Philomena looks for her son – but the film does not portray the real Philomena (3 cents)

Over the weekend, we watched “Philomena”, the highly touted film starring Judy Dench as an Irish woman who had given birth to a child out of wedlock 50 years earlier, and wanted to find him.  It’s an excellent film.

The setting is Ireland in the early 1950s.  Young Philomena Lee makes a man, has sex, and has a child.  She is banished by her father to a Catholic convent, which takes in young unmarried mothers-to-be, cares for them until they give birth, require them to live in and work at the convent for four or five years to pay for the birthing and child care, takes care of the children in an orphanage set up (allowing each mother one hour with her child each day), and then, sometimes without telling the parent, sends the children off for adoption.  The parent and child never see each other again, and neither knows the whereabouts of the other.

Philomena later has a daughter (I assume she was married, but I am not sure the film makes that clear) and on her first child’s 50th birthday, her daughter learns for the first time that she has a half-brother……somewhere.  She comes into contact with a recently fired BBC TV journalist, Martin Sixsmith, and asks him to help her mother find her son.  Sixsmith, a not very pleasant guy, first demurs, saying that a “human interest” story is beneath  his talents, but finally agrees to meet Philomena.  A relationship is born, and the search commences.

The film is based on a true story.  There is a Philomena Lee, now 80 years old.  There is a Martin Sixsmith,  The search was, in its way, successful, and he wrote a book that became the movie.

It turns out that the film, though adds even more than a normal amount of fiction to the story.  The biggest add-on, perhaps, is that once they learned that the majority of adoptions at the convent were to Americans, Sixsmith and Lee travel to the United States and search for and discover the truth of what happened to young Anthony Lee.  This trip never happened.  But it makes for drama, and perhaps in this case that is all right.  I am not sure.

What they did learn was startling.  Yes, Anthony and an even younger girl were taken from the convent and brought to America.  They were adopted by a St. Louis physician and his wife.  Anthony’s name was changed to Michael Hess.  He grew up first in St. Louis and then in Rockford, IL, where he graduated from high school.  His new family was (not surprisingly) Catholic, and he went on to Note Dame and to The George Washington University Law School.  And then he went to work for the Republican National Committee and became its chief legal counsel, hobnobbing with presidents.  Even more remarkable, it turns out that he was a closet homosexual with a long time partner, something he kept secret from most of those he worked with.  In 1995, at the age of 43, he died of AIDS.

Discovering who is son was (according to the film, Lee was neither surprised nor upset that he was gay), and that he had been dead for the past seven years was not easy, of course.  But it was important to Lee.  Even more important, perhaps, she learned that he knew about his Irish convent background, and had made two trips to Ireland in search of his birth mother.  The nuns at the convent told him that there were no remaining records (there had been a fire where most records were ruined), and his mother could not be located.

This came as a shock to Lee, because she too several times was told at the convent that they had no idea where her son with, due to a lack of records.  He assumed that Anthony (now Michael) did not know about her or, worse, did not care.

She also learned (in the film) from his former partner, that Michael’s ashes had, at his request, been buried in the graveyard at the convent in Ireland, over the objection of his adoptive family, who wanted him buried with the family in St. Louis.

It’s quite a story, to be sure.  Made even more of a story by the movie’s (and the book’s _ embellishments. But it brings to the fore an even more important point.  Anthony/Michael was one of many young Irish children treated in this manner (and I would assume that the same thing was happening elsewhere).  And the church’s position was simple – the mother had sinned, the loss of her child and any other hardship she suffered was consideration for her sin, and she had waived any right for further contact with her child.  Period.  So, the lies to both mother and child about knowledge of their identities were purposeful and part of the plan.  And, in a place like Ireland where, apparently even today, the laws do not encourage adopted children to be able to locate birth parents, and where conservative religious rules are pervasive, the situation remains to a large extent uncorrected.

Watching the film at home, as we did, gave me the opportunity to sit with my computer on my lap researching what really happened and where the film diverted from historical truth.  Would the film had been weaker if they had stuck closer to the story?  That I don’t really know, but I would guess that it would have been just as powerful.


I Read a Biography of Henry Miller – Glad I Wasn’t He.

OK, so I have never read through a novel by Henry Miller.  Of course, I have looked at a page here and there (who hasn’t?), but the writing always seemed so overblown that I never had the patience to see a book  through beyond a few paragraphs (of course I feel the same way about Faulkner).  Whether I have been mistaken in my feelings about Miller’s writing, I don’t know.  Many praise him to the skies (although I don’t know how much he is read today).

