[Originally Published on Tikkun, March 13. 2014]
The 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 right‐wing hard‐ass, 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 Spin. Wrestling 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