliot who has been one of my favorite performers since I first saw him at the Ash Grove – the west coast center of the folk revival of the sixties – when I was still in high school. He’s 84 years old now and needed some help getting his guitar plugged in and positioning the vocal mic. When he started singing, some of the high notes were a little frayed, but his musicality, humor and timing were intact. He made it clear that his nickname didn’t come from all his traveling but from the countless yarns he spins around, between and through the songs he sings. Stories about growing up in Brooklyn, discovering the rodeos at Madison Square Garden and trying to become a bronco rider himself at age fourteen; about unknown and famous folksingers from Bess Hawes to Johnny Cash to Bob Dylan.

The audience, like me, tended toward the grey and wrinkled.  Lots of beards and long white hair. A few canes and cowboy hats.  Long, ethnic dresses and turquoise jewelry. I said to my friend George, who came with me, “Mill Valley, where the counter culture comes to die.”  My irony masked my mingled nostalgia, grief and joy. Those feelings hit me full force when Jack sang “Bobby McGee”  the song by Kris Kristofferson that became a posthumous hit for Janis Joplin.  I had once run into Ramblin’ Jack at a party in the Hollywood Hills back in the early seventies. I had asked him to sing it and he did. I’ve never forgotten how it felt to be sung to by a legend. Last night when he sang it, my tears were right there. Of course, I do believe that “Bobby McGee” is one of the most beautiful songs in the American singer-songwriter canon. But Jack is a genius at singing stories and has a way of making a song like that stand for an entire life, a whole era.  Same when he sang Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice.”  I had once heard him call it a song by “my former son, Bob Dylan.”  This was a reference to Dylan – before he got super-famous – having referred to himself as “Jack Elliot’s son.”

Last night he introduced it with a long tale of how he learned it while snowed in a cabin somewhere with a good supply of firewood, a bottle of Cutty Sark but only one record: “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan,” which he listened to continually for three days. His finger-picking was as lively as ever, and he bit into the rueful intelligence of the lyrics more deeply than any young man ever could.

After the show, as we headed to George’s car, I saw that Jack was talking to some people by the stage door. I walked over and said something about loving his music since the Ash Grove days. He took my hand and looked at me, really looked. “Have we met?” he asked.  I mentioned that long-ago party.  He asked again, “Do we know each other?”  then, after telling him I was an actor, he said “Did I meet you on that film? It was with Jack Nicholson in a railroad yard.”  I said “No, I never met Nicholson.” Then, still holding his hand, I said what I really wanted to tell him all along. “Jack, you’re in my heart forever.”

Who Was I?

On March 14, 2015, two weeks after my 70th birthday, I gave a work-in-progress living-room performance of Who Was I? the music-theater piece I’ve been working on for almost two years. You can hear excerpts from the live recording of the show on my SoundCloud page

Performing that night, I reentered the stream of life that I had gradually stepped out of in the time after TJT closed in 2012.

After TJT closed, I threw myself into  a job directing The Good Person of Szechuan at Cal State East Bay. It was a great experience that I’ve written about before on this blog. I’ve also written about the cancellation of a trip to China where I had been invited to spend time with director Stan Lai. That was in January 2013. Suddenly I had a lot of time and space in which to feel the loss of TJT, my artistic home of 34 years, and grieve.

The two things that brought me the most comfort during this time were music and meditation. I’ve been meditating off and on since the 1960s, trying various practices including the Maharishi’s transcendental meditation, Rajneesh’s chaotic meditation, Jewish meditation, and for the past 30 years or so, Buddhist meditation. The spiritual teachers who influenced me most profoundly have been Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, Jack Kornfield, Sylvia Boorstein, Pema Chodron and Norman Fischer. Norman, a poet and a Zen priest, is the only person in my life who is a friend, a fellow artist, and a spiritual teacher all in one body, I often find myself repeating lines of Norman’s in different contexts, surprised by how apt they always are. In 2002, I wrote and directed an ensemble music-theater piece from his book, Opening to You, his translations of the Hebrew psalms.

cf.guitar.1975Music has always been an important part of the theater I’ve made. Even before I ever made a theater piece, I wrote songs. I started playing guitar as a teenager swept up by the powerful and haunting currents of old-time music that were enlivening America in the late 50s early 60s – the days of Folkways records, Pete Seeger, the Weavers, Jack Elliott, the world out of which sprang Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell and so many more. As I tell in Who Was I? I spent several formative summers at the Idyllwild Arts Foundation (ISOMATA) in the San Jacinto Mountains where Pete Seeger led an annual folk music workshop in the days when he couldn’t get much work due to the “blacklist.”