But I did make it through Arthur Hoyle’s “The Unknown Henry Miller: a Seeker in Big Sur” and found it quite interesting, although in spite of the great detail which is contained in the book, I still don’t think that I understand much about the man.

Henry Miller is of course best known for his two “Tropics” books – the “Tropic of Cancer” and “Tropic of Capricorn” and, perhaps to a lesser extent, some of his other writings. He was also a painter, who often exhibited his watercolors. I had assumed he was someone who lived by venturing from one sexual escapade to another, egotistical, without much thought of the lives of normal folks.  I knew that there was a lot of trouble getting his books published in this country because of the obscenity laws, and that it was not issued here until the mid-1960s, about 30 years after it was first published in France.  I know that he had a much larger following abroad (but so does Jerry Lewis).

It turns out that Miller was far from a happy-go-lucky type.  Raised in Brooklyn, from a somewhat dysfunctional family, he held a number of poorly paid jobs and wrote on the side, married and had a child, divorced and married again, and didn’t leave Brooklyn until he was almost 40 years old.  He then went to Europe, divorced his second wife, stayed in Europe about a decade and continued to roam around (somewhat aimlessly, I think) and write, and then returned to the United States and settled in Big Sur, where he married again (and again) and lived until the 1960s, when he moved to Pacific Palisades where he lived until he died at age 88 in 1980 (in his later years traveling back and forth to Europe).

Miller was obviously a compulsive writer, and used his life history as a kickoff point for his writing (which he considered philosophical).  He was completely uninhibited in his writing, you can assume that much of what he wrote was exaggerated, and his style (and openness) was unique (perhaps not so unique today).  As many writers are, I assume, he was very much egocentric, and he was unable to enter a mature relationship with any woman, so everyone of his relationships started with infatuation, and ended with boredom and infidelity, or just wore itself out.  Not a pretty picture, whether in New York, Europe or California.  And Miller’s writing, as the book explains it, was a philosophical and sexual rumination on his juvenile infatuations, and his inability to be happy in an ongoing relationship.  Not a happy guy.

He also never had any money.  I mean no money.  He had no domestic income, and a hard time collecting from his foreign publishers.  He borrowed with shame from everyone he knew.  When he started living at Big Sur, it was in a loaned cabin without heat, electricity, or running water.  Far from neighbors, far from major roads, and far from grocery and other stores.  In fact, he was not financially secure until his books were able to be published in the United States – and by now he would have been about 70 years old.

Throughout this time, though, he was able to maintain friendships (OK, so some of his friendships did have abrupt endings) with literary celebrities around the world – Anais Nin for example, with whom he had an intimate relationship but from whom he was estranged for most of his career, and Lawrence Durrell of the Alexandria Quartet fame, whose friendship remained throughout his life.  His relationships with his ex-wives, and with his mother (on whom he blamed everything) were not good.  He had three children, one by his first wife (he was estranged from her for decades, but they reconciled; and two from his third wife, when he was living at Big Sur and with whom he maintained a custody sharing agreement).

I am not sure what I expected when I started the book.  But I know that I did not expect as much poverty and domestic struggling, or so much egotistical insecurity. Would I learn even more about him if I attacked his writing?  Not sure.  But I am not going to find out.

The Dangers of Smoking – a view from abroad.

We are all familiar with the warnings on domestic packs of cigarettes.  I decided to look at a selection of foreign cigarette packs that I found here in the United States.  Virtually all contain warnings (some Chinese and Korean varieties I found do not) and the majority have at least one warning in English (with a second in a different language).


Some of the messages are a bit different from those we find here.  Here they are -


Smoking causes ageing of the skin – Mayfair (UK)

Smoking seriously harms you and others around you – Mayfair (UK)

Tobacco seriously damages health – Marlboro (Somalia)

Smoking kills – Superkings (UK)

Protect children: don’t make them breathe your smoke – Superkings (UK)

Smoking clogs the arteries and causes heart attacks and strokes – Superkings (UK)

Smoking increases risk of more than 25 diseases including cancer and cardiovascular disease – Merit (Gulf States)

Cigarette smoke contains carbon monoxide – Time (Korea)

Quitting Smoking Now Greatly Reduces Serious Risks to Your Health – Time (Korea)

Smoke contains benzene, nitrosamines, formaldehyde and hydrogen cyanide – Davidoff (Germany)

Smoking causes cancer – Esse (Korea)

