The great Israeli poet, Haim Nachman Bialik wrote that”reading the Bible in translation is like kissing your new bride through a veil.” It’s not exactly the stuff of dreams. In order to achieve understanding, one needs to work to build intimacy.
Aaron Davidman makes an excellent effort in his one-man show “Wrestling Jerusalem,” truly immersing himself in seventeen different characters from all ends of the political spectrum. The prose is excellent, the dialogue witty and sharp, and the minimalist staging creative. But no matter how hard he tries, he still remains a privileged Westerner, an outsider looking in and commenting on a conflict that cannot be understood but only experienced.
If this is a first introduction to the Middle Eastern conflict, it’s an excellent journey into the inner workings of the various sides. One “meets” characters from right to left on both sides of the spectrum.
The Palestinian characters came across extremely flat, we meet a peace activist, some various activists who all fade together and a West Bank farmer whose views tinge dangerously close to calls for ethnic cleansing. To his credit, Davidson includes that last person and it is an extremely chilling moment, but it’s lost among the clutter of sixteen other characters.
We run the gamut of far more Israelis in the play, all of them broad tropes. We have the martial and pensive IDF combat soldier and his opposite, the traumatized Israeli pothead. We are given the point of view of a right-wing Jewish American and from a self-hating American Jewish ‘Anti-Zionist,” and of course, we hear from to a mystical settler and a self-righteous peace activist. Well, we hear from them but it’s all processed for us by the very American Davidman, who is the gatekeeper of the information. He decides how to tell their stories.
The combat soldier is one of the most challenging characters, and when he defends his actions by saying he believes himself a moral character, I heard snickers in the audience. While I don’t believe that was Davidson’s intention, it presented the central problem of the play. It is easy to laugh at what is not real, and Davidson could not make the characters real.
Oh, he tried very hard. The Israelis are all given accents thicker than tahini, but that just gives the play an almost minstrel show feel. Although it’s necessary to differentiate between characters, it rang hollow to me. Having known the real people of Israel, having family and friends who are soldiers and peace activists and settlers, I can’t connect to an artificial veneer of caricatures.
Only one character felt real. An American activist weeps over the Israel he sees, and says “This is not my Judaism.” He rhapsodizes over an intellectual Judaism, a Judaism of social justice and Tikkun Olam, a Judaism that is soft and kind and universal. To me, that felt like the voice of the playwright himself who nauseatingly compares the Separation Wall to Auschwitz, feeling “six million ghosts” haunting every step.
In the end, Davidson seems to be bewildered by Israel’s martial nature and seems to just want to know why we can’t all get along. I left the play convinced that as long as we in the Diaspora wish to live our lives in armchair discussions in an intellectual salon ghetto, instead of connecting with Israelis and actually listening with empathy and camaraderie, we will continue to be bewildered.