The very first songs I wrote were in French. I spent my junior year of college in Bordeaux, France. I got a job playing and singing in a restaurant by the train station called Chez Jimmy. Jimmy was a very large man of indeterminate age from Martinique. I stuck a pickup in my old Martin and ran it through a Grundig radio so I could be heard over Jacques, the French pianist I played with. I didn’t know a whole lot of songs, just a few chestnuts like Freight Train and Railroad Bill. The rest of the time we played 12-bar blues to which I’d sing every maverick verse I knew. In order to feel like I really earned the meal and the drinks that Jimmy would give me in exchange for playing, I enlarged my repertory by writing some songs. Since the majority of Jimmy’s customers did not speak English and I had been speaking French all year, it didn’t seem all that bizarre to start writing chansons.

Back in the states music soon took a backseat to acting and later to writing and directing. But I never stopped playing guitar and after TJT closed I found myself devoting more time to music than I had in years. I discovered a new cf.guitar.3.14musical world through the Internet. I found classes and blogs and song-sharing platforms that supported and inspired my return to songwriting.

But I was still lost in grief and fear. I felt diminished if not finished.

In August, 2013, I went to a Jewish meditation retreat taught by Norman Fischer, Sylvia Boorstein, Rabbis Jeff Roth and Joanna Katz.

During a period of walking meditation at the retreat, the thought arose that I should create something to perform for friends and family on my 70th birthday which, at the time, was a year and a half in the future. I had no idea what it was I would make.

Soon after the retreat I realized that I felt most energized when I was singing or writing songs. This was brought home to me at the end of 2013 when I wrote a song for my wife China’s birthday and sang it for her and a few friends. I realized how much I missed performing, how much I missed the sense of community that can arise when we give each other the gifts of our imagination.

A few months later I sang a bunch of my songs for Naomi Newman, cofounder of TJT, dear friend and collaborator for almost 50 years. She suggested that I make an actual theater piece around some of those songs and offered to direct it.

A week or two after that I had a life-changing experience in the form of a thirty-minute-long episode of transient global amnesia.

cf.3.14.zol.kaknIt was as if I’ve been given an assignment: make a music-theater piece about memory and aging. It suddenly became obvious to me that most of the songs I was writing were, in fact, memories. I spent the next nine months reading about memory, working with Deborah Winters, my superbly talented vocal coach, and, with Naomi’s help, shaping the material.

Somewhere along the way I made a decision to work with musicians – live musicians – rather than continue using my home-recorded backing tracks as accompaniment.

I had already done some work with the incredible drummer Barbara Borden, who had helped me with the rhythm and phrasing of the spoken-word pieces in the show. She recommended two gloriously talented players – Ross Gualco to do the arrangements and play keyboards and John Hoy on bass and guitar. We were only able to rehearse together twice as a full band, but musicians of this caliber have a magical way of absorbing the structure and feeling of a song after barely hearing it once.

The experience of making music with people like this was completely new to me and I’m not exaggerating when I say it was an ecstatic one. Actors may talk a lot about the importance of listening to each other onstage but it seems to me that musicians are the true masters of deep listening.

The morning of the day of the performance, as it is often the case during those in-between times, I had no idea what to do with myself. Fortunately I had a lecture by Norman Fischer waiting for me  on my iPhone. It was a talk he had given at Green Gulch Farm about his process of writing poetry. In it, he spoke about the ways his Buddhist practice informed his writing. One thing he said gave me a new way to view my own experience of making this stuff we call art:

“I know a lot of artists and they practice their art with a tremendous devotion.  And they sacrifice a lot for it. And so they appreciate one another for sharing this devotion to an endeavor which nobody else appreciates quite the way they do.“

By the end of the performance on Saturday, I felt that all the people in the room had come together in that shared devotional space.

The event was a collective endeavor. It could not have happened without the generous engagement of dozens of friends, co-creators all. I’ve already mentioned Naomi Newman, Deborah Winters and musicians John, Ross and Barbara, but I also need to acknowledge the loving support of my wife, China Galland, who not only put up with my daily vocal practice but constantly reminded me of all that really mattered. Friends Evan Specter, Jonathan and Jori Walker, George Carver, Jonathan Greenberg, David Chase, Beth Sperry and Jennifer Asselstine helped with myriad, essential tasks. My son Ben Galland directed the two-camera video shoot with Jeanette Eganlauf on second camera. Our family friend, producer Ben Krames, took on the complex job of making us sound good, in the room and on the audio recording.