Smoking is harmful to your health; Quite smoking reduces health risk – Baisha (China)

Smokers die younger – Benson & Hedges (UK)

Cigars contain many of the same carcinogens found in cigarettes and cigars are not a safe alternative to cigarettes – Djarum cigarette size cigars (Indonesia)

Quitting smoking now greatly reduces serious risks to your health – Seneca (Canada)

Tobacco Seriously Damages Health – Nyala (Ethiopia)


Passive smoking affects fetus and leads to growth retardation and premature labor – Parliament (Gulf States)







What You Don’t Know About 19th Century Italy (3 cents)

Like Germany, the history of Italy is not the history of a united country, but of a mix of kingdoms and principalities and free cities, whose political powers and geographic boundaries shifted over the years.

Looking at a map of Italy in 1800, you find Venice, Padua, Verona, and the Italian Alps are part of the Austrian empire. You find that Milan, Mantua and Bologna are within the Cisalpine Italian Republic. Turin is actually in France. Parma is in its own duchy. Genoa is in the Ligurian Republic. Lucca is a small independent state. Florence is in the Kingdom of Etruria. From Rome to Ancona, you are in the papal states. Below Rome, you are in the Kingdom of Naples.

Then came Napoleon. Napoleon created the Kingdom of Italy, starting with Milan and the rest of the Cisalpine Italian Republic, gaining Venice and the other territories which had belonged to Austria, and actually adding the Dalmatian coast, on the eastern side of the Adriatic. He invaded and occupied the Papal States and proclaimed them a historic part of the French empire. The Kingdom of Naples remained separate, but was governed by King Joseph, who happened to be Napoleon’s brother. Only Sicily was not controlled by Napoleon.

Things changed again after Napoleon’s defeat. Sicily joined with the Kingdom of Naples to create the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. The Papal States were receated, this time expanded to the north on the Adriatic coast. Florence and Siena wound up in Tuscany. Genoa and Turin were now part of the Kingdom of Sardinia, as was the island of Sardinia. And Venice and Verona were back under Austrian control.

Over the next 30 years, the concept of a united Italy began to gain prominence, particularly due to Giuseppe Mazzini, culminating in revolutionary activity in places such as Milan and Rome. Perhaps the most successful revolt was in Rome itself, with the Roman Republic declared in 1849. But this did not last long, as the Republic was, to the Italians’ surprise, invaded by Louis Napoleon of France. The French remained in Rome until 1870.

In 1861, after considerable additional confusion, Giuseppe Garibaldi was able to declare the existence of a new Kingdom of Italy under the House of Savoy, with Victor Emmanuel as king. The Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, everything south of Naples, as you recall, joined the Kingdom, basically uniting Italy for the first time since Roman times. But the city of Rome (still under French occupation) was not included, nor was Venice and the remaining territories still controlled by Austria.

It was not until 1866 that Venice became part of the Kingdom of Italy, and not until 1870 that the French were forced out of Rome, and Rome was incorporated into, and declared the capital of, a united Italy.

By the way, the Vatican City was not established as an independent political entity until 1929, when the Pope and Mussolini struck a deal.  The Vatican would become independent and Italy would exert no control over it, and the Pope would make sure that the Catholic Church would not interfere with the secular nature of the remainder of Italy.

Newspaper Reading: To Do or Not To Do? (9 cents)

Late on a busy Sunday, I am looking at a pile of newspapers I have not had a chance to read.  I want to read them all (I would also like to go to Mars).  There are the Sunday and Saturday W. Post and NY Times.  There are two “Forwards” and one “Jewish Week” and one “Atlantic Times”.  Oh, yes, and Saturday’s Wall Street Journal.

I started with the second section of this week’s “Forward”.  I read through it slowly and found the articles interesting enough, but I did have to ask myself why I was reading it, and why I wanted to read the rest of the papers.  After all, how much will I remember?  And for how long?

For example, am I going to remember that Israeli/New York photographer Eilon Paz has been running around the world (after raising $41,000 on Kickstarter) taking pictures of large scale collectors of vinyl records, including one whose collection specializes in LPs whose jackets have been defaced by previous owners?  Or how about the review of the memoirs of Paul Stanley?  Who, you ask?  You know, Paul Stanley, who used to be a member of KISS?  Do you know that his off stage personality is much different than on stage, that he was born with one of his ears deformed, and that the biggest influence in his life is his therapist?  How much of this will I remember?  I don’t think that, if you ask me a week from now, I could remember his name.

