If she had her way, Noa Baum would change the world one story at a time. As ambitious as she is, though, she realizes reaching billions the world over may be impossible, but, “If my show has made somebody go out and seek the story of the other, and actively listen to their story … I really want people to know both sides and really start seeing and feeling the human story.” Baum, a long-time Silver Spring resident, collects, writes and tells stories for a living. She tells stories of love and loss, despair and hope, solace and grief, pain and healing – sometimes individually and other times, as in her decade-old “A Land Twice Promised,” in which all these feelings are part of a multigenerational journey to ferret out essential truths amid disputed histories, all at once.
On Saturday Baum will bring back “Twice Promised” to the Washington, D.C. region after more than a two year absence. The 80-minute, one-woman show reveals the uncomfortable histories of two women who grew up not five miles from each other in Jerusalem, but lived their lives and learned their histories and politics worlds away. The Saturday night program at Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation in Bethesda, where Baum and her family are synagogue members, is a return to a work that was years in development.
Born and raised in the Beit Hakerem neighborhood of Jerusalem, Baum worked as an actress in Israel before coming to the United States in 1990. It’s been nearly two decades since she met the woman she calls Jumana, while living in graduate student housing at University of California, Davis. The two became “mother” friends because they had children the same age. But eventually they shared more than play dates and park outings.
In 2000, Baum began investigating a series of stories examining her experience as a child during the 1967 Six Day War, when she was eight. “I had known this woman for seven years by then,” Baum says, “but I actually never heard what that war was like for her and, as a matter of fact, I never heard what that war was like for any Palestinian.” At first Jumana, which is a pseudonym to protect her friend’s privacy, said she didn’t remember anything about that war; she did recall living in fear all her live. Soon, though, Baum says, her friend began to share remembered experiences of growing up under Israeli occupation.
For “Twice Promised,” Baum also explored her mother’s story, and included a scene where she met her Palestinian friend’s mother as well. After many of those conversations were recorded and condensed, Baum had a compelling story to tell of both friendship and understanding and the complicated histories and memories that informed it.
These days Baum, who tells stories professionally for audiences of both children and adults, more frequently performs “Twice Promised” on the road for non-Jewish audiences, including on college campuses, at interfaith convocations, in London and more recently in Turkey, and even for government agencies including the Department of Defense and NGOs like the World Bank.
When asked her goal, Baum not surprisingly says, “I’ll answer and then I’ll give you a story.”
“The job of the artist is to shine a light on the gray and on complexity and on the human condition, which is never the black and white,” she begins. “Can art change the world? If you look back on history the world should have changed a long time ago. Art is there to help us remember who we are.”
And, now, the story: “There’s a Chasidic story, that I think Elie Wiesel tells about a tzaddik – a righteous man — who beat his drum going from village to village, town to town, pleading with people to stop their evil ways. Year after year he would appear in these villages and towns. Once a group of people stopped him and said: ‘You’ve been here year after year, don’t you see nothing changes. Why are you still doing this? ‘Look around,’ he said. When I first started out, I was really hoping I could change the people around me, but today, after all these years, my only hope is that they will not change me.’”
Baum continues her thoughts on storytelling’s efficacy and power, “I think we all have a choice that we have to make each day of our lives: Do we let the pain and the loss harden our hearts and just make us shut down?” She goes on, “When you have suffered a tremendous loss, there is very little room for the story of the other. But we do have that choice: Do we let that pain harden our hearts or do we let that pain break our hearts open?”
“A Land Twice Promised,” storytelling by Noa Baum, Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation, 7727 Persimmon Tree Lane, Bethesda, tickets $20-$60. Visit https://www.adatshalom.net/component/content/article/2-uncategorised/335-a-land-twice-promised.