At the end of the evening, I told everyone that I hoped they would find a moment to meet anyone they did not yet know. For me, one of the most important reasons for doing theater is the opportunity it can give us to connect with each other, to become – even if only for a short while – a community.

chinaflowerDriving home from the event, China said that she wished we had given people time to share their responses to the performance and speak about their particular connections to me and the others in the room. When I told her that I planned to write about the experience on my blog she suggested that I invite you to post a “reply” or “comment” about your experience of that evening and your own connection to community, art, each other, aging, memory and anything else. We hear a lot these days about neuro-plasticity, how we can create new networks and pathways inside ourselves.   I imagine that we can do something similar between ourselves as well. Let’s begin.

Note: We’re currently raising funds so we can complete editing, mixing and mastering the terrific video that was shot on the fourteenth.  The finished video will be available online and will be an important tool as we seek more opportunities to perform Who Was I?  To support the project, please click here to visit our fiscal sponsor, Fractured Atlas, where you can make a tax-deductible donation.

Welcomed to L.A.


I’m starting to write this on my way back home from Los Angeles in Morro Bay, a lovely town on Highway One  halfway between the northern and southern termini of this trip.

I want to mark what feels like a transformational few days. This was the first trip to L.A. I’ve made in over ten years, as far as I can figure. Since I cancelled my trip to China in March last year, I’d not travelled further than the East Bay. But, having been invited by the UCLA Cinema and Television Archive to participate in a tribute to the late filmmaker Robert Altman, I decided to stir myself and drive down to my former home town.


My former home town and site of my former career in “The Industry” as it’s called. That’s the movie/television industry, of course, which is in the process of becoming something more like the streaming-or-downloadable/on-demand/digital-content-industry. Before making his breakthrough film, M*A*S*H, Robert Altman had been an iconoclastic director of TV shows such as Combat and The Whirlybirds. A World War Two Air Force pilot from Kansas City, he was notorious for his outspokenness and rebellion against any cinematic conventions that he thought were clichéd or pointless. He’d been fired at least once from Universal Studios when he got hired by 20th Century Fox in early 1969 to direct the  irreverent comedy based on a novel about American combat surgeons in Korea in the fifties.

that's me (at age 24) on the far left.

A still from M*A*S*H (the movie).  That’s me (at age 24) on the far left.  Donald Sutherland is driving the jeep, Tom Skerritt is in the passenger seat and René Auberjonois, as Father Mulcahy, is blessing the jeep.

After casting three young up-and-coming actors as the leads – Donald Sutherland, Elliot Gould and Tom Skerritt and Robert Duvall, Sally Kellerman, René Auberjonois and Roger Bowen in supporting roles, he began looking for actors who had improvisational experience to form an ensemble of surgeons, nurses and orderlies who would populate the MASH unit (Mobile Army Surgical Hospital) that gave the film its title.

When I met him, Robert asked me about my work with The Committee, the San Francisco improv group that had started a second company in L.A. in 1968. I was actually working with a group (with the late-sixties name, “The Synergy Trust,”) that had grown out of the workshops in improvisation that members of the Committee were teaching. A couple of days later, my agent told me I was hired.

That began a two-year, three-film association with Altman that included Brewster McCloud and McCabe and Mrs. Miller, which got me to Vancouver where I wound up living for a year. (That story needs a post of its own).

I took two days to drive down for the MASH screening, on the slower  highway 101 – the coast route – rather than trying to make it in one day on the brutal interstate 5 through the central valley. No question: it was the right choice.

Judy Chaikin

One of my oldest friends in L.A., Judy Chaikin, who had been in the Synergy Trust and is now an accomplished documentary film maker, invited me to stay at her vintage 1936 Studio City ranch house. I got there on Friday and was amazed by the abundance of olive and citrus trees, roses and wisteria surrounding her house. I hadn’t been there for nearly forty years, and in those days, I never paid much attention to landscapes or gardens. After I moved to the Bay Area,  China Galland, whom I married in 1987, taught me about such things.

Judy Chaikin's Wisteria

Judy Chaikin’s Wisteria

As soon as I arrived, Judy and I began a long, rambling conversation about the old days, improv, music, people, film, family and theatre that lasted until I left on Monday morning. Judy had been married for many years to her high school sweetheart, Jules, a musician, music contractor and producer who had worked with pretty much everyone in the L.A. music, TV and film worlds for more than fifty years. Though he died two years ago, his presence still permeates the house.