OK, then there is an article that a music scholar has concluded that Handel’s “Messiah” is overtly anti-Semitic, and reactions from a half dozen other equally qualified scholars that say this is a lot of bunk.  Will I remember this?  Come to think of it — what is there in this that is possible to remember?  Another article, equally valueless, tries to explain why so few quilters are Jewish, either in this country or in Europe.  The conclusion is that everyone who is asked has a speculation (there are no experts on this question), but no one really knows.  Anything anyone can remember in this one?

And something on the biblical level.  Philologos (columnist with best pseudonym) believes that the “hyssop” that Moses referred to in instructing the Israelites how to spread the blood of the lambs on their lintels before the original “passover” was really marjoram, but badly and identically translated in each and every biblical translation.  I am sure I won’t remember that.  And another bible based article basing blaming taxation in general on Abraham’s belief in the necessity of tithing.  (Yawn)

Or how about the review of “The Grand Budapest Hotel” and the influences of early films of Ernest Lubitsch, such as “To Be or Not to Be” on it?  (I saw the previews of this film – seemed utterly silly to me.  “To Be or Not to Be” was funny, but also an anti-Nazi masterpiece.)  I might remember the film, but this review?  And finally, there was an article on whether women should be able to wear fringed garments (tzitzit), or whether only men should?  These fringed garments are often worn by orthodox men, and they don’t really fit women, so they need to be re-designed.  Will I remember?  And ask me if I care.

So, I probably spent 20 minutes or so reading these articles, and another 15 writing this piece.  Will I remember writing it?  No.  Will you remember reading it?  Haha.


Atlanta (18 cents)

We returned yesterday afternoon from a quick trip to Atlanta for the wedding of Hannah’s sister-in-law.  As expected, it was a great time.  Here are some highlights.

We drove from DC, a ten hour drive, stopping for lunch in Ashland VA.  Ashland is the town north of Richmond and nearest Kings Dominion (not yet open for the season) and a place I have driven by many times without thinking about stopping.  But it turns out that Ashland, like so many Virginia towns, is fascinating.  An old railroad town, the tracks actually bisect the main commercial district, with the older shops on each side of the track.  Just off the tracks is a very attractive old inn called the Henry Clay Inn (Clay was born in the county), which in fact was built in 1992, 45 years after the older inn burned to the ground, but built as an actual replica.  That’s interesting.  And we had lunch at a fascinating restaurant called Suzanne’s, a unique breakfast/lunch spot, where you stand in line to order your food (and a line there is) and where the menu is very complete and the servers clearly are intent to please, willing to modify your order anyway you want.  We had salmon cake and barbecue with homemade potato chips.  Quite tasty, and oh, so friendly.

Then back on the road, until we stopped for the night in Gastonia, NC, just beyond Charlotte.  We were surprised at how nice the Best Western was (for $69), and appreciative that there was a Texas Roadhouse next door, where our waitress Jennifer was working her first night (after several evenings of training).  She is a criminal justice major at Gaston Community College, and did a fine job for us – we both had salmon, which was quite good (always a gamble at a chain like this) and each had a margarita, which was delicious and strong enough that we were happy we didn’t have to drive to our room.  As to the room, it was large and comfortable, and the staff very friendly.  OK, the free breakfast left a lot to be desired, but we were told that the hotel is about to redo its kitchen, so that it will be able to offer a hot breakfast.  That will be an improvement, but I would recommend this hotel without reservation.

On the road in the morning, we reached Atlanta by early afternoon, finding our way via GPS to the Intercontinental on Peachtree in Buckhead.  I had not been to Atlanta for years (maybe 20) and all of my old trips were business trips – I remember one time being in Buckhead at the offices of one of the first law firms to move out of downtown.  Buckhead, an upscale part of the city, was much less developed commercially than now.  It is filled with very nice high rise office, residential and hotel buildings, and a large number of top class shops.  There’s a MARTA redline stop, and a large shopping mall within walking distance of the hotel, which is surrounded by nice residential areas and other commercial streets, all very suburban looking even though they are inside the city.

The hotel itself was nice, if not spectacular.  The room was large, but not perfectly quiet (we could hear the fellow next door cough and, because we were on the third floor, we could make out the music coming out of the lobby bar), and the bed was too soft for my taste.  But it was attractive and a comfortable place to sit down in.  Oh, yes, one other disappointment – we had planned on watching the Nats and Braves games on television in the room, but it turned out that, even though there were about 50 cable stations available we could not watch the games, which are broadcast on Fox Sports South (FSSO).  The hotel had no idea……..

