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September 2, 2015 / 18 Elul, 5775
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Jewish Space: Inside The Ark; And The Diary Of Anne Frank

The Ark

Directed by Michael McLean

37 ARTS Theater

450 W 37th Street, New York



The Diary of Anne Frank

Directed by Eliana Meira Novick

November 2 12, 2005

The Cabaret Theater

Nichol Ave at Suydam St. at Rutgers University


The Temple gleams upon the horizon, a golden beacon signifying the finish line to the Jews’ trek to serve G-d on the shalosh regalim. After all, each and every person who lived in Israel and could make the trip was obliged to do so. And for many, the walk was no leisurely stroll in the park. They were weighed down by young children and their needs, animals to be sacrificed and gifts for family and friends they only saw thrice yearly.

The Talmud would later recount that those who never saw the celebration of the simchat beit hashoeva – the celebration of the pouring of the water on Sukkot – never experienced true pleasure in all their days. We might surmise that those who never walked (aliyah l’aregel) to Jerusalem for the three holidays of Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot never saw a traffic jam in their days. How could it be then, the Midrash asks, that the entirety of the local Jewish community could fit in the temple courtyard? What could ensure that the sojourners would find a place to stand, let alone to bow to G-d?

The Midrash reassures an expansive space miraculously accommodated the worshippers. This notion of malleable space that inflates when necessary and retracts to original size under normal circumstances proves surprising. Why was the Temple not built in larger dimensions, especially as one of its governing functions was to play host to such a large number of worshippers on a regular basis? Clearly, we can hardly know for sure what G-d intended, but we can begin to inquire towards an ideology of Jewish space.

An attempt to delineate that space yields several interesting possibilities. We have mitzvot that surround us on all sides and thus effectively create a space into which we enter: sukkah, mikvah and tallit. Judaism also holds ritual holy spaces very dear and often ascribes value to them even when they have outgrown their utilitarian purpose. Synagogues and study halls serve as primary sites for service, and thus occupy very Jewish spaces. Many halakhists insist that these spaces remain holy and are subject to specific restrictions, even if the congregation or yeshiva no longer occupies them.

But how does this unfold across the terrain of Jewish art, I wondered, as I sat watching my friend Eliana Meira Novick’s production of “The Diary of Anne Frank” at the Cabaret Theater at Rutgers University? Eliana’s direction of the play suffered no extraneous detail, from

the set design that achieved maximal information with minimal props to the sound set that had the good sense to loudly introduce the Nazis breaking into the attic hideout, without actually bringing any such actors on stage.

But the move that I thought proved most vital to the play was the claustrophobic space. The cast rehearsed in a space that was even tighter than the final set, Eliana confirmed. And perhaps it was those rehearsals that helped convince me, as a viewer, of the staleness of the attic space – you could all but smell it – that was prison to the Frank family. They could neither use running water nor make any noise during operating hours at the factory below. Especially to the vibrant tomboy in Anne, the restrictive space proved literally paralyzing.

Anne found ways to occupy herself, to be sure, and managed to “open up” the space in a fascinating way. A rabbi at the Israeli yeshiva I attended once explained to me that the Talmudic notion that the freest people are those who enslave themselves to the Divine. He used a metaphor of a basketball game to explain that the rules – no double dribbling, fouling and walking out of bounds – of the game undoubtedly frustrate the freshman ball player. But to a pro who has navigated the game for a sizeable amount of time, the rules are liberating.

After all, the player who understands the rules takes solace and finds strength in the fact that though he cannot violate the rules, he knows what to expect, since others must also follow suit. The game can happily occur because of the rules, without which chaos would ensue. Thus in a surprising move, the rules, heretofore held to be restrictive, turn expansive. The rabbi intended this as a life lesson rather than an art lesson, to be sure, but the principle accurately explains how space works dramatically in many ways.

Just as Anne somehow managed to convert the attic space successfully, Noah and his family struggle with the same dilemma in “The Ark” at the 37 ARTS Theater. “The Ark” is similar to the folktale “It Could Always Be Worse.” The folktale tells of a father who goes to the rabbi to complain about his tiny home. The rabbi enigmatically commands him to take into his home his animals, one at a time, in response to each subsequent complaint of insufficient space. Finally the rabbi tells the man to remove all the animals, and lo and behold, the man feels as if his house has expanded several thousand-fold.

The characters in “The Ark” literally lived with a ship full of animals, and director Michael McLean has cast a clever spin on the Genesis story by investigating how Noah and his family might have dealt with a zoo for a home.

McLean suggests it was not so easy, as his tale tries to attend to the generation divide and the rivalry between Ham and his father Noah. McLean locates that divide in a modern setting of a conservative father who loves miracles and nature, clashing with a more progressive son, who fights his father tooth and nail for his individuality.

But the fight is all the more engaging because McLean invents a claustrophobic and dangerous space for the action. It recalls a passage from Walter Van Tilburg Clark’s “The Ox-Bow Incident,” a classic novel that explores the deterioration of a society as it takes the law into its own hands and substitutes lynching mobs for true justice.

In one passage, one of Clark’s characters observes that thinking is best done outside. “There’s a kind of insanity that comes from being between walls and under a roof,” he remarks. “You’re too cooped up and don’t get a chance to test ideas against the real size of things.

That’s true about day and night, too. Night’s like a room; it makes the little things in your head too important. A man isn’t clear-headed at night.”

This insanity that comes from being indoors dominates the set of “The Ark.” Although the Midrash recounts tales of lions biting Noah when he fails to feed them in a timely fashion, readers often forget that Noah and company were in a self-contained boat for a long time, plagued by boredom, awful stenches and claustrophobia. And yet in the end, Noah’s family is able to find spirituality and common ground in the ark. Like Jonah who sits in the whale’s belly and finds himself through prayer and repentance, both Noah and his family on the one hand, and Anne Frank on the other, find a way to transcend the spaces they occupy.

That notion of transcendent yet particular space is a Jewish one. We are instructed to build a sukkah, and we must occupy it. The sukkah is a physical object, and yet it is much larger than the space it occupies. By transcending the space, the space becomes inclusive and expansive, rather than being a physical boundary, and that manner of using the physical without allowing it to tie one down, represents one of the most important commandments of the Torah. And, incidentally, one of the highest goals of Jewish Art.

Menachem Wecker welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com. He is a painter and writer residing in Washington, DC.

Eliana Meira Novick’s next project will be directing a musical with the Hillel Theater Company at Rutgers. 

About the Author: Menachem Wecker, who blogs on faith and art for the Houston Chronicle at http://blogs.chron.com/iconia, welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com.

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