Shortly after his death, Judy completed a monumental documentary film called The Girls in the Band about the dozens of great women jazz instrumentalists who were central to the music in the twenties, thirties, forties and fifties but who have mostly been forgotten in that male-dominated world. It’s a world that Judy knows thoroughly. Using rare archival footage and new interviews with exceptional musicians, The Girls in the Band restores a vital part of American cultural history to our collective memory.

Judy also spent an afternoon listening to me play some of the songs I’ve been working on.  She gave me some valuable feedback of exactly the kind I need as I continue developing the solo music-theatre piece most of you already know about (from my last blog post).


The MASH screening was a new sort of experience for me. Now that I am truly a Hollywood outsider, I felt less alienated from the scene than I used to. Having nothing to prove at this stage of my life, having no ambition to be noticed by a producer, agent, star or casting director was a relief.

The former colleagues from MASH – actors Sally Kellerman, Tom Skerritt, Elliot Gould and Fred Williamson, editor Danford Green, Robert Altman’s son, Michael, and his widow, Catherine, were gracious and warm as was Shannon Kelley and the other Archive staff members.

from l: Elliot Gould, Tom Skerritt, Sally Kellerman and me

from l: Elliot Gould, Tom Skerritt, Sally Kellerman and me

I hadn’t seen the film in its entirety since its release in 1970. I was humbled to realize that I had been part of a project that did much to bring a formerly marginalized esthetic and political sensibility into the American mainstream. MASH was an unapologetic satire of U.S. military leadership. It used “Korea” as a transparent stand-in for the war in Vietnam. Its surprising success contributed to the confidence of the growing anti-war movement. Moreover it introduced a new, highly layered style of cinematic narrative to the world.

The Last Supper from MASH. I'm second from left.

The Last Supper from MASH. I’m second from left.

On Sunday and Monday I spent time with more close friends of my youth – Harvey Perr, Burke and Peggy Byrnes, Norbert and Tandy Weisser and Melissa Converse Ewing. Between these affectionate reunions and constantly coming across buildings, streets and names from the first 37 years of my life, I experienced a near-continuous flood of flashbacks, living in several times simultaneously.

Bill Mumy and Sunshine

The culmination of the trip was the extended jam Bill Mumy and I had on Monday afternoon. Bill is one of the most unusual people I’ve ever known. When we met he was nineteen years old and I was twenty-eight.

With Bill Mumy

With Bill Mumy

I had been living in Vancouver for a year, where I’d made my first original piece of theatre (Crow, based on a poem-cycle by Ted Hughes). Then I was cast in a TV movie, Sunshine, adapted from the journals of Jacqueline Helton, a young, single mother who was dying of cancer. It was the first “disease-of-the-week” TV movie, though I believe it transcended the genre it’s credited with spawning. I was cast in one of the more unusual and interesting roles I ever did on TV: a drop-out-rabbinical-student-guitar-player who was part of a three-man acoustic folk-rock group fronted by the guy who winds up marrying the single mom (who’s dying). My character performed a wedding ceremony, in Hebrew, in the heroine’s hospital room. Bill Mumy played the other guy in the band. Cliff de Young was the romantic lead. Bill and I were the comic relief and Bill was the musical center of it all. The cast included a lot of gifted actors like Meg Foster and Brenda Vaccaro. It was produced by George Eckstein, one of the most intelligent and generous people I’ve ever met in the world of commercial TV, and directed by the pioneering TV director Joe Sargent.

Meg Foster, me, Brenda Vaccaro during the "Sunshine" shoot in Vancouver

Meg Foster, me, Brenda Vaccaro during the “Sunshine” shoot in Vancouver

Bill might have only been nineteen, when we met, but he was already  the best all-around musician I’d ever met. He played guitar, banjo, harmonica, piano and sang beautifully. He also was – and is – a terrific arranger and producer.

Maybe one of the reasons we immediately bonded was that I was only vaguely familiar with his previous identity as the child star of the iconic TV series Lost in Space. Bill started working on TV when he was six, in 1960. He went on to play major roles in Papillon with Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman and in Stanley Kramer’s Bless the Beasts and the Children. I simply knew him as a fellow guitar picker who shared my love of traditional music and quirky lyrics.

To our surprise, Sunshine, the TV movie, was followed by Sunshine, the TV series, which took up the story of the young widower raising his daughter and still struggling to make a living as a “folk-rock” musician. Though never made explicit, the show hinted that the hero, still played by Cliff de Young, was an American draft-resister living in Vancouver, where both the first movie and the series were set.  I made a point of making my character’s Jewish identity as richly detailed as I could and found ways to use a Yiddish expression or two in almost every episode. When Bill and I pitched an idea for an episode to George, he liked it and even hired us to write it.