Friday night, there was a dinner for out of town guests at Cantina, a short walk from the hotel.  The restaurant was closed to the public, and the dinner was a very nice buffet dinner.  Have no idea what the food is like normally, but Friday night it was quite good.  There were two main dishes – salmon and grouper, a number of vegetables and salads, and a wide selection of desserts.  Wine was served.  We ate at a table with our daughter and son-in-law, and his parents, the parents of the bride.  Very nice.

Saturday was our only Atlanta free day.  We had brunch with a cousin who is a graduate student at Emery – picking him up at his house, about six miles from the hotel.  GPS permitted us to wind through much of residential Atlanta, where we saw nice and comfortable looking housing, green leaves on most of the trees and fruit trees in full color.  At least two weeks ahead of cold DC, maybe more.  We had brunch at The Flying Biscuit Cafe, one of a number of local restaurants with this name.  Very trendy and informal, they have a number of cleverly (?) named egg and other breakfasty dishes.  I had the Southern Scramble.  It wasn’t bad, but I thought that all of the dishes appeared to be a bit overdone.  In my eggs, were mixed turkey bacon, onions, collards and cheese.  The collards were a bit too spicy and overshadowed everything else.  Plain scrambled eggs probably would have been better.  But we had a very good time, very good conversation, and I don’t mean to be too critical.

We then went to the Atlanta Botanical Garden (after one false start, thinking we had found a great parking place, but later realizing we were at the park but not the Garden.  We did get to walk through some farmer’s market type vendors, before going back to the car.  I was surprised that we had to pay $18.95 per person to get into the Botanical Garden, and while we had a nice time walking around (we saw everything), I can’t say that it was worth it.  It’s an attractive garden to be sure, but it was less colorful than the rest of the city.  There seemed to be no flowering fruit trees, and an overabundance of tulips of all shades and colors.  The vegetable garden was interesting, but just getting started.  The forest walk was not yet green.  The inside orchid exhibit was very nice.  But compared to some of the other botanical gardens, I have seen, this was doesn’t rank as highly (in my completely uneducated opinion).

Then lunch at the White House Restaurant, a diner style restaurant a few blocks from the hotel.  It doesn’t get bad reviews on Yelp, but it does from us.  We each got the tuna salad, and neither of us could eat it.  Oh, well.

Then, our own driving tour, down Peachtree to downtown (very impressive, both the extensive older downtown and the large number of well designed office and residential towers.  We saw the Georgia State House, we saw the Ebenezer Baptist Church and the Martin Luther King Memorial (where he is buried) but did not have enough time to stop at the museum, which we have heard very good things about.  We saw the Carter Center.  We passed by the art museum.  A very nice hour or two.

Back to the hotel to get ready for the wedding (outdoors in the hotel courtyard) and the cocktail reception preceding it, and dinner/dancing afterwards.  No reason to go through everything, but the reception had very good sushi and passed food, the ceremony itself (not until about 9 p.m.) was beautiful to watch (the microphones had a hard time delivering consistent sound), and the dinner was excellent, (as was the conversations that we were able to have with the rabbi and his wife, who we know from Washington where they live, and the groom’s father and step-mother, with whom we ate), and dancing to the dj much fun.  The first dance of bride and groom was followed by a choreographed flash mob dance by the bride and groom’s friends.  A treat. 

After a filling good-bye brunch, we hit the road again (about 10 a.m.) and made it well over half the way home before stopping for the night.  On the way, for reasons somewhat unclear, we got off the Interstate in northwest South Carolina and wound up in Pendleton, thinking we were going to look at Clemson.  We never got to Clemson, because Pendleton (about ten miles from Clemson) was having a Spring craft and food fair, which we enjoyed, having a Sunday brunch at the Village Baker and Cafe, which was simple (eggs, potatoes and stuff) and good.  Then back on the road, all the way to Salem, VA.

Salem is just the other side of Roanoke.  Not knowing where we would stay or have supper, we lucked into the Holiday Inn, another well run and comfortable hotel which (who knew?) with a full service restaurant which, while not gourmet, was fine for the occasion.

Yesterday was a challenge.  We didn’t have far to go (less than four hours, assuming no delays), but it was pouring and visibility was affected, especially when the large trucks passed you kicking up more water than you would imagine possible.  But we made good time, mainly because I never wanted to be passed by a truck.  We stopped for lunch at the Apple House in Linden VA.  The food was good enough, and the place quite funky.  It appears to be the go-to place for a large selection of Virginia wines, oddly named hot sauces, and locally packed jams and jellies.

