After Seeing Seven Jewish Children

A February evening in 2009. The snow fell and covered London two weeks ago and earlier today the sun was strong, the parks full of people quietly strolling, their coats open. A lively, regular kind of Saturday. The freeze has passed. Everything does pass. The worst and the best in life. Just over two weeks ago when the temperature in Britain was dropping Caryl Churchill’s “Seven Jewish Children”, an eight minute piece responding to the bombings in Gaza by the Israeli defence forces opened at the Royal Court. Just over a dozen performances later it is closing. And something has been happening, something that matters.

There has, I gather, been a furore in the press. Many prominent Jewish commentators have attacked the piece for being anti-semitic. I have been oblivious to much of this. I read the papers sporadically. So I see the play without too much context. I am able to have a clear response. I am accompanied by a colleague, a theatre director who is also Jewish. I know some of the actors in the play, also Jewish. In fact the entire cast is Jewish. I wonder why Jews who are open, involved and expressive in their lives and work of their Jewishness are happy to be involved in a piece that others find so offensive. This suggests to me that this makes the work worthwhile. Contradiction and paradox hold the path to some kind of truth.

The stage is bare but for a table and chairs, a white and blue box, the colours of the Israeli flag. This is accidental. The set belongs to ”The Stone”, the play on earlier in the evening for a full run, that traces German history through the twentieth century to now. Echoes within echoes. The cast are clad in stylish black. Seven scenes. Each one a different decade from the last seventy years. Perhaps these decades are in temporal order starting in the 1940s when the state of Israel was established. But the essence of each could apply to each decade in its own way anyway. It starts “Tell her it’s a game.” And the “Tell her” or “Don’t tell her” motif continues, the discussion amongst Jews about what to pass on to the children. The repetition has a subliminal impact, as indeed the recounting of the story as history from one generation to the next does. The past becomes a mantra in the psyche. And I have a moment of truth during the playing of scene 7. “Tell her we won.” it begins. I remember this happening to me, in my own life, not on stage but at the kitchen table. In 1967 when I was a child of, indeed, seven, my mother showed me the front page of the day’s newspaper. This was just after the Six Day War when Israel had been attacked by her Arab neighbours and disaster had turned to triumph in not more than a week. “Look.” said my mother. There was a map of Israel with the borders of before the war marked in black and the new borders, marking the territories added after battle, in dotted lines. “See how much bigger Israel is now. They tried to destroy us and we have grown bigger because of it.” Scene 5 ends, “Tell her we’ve got new land.” Caryl Churchill could have been watching and taking notes in my family kitchen. She tuned in. She captured it. The production brought this experience alive again. I did not feel attacked by these observations being presented to a public audience in the centre of London. I felt understood. And to be understood in the dark parts of your historical and cultural experience as well as the light, that is true understanding. It is also humane in the toughest sense. For this I thank her.

“Seven Jewish Children” is available to download free of copyright on the internet. A donation is requested for the charity Medical Aid for Palestine. After the last night of “Seven Jewish Children” I asked Caryl Churchill about gifting her play by letting it in effect no longer be hers. Her desire to open up her creative response to a violent conflict as widely and freely as possible was coolly inspiring. I applaud her. I wish this well. I do not believe that it harms Jews but holds up a mirror to Jewish experience that reflects, in essential fragments, what it sometimes is. And then it sends this experience, these attitudes back out into the world in a transformed state. Bon voyage.