The series was cancelled after thirteen weeks, though it had been lauded by critics. The ratings sucked  and that was all that concerned NBC. Unlike MASH, Sunshine was not able to pull the “mainstream” audience into its unconventionally populated world.

But the following year, we had another surprise when NBC ordered a second TV movie as a Christmas special. Two fine New York actors Pat Hingle and Eileen Heckart played Cliff’s parents and Barbara Hershey played his old flame.

During and after the Sunshine gigs, Bill and I played a lot of music together, sometimes on camera or in the studio (we made an “original soundtrack album” for the first TV movie), but most enjoyably, on our own. We collaborated on a few songs and I learned an enormous amount from young Bill.

I hadn’t seen him in over twenty years when we got together. I went to his house with my guitar, he took his Martin off its hook on his guitar-filled wall and we played old and new songs for each other. Bill remembered parts of several of our old collaborations, more than I did. His new songs are even lovelier that the old ones and have a depth that comes from many more years of living, marriage and parenting.

Driving home, I listened to several of Bill’s CDs which are gems of contemporary acoustic songwriting , singing, playing and producing. Reconnecting with Bill has been a heartwarming and inspiring gift.


As I drove west on the Richmond Bridge, crossed the Bay to Marin County and caught sight of Mount Tamalpais, the Randy Newman song, Feels Like Home, began to play. My iPhone was on “shuffle.” Strangely I only have two Randy Newman tracks on the device, though I’ve loved his music since the sixties.

Mount Tamalpais seen from the Richmond Bridge

Mount Tamalpais seen from the Richmond Bridge

I couldn’t believe the universe’s shameless sentimentality in coming up with that song at the very moment I saw the mountain that has become, over the last 34 years, the emblem of “home” for me. The chorus of the song says: “…Feels like home to me / Feels like I’m all the way back where I belong ...” And, yes, it did bring tears to my eyes.


Good News!

Yesterday I got word that I’d been awarded a “CA$H” grant from Theatre Bay Area, our tireless local advocacy and support organization for non-profit theatre and dance. Though the amount is modest, it will allow me to keep working on the solo (maybe with musicians, though) musical theatre piece I’m developing. But most importantly, it represents a huge validation from the community of fellow theatre-makers that is all the more meaningful now that I have no artistic home since TJT’s closing. Here’s how I described what I’m doing in the grant application:

I am increasingly aware of the historical layers in which my own lived experiences have unfolded. I came up during the cold war, witch-hunts, assassinations, riots – a time of great cultural upheaval. My life has been shaped in very direct ways by the war in Vietnam, the emergence of the “counterculture,” the struggle for Civil Rights for African-Americans and other powerful currents of history.


There’s only one generation between me and my Eastern European Jewish ancestors who immigrated here in the late nineteenth century. Though not religious, both my parents identified as Jews and embraced the progressive, inclusive, vital culture of the secular Jewish immigrant artists and intellectuals. It was no accident that I chose to base so much of my work in theatre on Jewish culture, history and imagination.

I’ve long been inspired by the notion, articulated most eloquently by the great African-American historian, Manning Marable, that people cannot have a shared future unless they understand their common past. It seems to me that Americans, especially the young, have a hard time even realizing that they have a history, much less one hared with people different from themselves.

The recent struggles over immigration policy, inequality and racism in the U.S., and current clashes between cultures, globally, often hinge on the question of who owns the narrative. But rather than remain caught between dueling narratives, I believe that it’s possible to discover stories of a common past that can offer alternatives to binary conflict. Doing this might be one of the most important contributions theatre can make to the world.

Two of the spoken-word pieces and one of the songs I’ll be incorporating into the work suggest the narrative arc I’m imagining. The first, The Dream of the Disappeared Immigrant, imagines the life of a great-uncle of mine with whom the family lost touch shortly after immigrating from Odessa at the turn of the twentieth century. In the story-song, Morris, the uncle, reinvents himself as an entrepreneur in the first years of the twentieth century, but feels he must give up his music and his language in order to become part of a new world. The second piece, Born in ’45 uses my parents’ biographies to tell the story of a generation that still believes in the ideal of a universalist, democratic, “modern” culture and fights to hold onto its fervor and ambition as America’s post-WWII optimism is eroded during the era of retrenchment that followed in the fifties. The third, 1976, a narrative ballad, tells the story of my decision to leave the life of a film actor in Hollywood and join an activist, ensemble theatre group on a long and arduous tour across the country – a decision that changed my life.