Edie told me she wanted to get home by 2, if possible.  Always obliging, we pulled into our driveway at 1:58.


A few words about child soldiers in Africa. Ugh.

You hear about “child soldiers” being conscripted to fight in wars in Africa and Asia, but the experience is so far from your own reality that you probably don’t think much beyond the basic thoughts:  “how could that happen” and “how terrible”.  You don’t go far enough to know what that really means.

Some time last year I read Ismael Beah’s horrific and beautifully written “A Long Way Gone”, the story about his experience, and the experiences of others, as child soldiers in Sierra Leone, how he found himself, without choice, in such a position, and how difficult it was for him (a person of very strong intellect and talent) to psychologically remove himself from his soldierly mind-set after he was brought back to a halfway house to begin his recovery (which was accomplished with the help of many others, and some extraordinary luck that he had along the way).

Now, I have read Grace Akallo and Faith McDonnell’s book, “Girl Soldier”, this book about young Grace, abducted with others from her boarding school at age 15 by the forces of Joseph Kony in Uganda, and being forced to take up arms, do unthinkable things, submit to sexual demands, and so much more, until she was able to escape from Kony’s camp (then located in southern Sudan) and find her way back to Uganda and freedom.  She now lives in the United States (as does Beah).

As a book, I found Beah’s by far the better (he has just published his first novel, by the way, having been able to attend and graduate from Oberlin after he reached the United States – talk about a second chance), but that does not mean that the book co-authored (alternating chapters) by Akallo and McDonnell should not be read, it should.  It should be read not only to see the early life trajectory of Ms. Akallo, but also to learn about the rise and abject fanaticism of Kony (for whom we – the United States – are now searching), his start as a self-proclaimed, God-driven prophet, his utter ruthlessness and brutality, his reliance on thousands and thousands of abducted children, some as young as seven, to staff his army.  They are there to do his bidding on pain of death if they refuse or fall by the wayside or try to escape and are caught.  And sometimes they die of disease or starvation – or just to set an example for others so that the remainder will fall in line.  And sometimes the children must kill the other children (again on pain of their own death) to prove that they are loyal to Kony.

What’s wrong with the book?  It’s filled with Christian proselytizing, as if the belief in evangelical Christianity and in a particular form of Jesus is the only way to counter Kony and to explain Akallo’s miraculous escape.  An obvious turn-off for me.  But I can’t let that interfere with my appreciation of what Akallo has gone through, and what so many others in Uganda, Sierra Leone and other places have had to face.

Yoram Koniuk’s “1948″ at Theater J – Wow (15 cents)

As I said a few days ago, the fuss that had erupted over Theater J’s staged reading production of Motti Lerner’s “The Admission” was totally unnecessary.  The play raised the question of what really happened in the Arab village of Tantur (or, in real life, Tantura) during the 1948 Israeli War of Independence, recognizing that a significant number of Arabs (and a smaller number of Jews) were killed (but was it 20, 70, or 200?), but reaching no conclusion as to whether or not the deaths were necessary (if very unfortunate) consequences of war, or whether in fact there was an uncalled for “massacre” of Arab civilians.  This reflects the current controversy over what might have happened at Tantura during that conflict without reaching conclusions.  Whom do you believe?  The former Israeli commander at the site, or the Arab witness?  And how accurate are their separate memories?  And how truthful are they trying to believe.

As a part of the annual Middle East festival at the theater, and building on the issues raised in “The Admission”, Theater J presented a one night staged reading of “1948″, one of the most fascinating pieces of theater I have seen in some time.  Let me try to explain the piece:  Well known Israeli author Yoram Kaniuk (well known in Israel), born in Palestine in 1930 and member of the elite Palmach troops in the 1948 Independence War, started out with hopes and ideals, most of which never came to reality.  As time went on, and Israel was engaged in war after war with its neighbors without a clue as to how to become welcome in its neighborhood, he became very disillusioned with his homeland. Perhaps “disillusioned” is too mild of a word.  He became extremely (overly, I believe) critical of what Israel had become.  And he didn’t hide his position either from his writing or his public statements.

This disappointment was manifest in Koniuk’s memoir “1948″, written 60 years after the War of Independence (the setting of Lerner’s play was 1988, 40 years after), where he tried to recollect those long lost hopes, that vanished idealism. But “1948″ was a memoir, not a play.  It took Noya Lancet, an Israeli director and dramaturg about whom I know virtually little, to adapt the Koniuk’s memoir into a theatrical presentation, which she did for the Haifa Theatre in Israel.  And what a masterful job it is.

