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Their Hands Have Lost Their Cunning, But Their Tongues Do Not Cleave To The Roofs Of Their Mouths

Last night I took in the Roundabout Theater’s production of If I Forget [1], the new play by Steven Levenson directed by Daniel Sullivan. It’s a play about a Jewish family in suburban D.C. dealing with the passing of the matriarch, the declining years of the patriarch, and their legacy — both narrowly, in the form of a store that was once the family retail business and which is now rented out to a Guatemalan family; and more broadly, in the form of Jewish heritage. The son, Michael (Jeremy Shamos), is a professor of Judaic studies who is also an atheist and a Norm Finkelstein-style vituperative critic of the normative American Jewish community. The youngest, Sharon (Maria Dizzia), is devoted to her aging father, to Jewish religion and the Jewish people, and as yet unmatched, her life a series of comic romantic fiascos. And the older daughter, Holly (Kate Walsh) is the “normal” one, an anxious and materialistic princess with few skills and fewer thoughts in her head. The group lacked only a wise son to complete the quartet from the Haggadah and make it a perfect choice for Passover.

Levenson has a fine ear for the way these people talk, and while each of the children is clearly intended to represent a type, and a “side” in a larger argument, they are first and foremost members of a believable and authentic family. I’ve met all of these people — I’ve seen all of them at kiddush many Saturday mornings — and their apparent contradictions (the radical who despises Jewish paranoia about persecution is also one terrified that his daughter, on a trip to Israel, will be killed by a terrorist; the conservative who cleaves to tradition is also the one having an affair with a married man) are actually signs of their solidity, evidence that all of these ideas that seem so important to them are merely intellectual responses to a deeper emotional truth that may be very much at variance with those ideas.

And for the first half of the play, the family dynamics firmly undergirded the surface ideological battle. Michael has a book coming out that calls for Jews to “forget” the Holocaust, by which he means to stop making of that calamity a kind of dark idol that centers their consciousness; his father, Lou (Larry Bryggman) has read the manuscript but has avoided talking to his son about how much it pained him (Sharon has no such scruples). The transparency of their struggle — the son’s need to assert his independence from his father playing out as an insistent demand that the entire Jewish people endorse his rebellion; the younger, less-accomplished child’s need to supplant the favored son’s place and win the father’s favor — is precisely what grounds it.

But in the second half, the mechanics of plot begin to creak. Levenson piles on reason after reason for every member of the family to be invested in to disposition of that store, reasons that are entirely self-interested and that do not pertain to its metaphoric status as a legacy. And in the end, they have nothing to pass on to their own children.

I must admit, I found that dissatisfying in its neatness, but in a sense it’s no less neat than The Cherry Orchard, which looms large behind any play about a family struggling with a symbolic piece of real estate. The deeper dissatisfaction was, I think, intended by the author. Lou at the end of act I sits his son down to talk to him about his book, but mostly he recounts to him his own memories of the liberation of Dachau. His son, he avers, cannot understand what it was like, cannot imagine — you had to be there. And when he recalls his fierce gladness that he and his fellow G.I.s gave the few surviving inmates an opportunity for revenge on the concentration camp guards, he is saying that feeling as well is one that Michael cannot understand because he wasn’t there.

Of course, Lou is right. But if Lou is right, then what does remembrance mean for a generation that wasn’t there? If Sharon’s second-hand nostalgia is wrong, and Michael’s furious rejection is wrong, and Holly’s blithe indifference is wrong, then what is right? The play seems to be saying that we can’t simply forget a trauma of the Holocaust’s magnitude, but neither can we actually remember it. The only legacy is the cutting family argument, one that can only end by liquidating the legacy itself.

One other thought in that regard. I saw the play accompanied by an actress friend who is half Palestinian, and I could see her flinch at the opening lines of the play — which are all about the collapse of Oslo peace process (the play is set in the year 2000). I looked around at the mostly older, mostly Jewish crowd, then leaned over to my friend, and whispered, “this play knows its audience — and you aren’t in it.” And she smiled. We talked afterwards about her reaction, and what she said is that it doesn’t so much bother her that the play wasn’t aimed at her or didn’t include her perspective, because why would it? She isn’t in that house, that room, that family. If she were included, it would be false and intrusive. But what bothered her was a feeling that an equivalent play about a Palestinian family could not be successfully mounted in New York.

And I politely but firmly disputed that. The equivalent play would be about a Palestinian family in suburban Detroit, with three kids, one of whom has married up, one of whom is a firebrand, and one of whom has turned politically apostate, lambasting his siblings and his father for their casual antisemitism and for their willful blindness to the civilizational psychotic break afflicting the Arab world. Could such a play be mounted? I don’t see why it couldn’t. Would it be understood rightly by the audience? That’s a tougher question. There’s a real privilege in being able to air one’s dirty laundry in public — and it’s a measure of communal security for one to be able to do so easily. I’m not sure the Arab American community is at the point of feeling that sort of security, that kind of privilege. I hope one of their playwrights decides to find out.

If I Forget [1] runs through April 30th at the Laura Pels Theater.

