Edna Nahshon

Professor of Hebrew, JTS

Dr. Edna Nahshon is an internationally noted scholar who focuses on the subject of Jews and performance and Jewish cultural studies. One of the topics in which she is interested is the connection between religion and the role played by the performing arts in shaping and reflecting Jewish concerns and interests. As co-convener with Professor Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett (New York University) of the faculty seminar devoted to "Jews and Performance" and convener of the February 2009 international conference Jews/Theater/Performance, held at The Jewish Theological Seminary, Dr. Nahshon welcomes Jewish writers, actors, directors, and producers to JTS, and introduces JTS to people in the world of theater and performance.

Dr. Nahshon, congratulations on your new book Jewish Theatre: A Global View.

Thank you! It has been a long time in the making. I was delighted to receive the finished product just a few days ago. Since the book was printed in the UK, it will be available in this country on November 1.

Can you tell us something about the book?

It is a collection of essays by American, European, and Israeli scholars—some of them non-Jews—that I edited and to which I contributed two of my own essays. It is devoted to various aspects of the intersection of Jews and theater, and includes discussions of dramatic texts, space, and performance practices as well as several "conversations" between Jewish and non-Jewish cultures. In the introductory essay, I raise the question "What Is Jewish Theatre?" This is an open-ended question, but I hope this overview will prove useful in future discussions.

Can you talk about your other essay in the book?

That essay deals with the question of philosemitism on stage. It focuses on Sydney Grundy's An Old Jew, produced in London in 1894, five years before Israel Zangwill's watershed play, Children of the Ghetto was done. Zangwill—an English Jew, writer, and ardent Zionist—revolutionized the centuries-old, hackneyed portrayal of Jews on the English stage and can be seen as the founder of a Jewish school of playwriting in non-Jewish languages.

In From the Ghetto to the Melting Pot: Israel Zangwill's Jewish Plays, you offered three of Zangwill's original manuscripts, including perhaps his most famous, The Melting Pot . . .

The Melting Pot opened in 1908 in Washington DC and in New York in 1909. It presented a notion of America that has certainly been contested, yet has maintained its appeal to this day. Indeed, one could easily argue that President Obama is the embodiment of the melting-pot ideal that Zangwill envisioned a century ago, though I must say that Zangwill, who promoted women's suffrage, predicted a female president.

Is your next book project also related to theatrical performance?

I am working on a book tentatively titled Countering Shylock, which will examine Jewish responses to The Merchant of Venice. Needless to say, Shakespeare is the backbone of our literary culture and over the last couple of hundred years Jews have had to negotiate with Shakespeare's Jew, a fictional character that became a prism through which the figure of the Jew was constructed in the gentile world. With emancipation and the fall of ghetto walls, The Merchant of Venice has stood at the heart of a fascinating, though often troubled Jewish discourse regarding identity and relationship with the non-Jewish world. There have been all sorts of responses to the play: some have fought it, especially its inclusion in school curricula; others adapted it, rewrote it, and added prequels and sequels. Countering Shylock will map out this engagement. The focus will be on American, English, German, Yiddish, and Hebrew responses.

Discussions of the Shylock paradigm became particularly acute in the aftermath of the Holocaust. Last March, I spoke on this topic at a special conference at the University of Vienna titled "Shylock After 1945," and contributed an essay to the catalog of an exhibition related to this topic at the Jewish Museum of Vienna.

By the way, in spring 2010 I will offer a new course at JTS called In Shylock's Shadow, in which these and related issues will be discussed.

Your 2008 book, Jews and Shoes, is another fascinating path to understanding Jewish life and thought through the ages . . .

It's a bit of a zany book. The idea for it came to me when I was in Toronto for a conference and stayed at a hotel opposite the Bata Shoe Museum. There I saw shoes, shoes, and more shoes. The first thought that crossed my mind was about the piles of shoes we so closely associate with the Holocaust; then the thought of the halitzah shoe (used in the ritual in which a widow is released from the bond of marriage by, among other things, throwing a shoe at her late husband's brother). The third thing that crossed my mind was the Israeli sandal that used to be a vital component of the iconography of the sabra. Other notions followed: the medieval story of the Wandering Jew, who was a cobbler; the removal of the shoes during shiv'ah and Yom Kippur, when Jews avoid leather shoes in favor of canvas sneakers. And, of course, the whole feminine/sexual aspect attached to shoes. So the idea began to grow. One of the major concepts of the book is that footwear, first and foremost, represents human mobility. Take away our shoes and you've taken away our freedom. In fact, it's a concept I discussed recently with the Jewish Federation of Delaware. An Israeli shoe company donated $10,000 worth of shoes to needy women there. Since mobility is tied to a sense of self, a sense of autonomy, and personal independence, this is a small but vital gift that can significantly alter the lives of each recipient.

Do shoes have any special meaning for you?

I think everyone has some shoe stories. Some of them are very personal. Do I have my own? Sure. After my mother died, I was sorting out her things, going through them and donating clothes. At the end, I was left only with her first baby shoe. It was tiny, stuffed with cotton wool, the leather soft like a glove; just one shoe. It had been brought from Vienna, presumably by my grandmother, when the family moved to Israel. I sat there and agonized for hours about what to do with it. It stood for love and hope and promise. And yet I would be the last one for whom it would carry meaning. My son was a baby then and I did not want to burden him one day with a decision I could not make. Nor did I want to create a fetishized object and endow the baby shoe with some supernatural power. At the end, I decided to let it go and bury it.

Dr. Nahshon, last year you taught a new JTS course on Israeli Theater and Drama. It was a first, was it not?

I believe it was, especially the theater part. Israeli drama is occasionally taught in the US, usually in literature courses, but to the best of my knowledge, not in the context of performance and theater history. Over the last quarter century or so, theater studies have moved away from the literary approach and emphasize the unique language of the stage: its aliveness, temporal existence, unique connection between performer and spectator, and of course, how it relates to the social role of the theater.

And the course had something to do with the conference you mentioned?

Yes. One of the major events of last semester was the three-day conference (Jews/Theater/Performance in an Intercultural World) held here in February. It offered a wonderful opportunity to hear and meet major scholars of the Israeli theater and see some exciting performers. You see, in Israel, theater plays an important role in the life of the country; it is very much a part of the fabric of social, artistic, and cultural life. Nearly all theaters are permanent, public, subsidized, and affordable, and offer a rich repertory. This is a very different model from Broadway. To this day, Israel (and certainly the Tel Aviv metropolitan area) is number one or two in the world in terms of per capita theater attendance. So it's a factor in the life of a nation. By studying it, you get a glimpse into the soul of the country.

And you organized this conference?

Yes, and I was fortunate to have received assistance not only from JTS, but also from the Lucius L. Littauer Foundation and the Office of Cultural Affairs of the Consulate General of Israel in New York. The conference was not devoted only to Israeli topics. Many other subjects were discussed, among them theater of the Holocaust, Jews and musical theater, Jews in European theater, experimental productions, Yiddish theater, and so much more. The sixty participants came to JTS from all over the United States and from Canada, Germany, Italy, Britain, and Israel. The sessions and performances were open to the general public. This was important to me both institutionally and personally since I believe one of our tasks is to involve and challenge the larger community in which we live. It was also wonderful to welcome so many scholars who have never been to JTS. They were fascinated and fascinating. I usually shun big declarations, but I take the liberty to say that the conference truly was a historic first. Many of the participants have already asked when the next conference will take place.

Jewish Theatre: A Global View is availble on November 1 at amazon.com.

Edna Nahshon

Edna Nahshon