The public reconciliation between Ari Roth — director of the Mosaic Theater Company — and Carole Zawatsky, the CEO of the Edlavitch D.C. Jewish Community Center who fired Roth four years ago, began in private as the country mourned the deadliest attack on American Jews in the nation’s history.
Days after the Oct. 27 shooting that killed 11 Jews inside the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Roth was having breakfast with a friend at a bookstore cafe when his phone rang. Zawatsky left a message that would culminate in the two sharing the stage Sunday evening after the matinee performance of Mosaic’s new play,“Oh God.”
“Hey Ari, it’s me,” Carole recounted saying on the voicemail. “Would you please call me back? I miss you.”
The phone call led to a private meeting, their first since Roth was escorted out of what was then the Washington D.C. Jewish Community Center, where he had directed Theater J for 18 years. Over breakfast at Bread & Chocolate downtown, the two agreed to have a public discussion.
“It was for me personally, borne out of tragedy. When the brutal murders at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh happened, it wasn’t calculated on my part or thought out,” Zawatsky said Sunday evening. “It was the most natural, visceral thing to do, to reach out to a colleague, a friend.”
Moderated by D.C. poet and radio host Ethelbert Miller, the discussion at the Atlas Performing Arts Center on the set of “Oh God” shed little light on the personal animus the two felt in 2014, when the JCC canceled the theater’s annual “Voices from a Changing Middle East series” because of protests over Roth’s programming decisions. Earlier that year, Theater J had staged “The Admission,” a play about a fictional massacre of Palestinians at the hands of Israelis.
A right-wing group called Citizens Opposed to Propaganda Masquerading as Art, chaired by local attorney Bob Samet, had launched a letter-writing campaign saying that the play defamed Israel. Many of the show’s scheduled performances were cancelled, and Roth did not stay quiet, instead telling a group of colleagues at a Jewish theater conference, “This fabulous JCC is in a profound identity crisis.” Later that month, hewas fired.
On Sunday, though, the two spoke as friends about moving forward in a contentious, and sometimes violent, political climate. Roth said his falling out with Zawatsky was the only “divorce” he’d ever lived through, and as people in the theater world in Washington and beyond began to take sides, the two achieved what he called a “cold peace.” Theater J moved ahead with a new artistic director, and Roth quickly formed Mosaic.
“The thing about a cold peace is that it’s cold, and you could feel the temperature,” Roth said. “Our shared purpose today is to warm the waters and to fill in those empty spaces where those other emotions would creep in, and those were not always generous emotions.”
The two went into little detail about how they ultimately made peace over breakfast or whether or not they still harbor hard feelings. Instead, when asked about the meaning of her work, Zawatsky talked about setting an example in reconciliation.
“Today is the measure of my work. Who am I if I care about creating a civil society, having some small role in, as we like to say, repairing the world?” Zawatsky said. “To model civil dialogue is the measure of my work.”
Roth did touch on the issue that ultimately got him fired from Theater J: Israel. “Oh, God” is the work of Israeli playwright Anat Gov in which God — despairing in the state of the world — seeks the help of a secular, bacon-wrapped-shrimp-eating therapist. Effectively, it’s one long therapy session.
“This is a play from Israel … a country that means a tremendous amount to every person on this stage today but in different ways,” Roth said. “As Carol and I grapple with programming around Israel for our three or four years together, working well through a thicket of difficult, difficult issues and difficult plays, we were just part of the many, many invested parties trying to imagine a positive future for a country that is at siege and is beleaguered and takes itself to the therapist’s office.”
Both said they hoped that this would not be their only public coming together, and for some who took sides in the very public breakup, hard feelings remain. Virginia Spatz, a longtime theatergoer who knows Roth and Zawatsky, said that she’s spoken with local artists on both sides of the issue who still view the other with suspicion.
“It’s important to have this display,” she said, “but as in any divorce those feelings can still remain even as the two people themselves can reconcile.”