4 Comments (Open | Close)

4 Comments To "Their Hands Have Lost Their Cunning, But Their Tongues Do Not Cleave To The Roofs Of Their Mouths"

#1 Comment By Noah172 On April 14, 2017 @ 6:12 pm

Michael has a book coming out that calls for Jews to “forget” the Holocaust, by which he means to stop making of that calamity a kind of dark idol that centers their consciousness

Not an original point, but an important one. Sir Gerald Kauffman, a hard left Jewish critic of Zionism and Labour MP in the British Commons, said during the 2008-9 Gaza War that Israel was cynically manipulating gentile guilt over the Holocaust to gain support for Israeli policies, irrespective of their merits. Jews in America and Israel (and too many gentiles) routinely invoke the Holocaust in long-past-1945 political debates about US foreign relations (in the Middle East in particular, naturally, but also about NATO, or intervention in the former Yugoslavia, among others), immigration (wanting less makes you a Nazi), trade (protectionism caused the Depression which brought you know who to power, so you MUST stand with free trade now), and any number of other issues. It is cynical, as well as insulting, infuriating, and just plain tiresome.

Apart from Jewish participation in public debates, making the Holocaust a dark idol is spiritually enervating. A culture, no less than a political movement, sooner or later needs to be for something and not just against other things. It seems to me that less-observant Jews are more susceptible to this idolatry than the Orthodox, as the former have jettisoned the beliefs and practices which marked Jewish identity for centuries (millenia, even) before the Holocaust, so they have to fill that identitarian void. If one does not adhere to religious Judaism, why not marry a shiksa, or convert to Christianity, or in some other way make oneself a shande to one’s ancestors? Unless, that is, one fills the void (or has it filled by the larger Jewish community) with Holocaust remembrance, along with political inclinations (leftist, liberal, or neocon) which are basically expressions of tribal opposition to enemies presumed to be latter-day Nazis (the Religious Right above all, along with “isolationists,” “nativists/xenophobes,” and other villains).

But how long can such an unnatural, unsatisfying construction of identity last, as the Holocaust recedes into history, Jews are a small and (for the non-Orthodox) dwindling minority in the US, melting away from intermarriage, low fertility, and the lack (sorry, ADL and SPLC) of anything worthy of the name persecution to serve as a unifying force?

#2 Comment By Native New Yorker On April 14, 2017 @ 6:36 pm

Mr Millman – You and your actress friend need to go see “The Profane” which just opened at Playwrights Horizons. While it is not exactly the Arab inverse you described it is close:

“Safe in the liberal fortress of Manhattan, Raif Almedin is a first-generation immigrant who prides himself on his modern, enlightened views. But when his daughter falls for the son of a conservative Muslim family in White Plains, he discovers the threshold of his tolerance.”

I saw “If I Forget” and like it very much, “The Profane” is frankly much less successful, on many levels, but it did get written and mounted.

#3 Comment By Kurt Gayle On April 16, 2017 @ 1:07 pm

As the only non-Jew in my immediate family and as an interested witness to five decades of conversations among my wife’s not-very-observant extended family, I think that Noah172 calls this right:

“…Making the Holocaust a dark idol is spiritually enervating…It seems to me that less-observant Jews are more susceptible to this idolatry than the Orthodox, as the former have jettisoned the beliefs and practices which marked Jewish identity for centuries (millennia, even) before the Holocaust, so they have to fill that identitarian void. If one does not adhere to religious Judaism, why not marry a shiksa, or convert to Christianity, or in some other way make oneself a shande to one’s ancestors…But how long can such an unnatural, unsatisfying construction of identity last, as the Holocaust recedes into history, Jews are a small and (for the non-Orthodox) dwindling minority in the US, melting away from intermarriage, low fertility, and the lack (sorry, ADL and SPLC) of anything worthy of the name persecution to serve as a unifying force?”

Indeed, “such an unnatural, unsatisfying construction of identity” cannot “fill the identitarian void” and cannot last. Looking ahead several generations, it seems likely to me that the only Jews will be religious, observant Jews. Back on March 12, 2015 Noah Millman wrote about some of these observant Jews whose identity and steadfast faith will allow them to survive:

“Consider Kiryas Joel…in Orange County, New York…an enclave of the Satmar Hasidic sect. Satmar are the most insular of Hasidic sects, going to enormous lengths to keep themselves uncontaminated by the larger culture. But they participate in commerce – and they most certainly participate in politics…This is a community that rigidly separates the sexes and imposes a draconian standard of personal modesty – and that strives mightily to impose that norm as a public matter in their community. Don’t even talk about homosexuality…Satmar…stands opposed to basically everything the rest of the American Jewish community stands for as well – it’s resolutely anti-Zionist, extremely socially conservative, refuses to cooperate with non-Hasidic groups…”

A related point: Here Professor Ruth Wisse talks briefly about Sholem Aleichem’s “The Tenth Man”:

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#4 Comment By Barry On April 22, 2017 @ 3:32 pm

“There’s a real privilege in being able to air one’s dirty laundry in public — and it’s a measure of communal security for one to be able to do so easily.”

I like this.