Arthur Miller invoked a watchword to our conscience in his most famous play, Death of a Salesman. “Attention must be paid” he wrote for the character of Linda Loman, who said of her struggling husband, “Willy Loman never made a lot of money. His name was never in the paper. He’s not the finest character that ever lived. But he’s a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him. So attention must be paid. He’s not to be allowed to fall into his grave like an old dog. Attention, attention must be finally paid to such a person.”
I think of this quote when I think of the Washington Jewish Week’s relationship to the Jewish community it’s been covering for these past 85 years. Washington Jewish Week is paying attention and always has been. True, our community is a whole lot healthier and less deluded than Willy Loman ever was. WJW has been part of the anchoring conscience of our community that’s helped us to see ourselves in all our accomplishments, overreaches, shortcomings and quiet acts of loving kindness. A fully devoted staff of professional WJW writers has been dispatched week in, week out to document with journalistic rigor and demanding exactitude the nature of our community’s triumphs and travails.
For paying such close attention to the Jewish performing arts scene here in Greater Washington, I can only say, “thank you.” Thank you to WJW for assigning a long-serving theater and dance critic like Lisa Traiger to cover every single opening of a Theater J production during the past 20-plus years. In 2003, when our area supported three Jewish theaters – Washington Jewish Theatre at the Rockville JCC; The Center Company at the JCC of Northern Virginia; and Theater J of the Washington DCJCC – Lisa moderated a vigorous panel discussion among all three artistic director teams for the International Association for Jewish Theatre Conference and the WJW carried an accounting.
And yet that conversation told of three different directions in which our Jewish theaters might travel, and indeed saw different fates for each enterprise. The bounty of cultural offerings has been covered in the pages of the WJW without pause and without passing over any event because it was too small or lacked sufficient stature: Virtually everything deserving of attention has received it, and the sum total of such engagement has been an encyclopedic chronicle of who we are and what we’ve dreamed of during these tumultuous times as Jews in 20th and 21st Century America. It’s been a golden age of upward mobility for us Jews of the Diaspora and, with all the freedoms that have come with it, a great deal of Jewish literacy and substance has been lost along the way. As we’ve grown more assimilated and prosperous, we’ve lost our connections to Hebrew and Yiddish literature, to the cultural texture of our European forbears.
Our dramas oscillate between the wan and the wondrous; between the anemic and the fully energized. The WJW has held our dramas to high standards, not to some antiquated notions of what good art must be, but to the shifting tenets of evolving cultural norms. The paper has taken itself seriously by taking the arts seriously and demanding that the art speak authentically, challengingly, and with real knowledge and depth from when its portraitures come.
That the current editor-in-chief of WJW should push himself to go out and see a show – generally a musical by a creative Jewish genius like Stephen Sondheim – tells us all we need to know about the good hands in which the Washington Jewish Week finds itself today: With all the pressing local, national and international news to cover, there’s still an imperative to get out and see a show and cover it, think about it and apply rigorous critical standards to it because there’s nothing more important than taking time to account for how we’re faring as human beings; how our consciences are being tested; how are hearts are being broken and, just as importantly, resiliently repairing themselves in this compelling community drama in which we all find ourselves.
Ari Roth is the artistic director of the Mosaic Theater Company in Washington.