You can hear all of the eighteen pieces I’m using – at least for starters – in a playlist I created on SoundCloud. If you happen to listen and feel moved to share any responses, you can leave comments on each track at SoundCloud or hereon t
his blog. That always means a lot to me

Golden Lies


n the airport
I knocked back a shot
That was my usual pre-flight routine

But I tried to believe
That love never dies
I tried to sing roses for you
To remember me by

Wrote you a postcard
Said just how I felt
Right there in plain sight for the whole world to see

But I hadn’t a stamp
I forgot your address
Left the card on the airplane
The clean-up crew found it I guess

One more false start
One more scar on the heart
Ah, but, those were the days, those were the nights

All we needed was love
But it helped to stay high
So we swallowed the sun
And we sang golden lies

1976: a song

nineteenseventysix. from Corey Fischer on Vimeo.

In 1976 I left off working as an actor in TV and film in LA to join an activist theater company called The Provisional Theatre that had grown out of the anti-war movement of the early seventies. My time with them was life-changing and eventually led to co-founding Traveling Jewish Theatre in 1978. You can find more music of mine on https://soundcloud.com/corey-fischer

Loving the Stranger: Wrestling Jerusalem a New Play by Aaron Davidman

[Originally Published on Tikkun, March 13. 2014]

Wrestling JerusalemThe first sentence that Aaron Davidman speaks in Wrestling Jerusalem, his new solo play at Intersection for the Arts, will have an all-too-familiar ring to anyone  who has ever tried to understand the sources of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: “It’s complicated.”

For the next eighty minutes Davidman seamlessly and thoroughly embodies fourteen characters – Arab, Israeli, American, Jewish, Muslim, male, female, old, young, religious, secular, left, right – who both prove and transcend that assertion.

At the end of this moving, provocative, exhilarating journey, I had to ask myself whether there had really been only one actor on stage.  There were so many characters, so many arguments, debates, dialogues, so many people with so much to say. Did all that really come from one person?

Aaron, an actor-writer-director –- in other words, a theatre-maker– has spent decades mastering the art of splitting himself into multiple characters.  Full disclosure: I am anything but an “objective” critic. In fact, I’m not a critic at all. I, too, am a theatre-maker. In 1978, I co-founded Traveling Jewish Theatre. Sometime in the mid-nineties, Aaron joined us, becoming the first new company member since TJT began. By 2002, he had become TJT’s artistic director and led the company until we closed it in 2012.  Aaron and I worked together as actors and co-writers and directed each other many times for about seventeen years. Though I’m more than twenty years older than Aaron, I’ve long  regarded him as a peer and have learned as much from him in our work together as he might have ever learned from me.

Given our history together, it’s no surprise that I’d recognizeWrestling Jerusalem as rooted in the intentions, concerns, sources and theatrical elements that animated TJT for 34 years.

Along with the weaving of multiple stories and timelines, the transforming from one character to another in full view of the audience, the juxtaposition of the personal, the political and the mythic, there’s the overarching theme of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which TJT explored in its 1985 Berlin, Jerusalem and the Moon, (one of Aaron’s first roles with TJT was in the 1998 revival of that piece) and later, in the 2005 Blood Relative which Aaron conceived and directed.

In an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle’s Rob Hurwitt, Aaron mentioned Blood Relative:

“There are seeds and stories in this play that came from those first trips back to Israel when we were researching Blood Relative… when I started working with TJT, the wealth of material under the umbrella of the Jewish experience really opened up for me, personally, historically, culturally. Digging into Blood Relativemade me realize I couldn’t get all this topic into one play. And out of that came a commission from Theatre J in Washington D.C., which was the catalyst for this whole project.”

Another area of Jewish imagination that inspired TJT was the exploration of the Jewish mystical tradition known collectively asKabala.  Aaron frames the play with a seminal text from theZohar, one of the most important Kabbalistic books:

Once there were vessels of light that contained all that is good in the universe.  But this goodness was so powerful that the vessels, with their thin shells, could   not contain it. And the vessels burst. And the light of goodness was scattered.    Sparks and shards of light flew into all corners of the world. They’re hidden amidst all of us. And it’s the work of human beings, say the Kabbalists, to find those sparks, those fragments of goodness, and put them back together. It’s how we heal the world, they say. We gather the broken pieces of goodness and put them back together.”

Healing the world is called tikkun olam in Hebrew, and has counterparts in the deepest parts of every religion or spiritual path that I know of. Aaron’s evocation of tikkun olam lets us know, right away, that the reason he’s asking us to follow him to Jerusalem or Hebron is to try to gather those holy sparks, those fragments of goodness in order to heal – to heal the land, all the souls suffering at each other’s hands, the tortured history.