How close to Koniuk’s memoir the 90 minute, one act play is, I don’t know.  There are eight actors, all portraying  members of the same brigade in the Palmach, one of the elite fighting forces in 1948, and their family members and friends.  The holocaust feels its presence, as does the pioneering spirit of the native Palestinian Jews a bit taken aback by the sudden appearance of sick and weak survivors from Europe.  Each of the characters play multiple characters.  There is no plot or story line.  It is an exercise in memory – the collective and sometimes conflicting memories of the characters. Memory of battles and confusion and loneliness and pain and injury (inflicted on themselves and on others) and death.  Wondering how they got into this war, and what is this war about anyway, and how a victory seemed not possible, but how a victory was going to change the world.  And memories that they may not really remember, memories that were less than certain.  Memories of their friends who died.  Memories of their keeping silent.  Memories of their hopes.  Memories of their disappointment.  Around and around it goes.  A dream, perhaps.  Perhaps not.

It’s a story about a specific time and a specific war, to be sure.  But it feels so universal.  Do all wars seem this way to the young (very young – teenagers for the most part) who wind up fighting in them, who believe in their cause, and who look back to see what the victory really led to decades later.

Brilliantly directed by Derek Goldman and acted by a wonderful ensemble, on book, but moving around the stage after just two afternoons of rehearsal.

Whether “1948″ will ever be performed again, I don’t know.  But those of you who were not their last night really missed something.

Henry IV, Part 1 at Shakespeare Theatre (a few, very few, comments)

I was a history major in college because history interests me.  Virtually all history.  With one exception, that I cannot explain.  I am, and always have been, completely bored with the history of the British Isles.  Why that is so, I have no idea.  But English, Welsh, Scottish and Irish history just leave me cold.  You would think otherwise.  There are language affinities, which make the history more approachable, and of course there is a strong connection between Britain and the history of the Americas.  But it just leaves me cold.

And, of course, when something leaves you cold, you learn less about it, and you remember less that you learn about it.  So, for that reason, Yorks and Plantagenets, and Tudors, and the Duke of this and the Earl of that…….I could care less.

For this reason, I have undoubtedly been less attracted to Shakespeare’s histories that I otherwise would be.  I have seen many of them, of course, but I couldn’t tell you the differences between the Henrys, or anything about the difference between the Richards (except that only one of them offered to trade his kingdom for a horse).

All of which is a preface to our seeing Henry IV, Part I, last night at the Shakespeare Theatre.  It’s an odd play, almost two plays in one.  There is the history of Henry IV, who himself did not come from any royal lineage and his fighting off those who believe his kingship to be unauthorized and who may (or perhaps not) supported Richard.  And then there is the non-historical story of old Jack Falstaff, 60 year old, overweight drunk and abrasive Good Time Charlie.  What ties the story together is Prince Hal, of course, the son of his father the King, and the drinking and carousing and whoring buddy of Falstaff.

Enjoyed the production – it was not set on the Lower East Side or in Venice or any time in the future.  It was set when it actually historically occurred – of course, I have no idea when that was.  And you couldn’t tell from the sets, which were very effective and seamless and quite simple.  I now have an idea of what happened – those rebelling against Henry IV were unsuccessful.  And I am curious to know what happens in Henry IV, part 2, which we will see sometime over the next few weeks.  I am certain that Hal will be OK – after all, he did become Henry V, didn’t he?  (But other than sparring with and fighting with some of the nobles, did either of these two Henrys do anything worth remembering?  I have no idea.)

One interesting point.  I had a hard time following all of what Percy was saying – not that his enunciation was not clear, but some of his many lines were spoken very quickly, and by the time I figured out what he was saying, he was two or three lines ahead.  But I had not trouble following Falstaff.  At intermission, I spoke with a friend.  He followed Percy with no problem, but said that he had a hard time following everything Falstaff said.  How to explain?  Ears, where we were sitting?

Acting was first class all around.  Perhaps Percy (John Keabler) could have slowed down at times.  Perhaps Falstaff (Stacy Keach) could have been a bit more over the top at times.  But those are minor complaints – and perhaps unjustified.  Show is still in previews – we will see what the critics say.

Motti Lerner’s “The Admission” at Theater J: What’s the fuss about?

Where to start…….

