Applause for Alan Elsner

Alan Elsner. Photo by Shulamit Elsner

After spending a professional lifetime as a global correspondent for The Jerusalem Post and Reuters, as a communications person for The Israel Project and J Street and as a novelist, Alan Elsner, 68, is enjoying retirement in Rockville. But the peripatetic former journalist, who has been to every U.S. state and over 40 countries, is not just sitting around.

He’s writing plays and submitting them for public readings. The first one, “Cup Final Day,” which takes place on the eve of the 1967 Six-Day War, premiered at Elsner’s synagogue, Kol Shalom, last year. The next play, “Immortality,” will be read by Kol Shalom members this March.

So how did you get into this?

During the lockdown, Theater J put on a playwriting course on Zoom. I found I really enjoyed it. Having that format of the theater, where you bring people to life through dialogue, was a good fit for me.

It flowed fairly easily. It wasn’t a painful experience. It was a very enjoyable experience. When I start things, I tend to finish them.

What are your two plays about?

“Cup Final Day” is the bar mitzvah for the son of a Holocaust survivor. His sister arrives from Israel and provokes memories and drama. She left for Palestine and grew up with the father of the bar mitzvah kid in Poland. He stayed behind to take care of his parents and younger brother. They were killed. He’s never spoken about what he went through to survive.

“Immortality” explores issues around how we wish to be remembered. What in our life is worthy of being remembered?

There are two characters. One is me. And one whose name is Jozef Elsner. He was a Polish composer. Very successful in the 18th and 19th centuries. Now he’s pretty much only remembered because he’s the teacher of [Frederic] Chopin. He’s like a footnote in history. He’s remembered for his association with someone who was greater.

The play starts with me playing a piece by Elsner and he appears. The discussion goes into his bitterness about not being remembered. He’s mystified at how during his life he was so acclaimed and then after his death he fell into complete obscurity, only to be remembered because he had an association with Chopin.

He was portrayed in a Hollywood movie which came out in the 1940s. It was about Chopin but the actor who portrayed Elsner was the star of the movie. He [Elsner] was portrayed by Paul Muni.

Is this something you’ve been thinking about lately?

I think we all think about it. I don’t have any illusions. Of all the billions of people who have lived on Earth, 99.9999% of them are forgotten within a generation or two. I fully expect to be in that number. If that is the case, what do you want to do with your life? How do you want to be remembered by the people who knew you?  And for what?

Even for people who achieve fame…I mentioned Paul Muni and you probably have never heard of him. But he won an Oscar. He was at the top of his profession. And yet here we are 60-70 years later and nobody knows who he was. And that’s just the way of the world.

So for people who are in that 99.9999%, what is important?

I think what’s important is how you treat your fellow human beings and how you treat the world. They say the two most important things in life are love and work. And once you get past work, you’re left with the people. It starts with family and extends to your community and to your nation. If you behave in a kind, principled and genuine manner, I think that’s what’s required of us.

I think the character that’s me is the minor character. But the appearance of the other guy forces a consideration by my character. There’s never been a moment in my life that I’ve had any illusions that I was anything particularly special. I’ve told people that on my tombstone will be engraved the words, “He was pretty good.” I was a pretty good journalist. I’m a pretty good writer but not a great one. One thing I think I was great at was I was a pretty great husband. I’ll give myself high marks for that.

But the first play had a live audience and Zoom audience of 200 or 300, which means I did reach people. And they were clapping at the end. ■

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