It's Not Easy Being a Jewish Artist in a Muslim Land

Theater Professionals Face Challenges in Arab Countries

An American in Iraq: Jessica Litwak is a playwright, director, and drama therapist who has worked over the world. Her experiences in Muslim countries have been more than a tad eye-opening.
Courtesy of Jessica Litwak
An American in Iraq: Jessica Litwak is a playwright, director, and drama therapist who has worked over the world. Her experiences in Muslim countries have been more than a tad eye-opening.

By Simi Horwitz

Published November 21, 2013, issue of November 22, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

Venturing into global conflict zones, some of which are Muslim, can be challenging to Jewish theater artists. Consider this: Two artists were willing to speak with the Forward about their experiences, while eight others who had traveled — or were about to travel —into Muslim hotspots did not want to participate in this story or to be identified.

The subject clearly hits a nerve and triggers painful questions: If you are a contemporary Jew, what is your place in the world today? What role, if any, does the Holocaust and Israel play in your identity? How do you reconcile reservations about Israel’s relationship to the Palestinians and your connection to your own grandparents who fled the pogroms?

Jessica Litwak and Jenny Romaine are two theater artists who have been committed to political/activist theater for decades. Litwak, a playwright, director, and drama therapist, and Romaine, whose interests are pageantry, processionals, puppetry and street theater, have performed all over the world. Their understanding of themselves as Americans, feminists, and, most pointedly, Jews in the Muslim world has been more than a tad eye-opening.

Litwak, who is thoughtful and chooses her words carefully, says she did not anticipate the level of anti-Semitism she encountered in Iraq, though she was prepared for anti-American sentiment. Indeed, she arrived in 2012 feeling guilty about America’s war in Iraq, and when a fellow theater artist made disparaging remarks about President Obama, she burst into tears and apologized

“I was so tired of being hated, and I cried, ‘I’m so sorry for what my country did to yours,’” Litwak recalled. “In broken English, an Iraqi woman comforted me and said: ‘But Jessica, we love you. You’re not a bum.’”

To this day, Litwak wonders if her own guilt might have made her a more vulnerable, obvious target for abuse. She was assigned a 24/7 bodyguard because she was a Jew, and her translator told her not to let anyone know she was Jewish. Later, when she was in Beirut, an armed security guard confiscated her camera when she took a photograph of a synagogue.

“You see the holes in the buildings because of Israeli bombing, and you can understand why there’s anti-Semitism in Beirut, though it’s certainly less marked than elsewhere,” Litwak said. “I felt freer there than anywhere else in the Mideast.”

Litwak came of age in the 1960s and ’70s, in San Francisco. Her mother worked on behalf of striking farm workers, and racial equality was a major topic of conversation at home.

Her immigrant, Russian-born, Yiddish-speaking grandparents were socialists-cum-communists; her paternal grandfather became the president of the Detroit Teamsters Local union. The family always celebrated the Passover Seder but made no reference to “God.” Litwak knew she was a Jew, but she didn’t feel that her ethnicity defined her until years later, when she encountered the writings of Emma Goldman, her “spiritual mother.” Litwak wound up naming one of her daughters Emma.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Happy birthday to the Boy Who Lived! July 31 marks the day that Harry Potter — and his creator, J.K. Rowling — first entered the world. Harry is a loyal Gryffindorian, a matchless wizard, a native Parseltongue speaker, and…a Jew?
  • "Orwell would side with Israel for building a flourishing democracy, rather than Hamas, which imposed a floundering dictatorship. He would applaud the IDF, which warns civilians before bombing them in a justified war, not Hamas terrorists who cower behind their own civilians, target neighboring civilians, and planned to swarm civilian settlements on the Jewish New Year." Read Gil Troy's response to Daniel May's opinion piece:
  • "My dear Penelope, when you accuse Israel of committing 'genocide,' do you actually know what you are talking about?"
  • What's for #Shabbat dinner? Try Molly Yeh's coconut quinoa with dates and nuts. Recipe here:
  • Can animals suffer from PTSD?
  • Is anti-Zionism the new anti-Semitism?
  • "I thought I was the only Jew on a Harley Davidson, but I was wrong." — Gil Paul, member of the Hillel's Angels. http://jd.fo/g4cjH
  • “This is a dangerous region, even for people who don’t live there and say, merely express the mildest of concern about the humanitarian tragedy of civilians who have nothing to do with the warring factions, only to catch a rash of *** (bleeped) from everyone who went to your bar mitzvah! Statute of limitations! Look, a $50 savings bond does not buy you a lifetime of criticism.”
  • That sound you hear? That's your childhood going up in smoke.
  • "My husband has been offered a terrific new job in a decent-sized Midwestern city. This is mostly great, except for the fact that we will have to leave our beloved NYC, where one can feel Jewish without trying very hard. He is half-Jewish and was raised with a fair amount of Judaism and respect for our tradition though ultimately he doesn’t feel Jewish in that Larry David sort of way like I do. So, he thinks I am nuts for hesitating to move to this new essentially Jew-less city. Oh, did I mention I am pregnant? Seesaw, this concern of mine is real, right? There is something to being surrounded by Jews, no? What should we do?"
  • "Orwell described the cliches of politics as 'packets of aspirin ready at the elbow.' Israel's 'right to defense' is a harder narcotic."
  • From Gene Simmons to Pink — Meet the Jews who rock:
  • The images, which have since been deleted, were captioned: “Israel is the last frontier of the free world."
  • As J Street backs Israel's operation in Gaza, does it risk losing grassroots support?
  • What Thomas Aquinas might say about #Hamas' tunnels:
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.