In the first scene of “Angels in America,” Tony Kushner’s 1993 Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning magnum opus, a rabbi appears on stage to eulogize an old Jewish woman he has never met. Standing on a bare stage with the coffin, he tells the assembled mourners that although the era of “Great Voyages” has passed, American Jews will still never quite be at home in America.
This by now almost iconic opening speech is remarkable for a number of reasons. One is that the rabbi is speaking directly to the audience as if they were Jews of Eastern European descent, inevitably evoking the size and influence of Broadway’s Jewish theatergoers. Another is the assertion that Jews are somehow always journeying, despite their best attempts to fully assimilate as Americans. Is this Kushner’s view? Is he mocking it? What, exactly, is an American Jew of the 20th century?
No one cultural figure can represent a civilization as diverse as 20th century American Jewry, but Kushner’s work — its mining of traditional Jewish ideas, prophetic intensity, attention to language, search for individual meaning within a community, concern for politics and its effect on the less fortunate — singularly recapitulates the issues of American Jewish life.
Kushner, 42, grew up in Lake Charles, La., in a Reform Jewish community of 100 families that he says offered him little satisfying Jewish content. What it did offer him was a close experience with African Americans, especially in school, which was half black, half white. These experiences animate his upcoming play, “Caroline, or Change,” about a Jewish and a black family in Louisiana in the early 1960s, which received a staged reading in May at Manhattan’s Joseph Papp Public Theater.
Kushner has often noted how, as a gay man, traditional Jewish life has profoundly alienated him. Yet he has explained that, as he gets older, and the more time he spends in the endlessly diverse Jewish community of New York, the more interested he becomes in ritual, prayer, and the mechanics of Jewish history.
“I can’t pray, although I am interested in it,” said Kushner a few years ago at a public lecture at Manhattan’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. He added that he was a confirmed agnostic, meaning “a willingness to be tormented.” The audience laughed at what seemed to be such a typically Jewish formulation for being theologically indecisive, but Kushner does seem tormented — or haunted, as he explained later in his talk — by the question of what God is, and how the Jews’ dependence on God has helped them survive all these years.
Although Kushner declined to be interviewed for this article, citing the need to work on upcoming projects without interruption, he has spoken to The Jewish Week a number of times about the Jewish influences in his work, and he has been a familiar presence at venues across the city talking about Jewish, cultural and political issues.
Kushner is a renaissance man of the arts, able to discuss poetry, drama, culture and history with ease and authority. He read from a new work, “Homeboy/Kabul,” at the 92nd Street Y’s Unterberg Poetry Center’s 60th anniversary celebration in May. Last year he wrote a two-part series in The Nation when playwright Dario Fo won the Nobel Prize for Literature, and participated in a roundtable discussion at the Y about the 19th century German writer Heinrich Von Kleist. Apart from his best-known plays, “Angels in America” and “Slavs!,” he was written adaptations of Corneille’s “The Illusion,” Brecht’s “The Good Person of Setzuan” and Goethe’s “Stella.”
Although “Angels in America,” is comprised of two interrelated plays — “Millennium Approaches” and “Perestroika” — and only premiered on Broadway six years ago, the work is already widely considered the most important American play in a generation, and was voted one of the top 10 American plays of all time in a recent survey of theater critics. Frank Rich of The New York Times called it “a vast, miraculous play.” The New Yorker’s John Lahr exclaimed that “Not since Tennessee Williams has a playwright announced his poetic vision with such authority on the Broadway stage.” For mainstream America, “Angels in America” was the creative work that announced the place of gay culture in the United States, as well as providing an unusually serious look at Jewish politics and history at the end of the 20th century.
Although Jewish issues drive much of Kushner’s work, they are only part of the picture. He is also a committed socialist and gay activist, deeply engaged in political ideas, who attempts in his work to connect Jewish history with the ongoing struggle for justice in this country.
In that regard, Kushner is also part of a tradition of politically active Jewish writers and artists, most prominently Clifford Odets and Arthur Miller. In plays such as “Angels in America” and “Slavs!” — a meditation on the dissolution of the Soviet Union — Kushner proves himself up to the task of using art as a way to understand the machinery of society.
The difference with Kushner, and one reason he is so relevant to his generation, is that he is fully “out” as a Jewish playwright. One can compare the wispy Jewish content near the end of “Death of a Salesman” — when Willie Loman’s wife says, in a Jewish kind of idiom, “attention must be paid to such a man” — to Kushner’s deathbed scene for Roy Cohn in “Angels in America,” when the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg descends from heaven, visits the man that helped execute her and, in an immensely moving moment of forgiveness and compassion, sings him a lullaby in Yiddish.
At moments like this, Kushner is able to extend the tradition of socially conscious theater to include a level of spiritual yearning that connects the serious American Jewish theater tradition of the past with what is likely to be its future. As he explains in a 1993 article in The New York Times, Kushner stumbled across an introduction by literary critic Harold Bloom in the scholarly book “Musical Variations on Jewish Thought,” alerting him to the meaning of the Hebrew word “blessing” — more life. That Jewish faith in the future, he said, “became key to the heart of ‘Perestroika.’ ”
Whereas “Angels in America” cemented Kushner’s reputation as an heir, at least thematically, to political Jewish playwrights, “A Dybbuk,” Kushner’s recent adaptation of S. Ansky’s classic tale of demonic possession, puts him dead center in the middle of a unique cultural revival for many twenty-, thirty- and forty-something Jews.
For Kushner, as for many young Jews, the immersion in a kind of reanimated radical secular Jewish life — symbolized by the centrality of Yiddish and klezmer music in the “downtown” Jewish cultural scene — is a strong tie to the flow of Jewish history.
“I’ve always felt a certain parallelism between Ansky and me and my generation,” he explained in a 1995 interview with The Jewish Week. “Born secular, finding our way back to Judaism, trying to synthesize a progressive political worldview with the compelling aspects of Jewish religious and cultural life.”
In “The Dybbuk,” Kushner found a deeply Jewish work that resonated with him on multiple levels — the chasm between how the world is and how it should be, the unrequited love between two men, the inexorable march of history — and seemed to confirm for him the connections between traditional Jewish longings and a political worldview predicated on the search for justice.
“Can you find a Jewish work that doesn’t, in some way, obsess about the end of suffering, the end of history, the coming of the kingdom of God?” he asked during his presentation at the Hebrew Union College.
Kushner believes with great fervor in the redemptive power of art and, whether on Nightline or in The Nation, has promoted language as a tool to liberate the mind. The redemptive possibility of words finds concrete Jewish expression in his plays. In one scene in “Angels in America,” for instance, a patient dying of AIDS sees Hebrew letters burst into flame in front of his eyes. And in Kushner’s reworking of “The Dybbuk,” the magic incantations that form the heart of the exorcism compel us to believe in the holy power of language.
But it’s not just language that is the heart of the Jewish and political enterprises that animate Kushner’s work. It is also moral alertness.
“As Judaism teaches, you have to be worried about everything evil, all at once, all the time,” he writes. “That’s what God expects of you.”
Daniel Schifrin is director of communications at the National Foundation of Jewish Culture.