HaMirpeset Shelanu 266: From Jon Adam Ross
Please enjoy a D'var Torah this week from JAR (Jon Adam Ross), an actor, playwright and Jewish educator extraordinaire. Among his many positions at camp, JAR has most recently been our Rosh Merkaz - director of informal education and aidah (division) programming. The Ramah Wisconsin community congratulates JAR on embarking on the InHEIRitance Project, a three-year journey to write five plays in five metropolitan areas inspired by the patriarchs and matriarchs of B'reishit/Genesis, generously funded by the Covenant Foundation. Reflections on Parashat Toldot by Jon Adam Ross
Tol’dot was my Bar Mitzvah parashah in 1993. Twenty years later it was the parashah for a student (Ramah camper Galia Newberger) with whom I had the privilege of working in preparation for her Bat Mitzvah. And though I never went to rabbinical school, nor even took a Jewish studies class in college, I feel I have dug quite deep into the stories contained in these verses; deeper maybe than anyone else I know. And I had only ever known one interpretation of the story. As far as I knew, there was only one way to see this family and their drama. Until Charleston.
Last year I spent time in Charleston, South Carolina, making a play about the story of Rebecca, her pregnancy and her life as a mother. The play was part of a national theater series called The In[heir]itance Project. It was a two-actor play, featuring the incredibly talented Darian Dauchan and me.
One day, Darian and I and our director and co-creator Chantal Pavageaux, walked into a synagogue for an open rehearsal of The Rebecca Play. A man approached us and said, “You guys the actors?” We said: “Yes we are!” And he pointed at me and said: “You’re playing Jacob and he’s playing Esau?” Now at first glance, that’s not necessarily a racist question. And if it had been the only time someone had asked that question, maybe it wouldn’t have meant anything to me. But, in fact, in every single Jewish space where casting came up, the assumption was that I was going to portray Jacob and Darian was going to portray Esau. Why? I kept asking myself why. Maybe I didn’t want to admit the truth; maybe I was just too blind to see it. But then we did a bible study at a black Baptist church. And the same question was put to Darian, in almost the same way: “Darian, are you playing Esau? And he’s playing Jacob?”
I didn’t understand. Why did everyone assume Darian was going to be Esau? What I realized was that there were two very different answers. In the Jewish community, I’m fairly convinced it was passive racism. For our community, Jacob is the hero. And the hero, then, must be the Jew (or the white actor). In fact, this was borne out when we received feedback during a talkback from a man wearing a kippah that he “didn’t believe the black one as Jacob.” The “black” one? He had a name, but that seemed beside the point; this man couldn’t see past race in his viewing of our portrayal of the story.
In the black church, however, it was opposite in every sense. For this Christian community, Esau is the hero and Jacob is the villain. It’s quite simple actually - if you just read the p’shat (basic meaning of the text), Jacob is a thief and Esau is a forgiver. And that’s it. In the Jewish tradition, the oral Torah makes it quite clear that Jacob is a hero and Esau is a heel. But that’s not at all clear in the written Torah. For them, Esau is the hero. Darian is playing the hero.
So first things first, these conversations made me rethink my entire approach to the narrative - who’s the real hero? And we decided pretty immediately that we needed to make a play where we switch characters on a regular basis. In fact, in one open rehearsal someone challenged our creative choice to keep switching and an orthodox rabbi raised his voice to defend our piece as perfectly in line with the story of two brothers who keep switching places (in the womb, in the birthright order, etc.).
We are currently living in a time where we carry around pre-conceived notions about people who look different than we do, believe different than we do, vote different than we do. The process of studying the verses of Tol’dot in this way opened up the story for me and taught me important lessons. We had the privilege of bringing this play to Camp Ramah in Wisconsin last summer and performing it for Machon and Nivonim campers and staff. The conversation afterwards was all about our preconceived notions. I am committing myself to forcing those conversations moving forward. Getting caught flat-footed in perceived notions is inevitable, but when it happens, I aspire to respond with openness, awareness, and sensitivity. These are the three qualities I wish for everyone this Shabbat. Shabbat shalom!