Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Art & Education

I saw a preview of The Chosen at Park Square Theater last night. Based on the novel by Chaim Potok, the play told the story of two young Jewish scholars (one Zionist, one Hasidic) and their fathers in 1940s New York City. It wasn't a particularly good play, or a particularly bad play, though it did receive a standing ovation from the audience. The actors who played the fathers were good. The actors who played the sons were annoyingly overdramatic and the homoeroticism between the two was so pronounced that it was distracting.

What I walked away with was a profound sense of my own ignorance about a people that have suffered a long history of persecution, whose battles continue to make headlines almost daily, while I manage to remain safely removed and uninformed. Before last night, I hadn't really considered what Hitler's death in 1945 meant to the Jewish people. I hadn't ever really thought about what it would have been like to be a Jewish person in America and to hear about the systematic attempt on an industrial scale to assemble and kill everyone like me. I hadn't wondered very much about the complexities of Judaism, how it shares many of the same attributes as a nation, with ties to ethnicity, religion and culture. Until I sat down at my computer this morning and did a little research, I couldn't articulate the difference between Hasidism and Zionism, or between the Torah and the Talmud, or between Yiddish and Hebrew. I knew the words and how to spell them, I've seen the movies about the Holocaust and cried or turned my head at all the right parts, I've read Elie Wiesel.

I realized that everything I knew about the Jewish people was about their persecution.

Come to think of it, most of what I know about a lot of people is about their persecution.

I know that there was slavery. I know that Native Americans were forced from their lands to make way for the United States of America. I know that there is genocide happening in Darfur. I know that women and girls are forced into the sex trade all the time. I know that the United States is engaged in a war on a word, giving said war no boundaries, no conceivable end.

I also know that racism is so firmly ingrained in our culture that it disguises itself in everything, including "facts", historical as well as scientific, and that we continue to educate future generations in a way that ensures racism's permanent presence in the world (if you're in town, check out this exhibit at the Science Museum). But what's more, we sensationalize hardships and, in the process, sacrifice culture. I know the headlines of the Holocaust, and it's important that people recognize the gravity of mass genocide - but do they? Is it possible? What is that worth without cultural competence?

This is what makes performing art such an amazing experience - even if it's not the most stellar.

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