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.