To do that, Aaron knows that you can’t ignore the “complicated” reality on the ground – at the checkpoints, bus stations, farms, on the streets of the Old City of Jerusalem or at the souk in Ramallah.  Aaron has the courage of a shamanic firefighter to walk into the hottest flames of the conflict and bring back all the painful truths he finds there, with no self-regard. This is theatre with remarkably little ego-investment. Which makes Aaron’s brilliance as a performer all the more compelling.

But, in a departure from TJT’s works, Wrestling Jerusalem  is based on interviews that Aaron conducted on trips to Israel and the “occupied territories” of the West Bank. Though he changed names to respect the interviewees’ privacy, most of the words he speaks are theirs.

The play contains several bouts of accelerating verbal combat in which Aaron leaps from character to character, performing a kind of linguistic parcours as he hurtles between arguments and points of view. The first of these is a discussion of “Where it all started.”

“You might say it all started in 1948 

Which you might call Al Nakbeh The Catastrophe 

You might say it all started in 1948 

Which you might call Milhamat HaAtzma’ut The War of Independence 

You might go back to World War I And blame the British 

Say they fucked up a thousand years of decent relations Between
Jews and Arabs 

You might say it was the 1929 massacre of Jews in Hebron 

You might say it was the 1994 massacre of Arabs in Hebron 

Or the 1982 massacre at Sabra and Shatila 

Or the 2003 massacre at the Tel Aviv bus station 

No, no, you might say, It was 1967 The Six Day War 

That was when the real problems started 

No, you might say it was the Yom Kippur War 1973, that was it 

Or really, you might say, It was 1947  

The Green Line United Nations Resolution 181 

The Arabs should have accepted 181 

And they would have had a better deal 

Than they’re ever going to get now 

But, you might say, 

The UN never should have adopted Resolution 181 

Because it was a European land grab 

Look, You might say It was the invasion of Lebanon 

It was the First Intifada 

It was the Second Intifada 

It was the Withdrawal from Gaza 

It was the war in Gaza 

No, no It’s the Settlements 

Definitely the Settlements 

No, no it’s the terror attacks 

The bus bombs, the cafes 

No, it’s the wall and the check points 

No, it’s the tunnels from Egypt and the missiles in S’derot 

No, no, it’s Iran It’s all about Iran 

No, it’s  No, it’s the politicians 

It’s all about the politicians 

Golda blew it 

Peres blew it 

Arafat blew it 

Barak blew it 

Sharon blew it 

Olmert blew it 

Clinton blew it 

Bush blew it 

Obama’s blowing it 

If they just hadn’t killed Rabin 

If we just hadn’t killed Rabin 

If the Ultra Orthodox just didn’t have so much political power 

If the Arab League would just do more 

If the media just wasn’t so biased 

If the Right Wing Christians would stop funding Settlements 

If AIPAC would just be more critical of Israeli policy 

If J Street would just be less critical of Israeli policy 

If we just had a real partner on the other side 

If Netanyahu would just… 

If Abbas would just… 

If the Palestinians would just lay down their arms 

If the Israelis would just get out of the West Bank 

If the world would just step up and get more involved 

If the world would just back off and stay of out it 

If, if, if, if, if, if If!”

Aaron’s ease and power in these challenging sections – there’s little in the play that isn’t a considerable challenge for an actor – must be at least partly credited to the sensitive, intelligent, unobtrusive direction by Michael John Garcés, the artistic director of the legendary Cornerstone Theatre Company.  Later in the play, there’s an equally jaw-dropping dialogue between Aaron (that is the character, Aaron, a progressive American Jewish “everyman”) and a radically pro-Palestinian American Jewish doctor. The dialogue becomes a furious debate between two American Jews that takes place in the home of a Palestinian who works for an Israeli civil right organization on a hill above a refugee camp near Hebron.

DANIEL: Hamas is the lesser of two evils!

AARON: Hamas is a gang of fascist zealots!

DANIEL: Aaron, Fatah is on the payroll of the United States!

AARON: Fatah is upholding the rule of law in the West Bank!

DANEIL: They can’t be trusted!

AARON: You can trust Hamas?

DANIEL: They were elected!

AARON: So was your senator, but you don’t trust him.

DANIEL: He’s complicit with an Apartheid government!

AARON: Can you stay on one topic for more than five seconds! You gotta go to Apartheid?

