I came to Israel looking for culture.
Living for more than a decade in Central Pennsylvania, where Jewish culture is not, as in my native New York, part of the air that one breathes, I couldn’t help but jump at the chance to take a weeklong trip to Israel last month with other Jewish journalists from around the country. It was my first trip to Israel in almost 25 years; the last and only other time I had been there had been a short visit while I was in college.
Because the trip was sponsored by the Ministry of Tourism and El Al, as a way of promoting positive press coverage of Israel, the agenda was pretty much set. But while I didn’t have a chance to go to an actual play, as I would have liked, I watched from the balcony of the Inbal Hotel in Jerusalem as a family from Spain had a highly theatrical Jewish wedding in the courtyard below. While I couldn’t attend a concert, I heard a spectacular guest cantor leading the Shabbat Shirah service in the Great Synagogue.
Because I’m teaching a course this semester on Jews and fashion, I looked in particular for examples of clothing in Jewish culture. At the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, I found an exhibit of Jewish headgear, as well as a fascinating display on shpanyer, the intricate weaving of metal threads into the neckpiece of the Ashkenazic prayer shawl. Also at the Israel Museum, I watched a video called “Chic Point,” Sharif Waked’s tongue-in-cheek fashion show of outfits to be worn at Israeli checkpoints.
At Yad Vashem, I learned about Władysław Szlengel, the celebrated poet in the Warsaw Ghetto who wrote a play about the Jews being forced to turn over their furs to the Nazis. A conversation over Shabbat/Tu b’Shevat lunch with Andi Arnovitz, whose “unwearable” paper dresses, coats and vests illuminate feminist issues in Jewish religion, turned me on to the work of this Jerusalem-based artist, whose work has been exhibited at the Brooklyn Museum. And a dinner with one of our hosts, El Al’s president, Elyezer Shkedy, led to a discussion of how the El Al flight attendants’ uniforms have changed over the last several decades.
It’s impossible for a Jew not to be moved by a place in which the biblical language has been restored, in which the rhythm of the Jewish calendar guides people’s lives, in which Judaism is a whole symphony rather than a single piano key trying hard to be heard in a culture in which non-Jews predominate. But, perhaps because I am not fluent in Hebrew, Israel still felt like a foreign country.
Perhaps I came with the wrong expectation, that Israel would somehow conform itself to me rather than the other way around. But talking to Varda Fish, the artistic director of the Cameri Theater in Tel Aviv, helped to set me straight. I had asked her why the Cameri doesn’t do performances in English for the benefit of the hundreds of thousands of Jews (and quite a few Palestinians) who live in Israel, or who visit Israel, for whom English is their native language. After all, many of the plays that the theater produces were originally written in English, whether by William Shakespeare or Arthur Miller.
Fish, a middle-aged woman with red hair who has spent much of her career teaching at Cornell and other universities in the States, looked at me quizzically, telling me that having supertitles in English (as well as Russian and French) at select performances is more than sufficient. Fish dismissed my suggestion that an English-speaking theater company be established, perhaps along the lines of the Yiddish theater in New York. And she found it highly amusing that I didn’t understand why Broadway musicals aren’t more popular in Israel, other than revivals of “Fiddler on the Roof.”
Back in Jerusalem at the Israel Museum, I found myself drawn to an exhibit called “By the Book,” about the depiction of literature and reading in European art, with a majority of Jewish-themed paintings. Two paintings of Jewish boys struck me in particular. One was a mid-19th-century German painting by Moritz Oppenheim of a boy reading to his grandfather over Shabbat lunch, which brought back memories of my family’s Haggadah, with a frontispiece of Oppenheim’s “Seder Eve” painting. The second was an 1870 depiction by Jacques Emile Edouard Brandon of a boy chanting his bar mitzvah portion in synagogue.
In both cases, the message was clear: words, whether holy or profane — and in a variety of languages — have sustained Jewish life. And that is an idea that even a dyed-in-the-wool, English-speaking New Yorker like me can appreciate.
Ted Merwin, who writes about theater for the paper, teaches at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa.