Around the beginning of 2018 I was approached about a project by the artistic director of a theater company that creates experimental new works based on Jewish mysticism, history, and mythology. This post isn’t about the theater company or the project I worked on (you can read about the show which has sold out for all six performances here), it’s about being confronted and dealing with my own unconscious bias.
I’m all about musical storytelling, and this theater company’s spiritual and mystical themes aligned with my own research and creative interests enough for me to want to get involved. But, during our initial discussions, I was also aware there was something inside myself I would have to put aside to work with a Jewish organization. I suddenly saw firsthand how real my unconscious bias is, and between Arabs and Jews it is sometimes more conscious than I’d like to admit. The amount of political and cultural baggage can be overwhelming, and over the last few months I’ve become hyper-aware of it.
Case in point: I’m at a coffee shop the other day and see a guy walk in wearing a yarmulke (traditional Jewish head cover for men). My first thought is, this guy is giving me the stink eye because I’m obviously Middle Eastern. Maybe it’s because he’s got prejudiced feelings towards me, or maybe he’s assuming I have those feelings about him. when I step back to think about it, he’s likely having similar thoughts about me. It’s a weird cycle of assumptions, fear, and wary antagonism, one that I’m sure is felt by women who wear a hijab or black men walking down a public street.
In this show, which is a beautiful story about a Rabbi, his wife, and their estranged son, I’m asked to play the role of a Jewish congregate. Part of my costume is a bright yellow yarmulke. And my thought, every time I put it on is, “what would my family say if they saw me? Am I somehow betraying my ethnic heritage?”
When did this start? When did being Jewish become the antithesis of being an Arab? Surely it can’t center entirely around the Palestine/Israel conflict? I don’t have these same questions about identity and betrayal every Sunday when I put on a choir robe and sing in an actual religious church service, so why now when it’s a costume as part of a theatrical production? I don’t have easy answers to this, but it makes me wonder how much of it comes from globally pervasive anti-semitism, and how much from this pivotal moment in our recent political history.
This isn’t the first time I’ve been confronted by these feelings. When I went to college in Nashville, a place way more politically and ethnically diverse than my small hometown in Oregon, I spent the majority of my time with people I associated as being part of the great evil: conservatives. I spoke about this at length a few years ago during my Ashland High School commencement speech, but in short, I learned what I think people always learn when they get deeper exposure to something unfamiliar: it’s not what you thought it was. When I moved to the South, I learned that most conservatives I’ve met are good people who cared deeply for others and society as a whole. They want people to have good, healthy, happy lives, and maybe have different ideas than me on how we can get there. Sure, there are close-minded bigots and over racists in the south, but I can’t say with confidence that I encountered more prejudice when I lived in Tennessee and Kentucky than when I’ve lived in California and Oregon. Working with a Jewish company has shown me something similar.
Over the last year and a half, Theatre Dybbuk has helped me become aware of, and learned how to deal with, my unconscious bias towards Jews as a whole. I’ve learned that my assumptions about Jews are often no different than the assumptions other people have about my own ethnicity (guess what, Muslim ≠ terrorist and Jew≠ zionist). What’s more, I’ve come to appreciate and admire this authentically devout and beautiful religion with its deep mystical traditions. I also see how much we have in common, and how today’s Jews continue to struggle with nationalism, orthodoxy, and fundamentalism, much like the Islam of today. (In fact, there is an entire movement of Muslims pushing for an Islamic reformation not unlike the Jewish reform from a few hundred years ago, and the protestant reformation before that.) Through exposure and conversation I’ve become sympathetic, and I’ve learned that things aren’t as I thought they were, that it’s always more nuanced and complicated.
One of the key elements of this show is a critical look at the issue of tradition vs. progress. It’s true many Jewish traditions are about remembering their past traumas as a people, and can seem to an outsider like it is an entire culture that only looks backwards, clinging to a past filled with suffering. I’ve heard that criticism before, and the accusations that Jews exploit their history for social and political leverage (an accusation also leveled at black Americans that seems to at times purposefully ignore the contemporary repercussions of our history). While remembrance is a big part of the Hebrew tradition, this show confronts those who hold onto the past in neglect of the future, and reminds us that we have a choice. In one of the closing monologues, a character says,
“They say that all we can do is mourn.
Mourn over our past.
Mourn over our future, or lack thereof.
Mourn over that which has died and that which will be dead.
That is what they say.
What do we say?”
To me this is a reminder that we are not defined by our past, nor by the expectations and assumptions others have of us. This show has reminded me that I have a choice too, a choice to acknowledgement and resist that unconscious bias and define how I will relate to my fellow human beings on my own terms. The entire project has been artistically satisfying as a composer and performer, but as I reflect back on the past months I’m most grateful for this reminder of how I can become closer to the person I want to be.