DANIEL: Sue me!”

Like Aaron says, it’s complicated.  For one thing there are no villains or “bad guys”  in Wrestling Jerusalem.  Aaron finds his way into the fragile human heart beating inside each character, underneath any armor of opinion and self-righteousness. With him, we bounce between equally valid, mutually contradictory points of view. He describes these points of view as:

“…the sparks I’ve pulled from behind the eyes of every single person I’ve met. They smash up against each other. And I’m bursting. I’m exploding into a million shards.”

In one example, we hear an Israeli Jew point out that:

“What  transformed [Zionism] from an idea into a reality was the
Holocaust… a kind of wholesale change of the condition of Jewish life in Europe And its not a justification. I’m not waving the shroud of Auschwitz in order to
defend breaking the arms of Palestinians, I’m just saying, that something
changed in Europe which transformed Zionism from a rather silly idea, into a

And we understand what he means. But then we hear from a Palestinian farmer:

It’s not balanced. There is the occupier and there is the occupied. And what can we do? My family’s orchard was our life for five generations. Five. Yes, we were there for three hundred years, for sure, three hundred, probably more. Many more. And now my orchard is destroyed. They said for security. For this Wall.

“Let me tell you something, Aaron. Please do not be upset. The Holocaust was not my fault. You understand what I say? I am sorry for the Jewish. The Holocaust was…a terrible tragedy. But my grandfather was not Hitler. He was a farmer here, in Palestine. Three thousand kilometers away. And when the Jewish came he would not sell land to them.”

And again we listen and understand.

We have to pay attention to the uncomfortable realpolitik of an American Jewish expat in Israel:

“I got news for you: statehood ain’t pretty. It’s called realpolitik, kid. Look over your notes from Poli Sci 101. I’m not just being a rightwing hardass, Aaron. I’m not. I’m a Democrat, for god’s sake. I’m being realistic. Take Iran: Keep them from getting the bomb. Whatever it takes. And I mean whatever it takes. What are we waiting for? Some people think Jews have some higher moral obligation. Why? Why?! It’s us or them. That’s how it is. Us or them.”

Or to this Palestinian woman who works for the UN:

“Aaron. There is a man I always see at the Beit Jala checkpoint. He’s an old man. Every day he rides the bus, and everyday the soldiers make him get off the bus and he refuses! And he yells at them, tells them they should treat him better. Yells at them they should respect him. He does the same thing every day. And some days they beat him and some days they let him go and some days they just make him wait for hours. And every day he tries to teach them. Someone should make a movie about this man. You see how we live. No freedom to move about. It can take me hours to get to work in East Jerusalem. East Jerusalem! It’s ten minutes from Ramallah. And I have the permissions. I have the papers. If you don’t, forget it. You’re not going anywhere.”

In the achingly beautiful last part of the play, on a hill above the Dead Sea, Aaron meets an Israeli survivor of a piguah, a suicide bomb attack. Amir, as Aaron calls him, is suffering from PTSD, self-medicating with marijuana, listening to Bob Dylan and refusing to blame anyone for the tragedy.  He reminds Aaron that in the Torah, the Jewish bible, there are exactly three commandments to love. We are commanded to love God, to love our neighbor and, to love the stranger.

At the end of the journey Aaron takes all the pain and confusion he’s absorbed to the only place that might be able to contain it: the Kotel, the Western Wall, the sole remaining, millennia-old fragment of the Temple. I won’t try to describe what happens there. Certain moments in theatre are untranslatable to other media. This is one of them.  There are others like it in Wrestling Jerusalem. Though the play is brimming with talk, we are always brought home to the body and voice that supports it all. Aaron sings, whispers, dances, falls and even appears to fly without ever leaving the ground.

Wrestling Jerusalem  offers no solutions to the intractable conflicts it explores. But it fiercely insists on continuing to imagine that peace is possible, that it’s “not a fantasy.”   By embodying all these human beings so deeply, by fulfilling the commandment to love these “strangers,” Aaron allows us to fully experience that possibility. If the play is still running by the time you read this, I urge you to go. I don’t often find works of art that can generate an honest and well-earned sense of hope.  The last one was the 2009 novel by Colum McCann, Let the Great World SpinWrestling Jerusalem is definitely another.

Wrestling Jerusalem.  Opens 7:30 p.m. Saturday, March 15, 2 p.m. Sunday, March 16. Through April 6. $20-$30. Intersection for the Arts, 925 Mission St., S.F www.theintersection.org


For information about Wrestling Jerusalem on tour, visit wrestlingjerusalem.com