‘Jewish art’ can, and should, be a broad umbrella


In her review of “Roz and Ray” at Theater J of the Edlavitch DC Jewish Community Center (“‘Roz and Ray’ brings medical ethics into focus,” April 12), Lisa Traiger questions: “Is it too much to ask Theater J to produce ‘theater that celebrates, explores and struggles with the complexities and nuances of the Jewish experience and the universal human condition’ — its mission statement — with a little more attention to the ‘Jewish’?”

Marc Chagall is arguably the artist most universally associated with making “Jewish art.” His scenes of his home town in Vitebsk have come to symbolize the romantic view of a once thriving Jewish world.

However, it is Marc Chagall’s sets and costumes for the 1967 production of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s opera “The Magic Flute,” commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera House for its inaugural season at Lincoln Center, that was in many ways his most significant work and artistic capstone. Was Chagall’s work on The Magic Flute Jewish art?

If that work were exhibited in a Jewish institution, would it be considered “Jewish” enough?


“Roz and Ray” explores the medical ethics questions that shook hemophilia care to its core in the 1980s: whether to continue treatment with a life-saving medicine that also bore the potential risk of infecting patients with the virus that would later be found to cause AIDS.

Examining these choices through the eyes of Dr. Roz Kagan (a Jewish doctor) and the book “When Bad Things Happen to Good People” by Rabbi Harold S. Kushner, the play asks its audience to study and examine what they would have done had they been in the same situation. What risks do you take to save a life?

Context plays a critical role in how we experience art and culture. We bring meaning to art through the lens of our own experiences and through the context in which it is presented. The best art speaks to the broad range of the human condition, moves our spirits and touches our souls. I would suggest that this is true of the best of Jewish art as well. As we engage in Jewish life, we are invited to transcend the mundane and ask big questions as we move forward with our own personal narrative.

Although Theater J produces many plays that deal directly with Jewish history and culture, such as “The Last Night of Ballyhoo” (about the clash between German Jews and Eastern European Jews in 1940’s Atlanta) and “Becoming Dr. Ruth” (the story of a remarkable kindertransport survivor and Haganah sniper who went on to become America’s favorite sex therapist), I would argue that producing “Roz and Ray,” written by Karen Hartman — a Jewish playwright whose work had not been seen in D.C. prior to this production — is equally critical to Theater J’s mission to examine “ethical questions of our time, inter-cultural experiences that parallel our own, and the changing landscape of Jewish identities.”

It is exactly plays like “Roz and Ray” that ask big questions and invite us to grapple with difficult issues of ethics and morality.
Such grappling is at the core of Jewish living, values, and traditions of our people.

As Traiger cites, “audiences in the Washington region are fortunate to have a surfeit of excellent theater companies that produce good, and sometimes great, works, many by Jewish artists featuring strongly Jewish themes and characters: Mosaic, Round House, Signature, Studio, Arena Stage and Metro Stage.”

What then makes Theater J unique in its role as a culturally specific Jewish theater?

As the nation’s largest and most prominent Jewish theater, it should be Theater J’s role not just to produce plays that easily fall within what one would expect to find at a Jewish theater, but also to help expand what it means to be a Jewish theater and to make Jewish art relevant to broad audiences.

Producing plays that prompt thought-provoking questions like “What makes art Jewish?” sparks the lively debate that brings meaning to our work and invites the audience into the conversation.

Carole Zawatsky is the CEO of the Edlavitch DCJCC.

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