I guess first, for those of you who won’t read beyond the first paragraph, the most important thing is whether you should go and see the “staged reading” of “The Admission”, playing an abbreviated run at Theater J through April 6.  The answer is: “Definitely”.

Now on to the interesting stuff…….

First, a little about the play, and the historical basis for the play.  Set in Israel in 1988, the focus is on Israel’s 1948 War of Independence (fending off the post-partition attacks by its surrounding Arab neighbor states), and in particular what happened in the Arab village of Tantur (a shortened version of the real village of Tantura).  The facts are clear that following fighting in Tantur, there were no Arabs remaining in the village.  The majority of the former residents left the village, either voluntarily or under force, depending on your point of bias, but they left.  It is also clear that there was fighting in the village, and that a number of Jews and a larger number of Arabs were killed.  This is where the agreed upon facts end.  And where the discussion begins.

How many Arabs were killed?  Was it 20?  What is 70?  Was it more than 200?  And were they killed during combat?  As a battleground necessity?  Or were they simply lined up and murdered by the Israeli army after all the fighting has stopped.

Forty years after the battle of Tantur, we find ourselves with two families in Haifa, one Jewish, one Arab. The Arab father is a native of Tantur, and was present at the battle.  The Jewish father was the commander of the Israeli troops during the battle of Tantur, and is now a real estate developer, planning a large housing development in Tantur at the site of the 1948 conflict.  For decades, these families have been surprisingly close.  The Jewish father has helped the Arab family finance their Haifa restaurant on very favorable terms, and have paid for the education of the Arab daughter.  There were two sons in the Jewish family – one was killed in his tank during the 1973 Yom Kippur War; the other seriously wounded and crippled in the Lebanon war in the early 1980s.  There are two Arab children – the daughter, a student who has been studying in London, and a son who runs the family restaurant.  They have never spoken about what happened in 1948, until now.

The thought of the housing development on what the Arab father believes to be consecrated ground sets up the conflict between the two fathers and, perhaps even more importantly (and as a result of a bit of historical research) between the remaining Jewish son and his parents, as the son becomes more and more convinced that something bad happened at Tantur, that his father was involved, and that he has been keeping some big secrets and engaging in major denial, or worse, purposeful lying about what happened during the war and what his father’s role was.  His own experience in Lebanon, where he was wounded, but where before that he had engaged in operations that resulted in civilian deaths, makes the emotional situation even more stressful for the son, as does the son’s long time relationship with the Arab daughter.

That’s the framework for the play.  Does the play “take sides” and declare the Jewish father (and therefore Israel) guilty of war crimes or worse?  No.  Does the play conclude that the Arabs are lying and no “massacre” of more than 200 Arab residents took place?  No.  Does the play show the complexities of reconstructing history, even (or perhaps especially) when presumed participants and witnesses are still alive?   Yes.  Are the emotions that are displayed by the characters credible and therefore their actions and words credible?  Absolutely.

In my title, I asked “What’s the fuss about?”.  And, boy, has there been a fuss.

When it was announced that the play would be performed as a part of Theater J’s 2013-2014 schedule, a new organization appeared, Citizens Opposed to Propaganda Masquerading as Art (COPMA) to oppose production of the play and, more than that, to attack Theater J and its talented artistic director Ari Roth, personally and  maliciously.  Reading the first paragraph on COPMA’s website (, you see the following:  “Theater J at the District of Columbia Jewish Community Center (DCJCC) has for years, under the directorship of an individual named Ari Roth, been staging plays and holding workshops that denigrate Israel.  The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington has been providing funding to Theater J, and despite COPMA’s efforts, continues to knowingly funnel dollars to support Theater J.  This violates the Federation’s fiduciary obligation to donors to monitor the destination of its donor contributions.  We would not support Jewish Federation funds going to support the Palestinian Authority, and we should not support Jewish Federation funds going to attack Israel in its struggle for peace and security.”

Needless to say, this is nonsense.  And the constant barrage of attacks from COPMA have failed to stop the Federation support, and have only increased interest in “The Admission” and guaranteed that its two week run (shortened from a substantially longer run as a way to attempt to compromise – possibly a mistake) has large audiences for every performance.

More from the COPMA site, under the heading “The Latest Outrage”:  “The Admission centers on a false allegation of a slaughter of Palestinians by Israelis in the Palestinian Arab village of Tantura (renamed in the play) during the War of Independence.  The play depicts the modern day effort by the Israeli commander of the unit who committed the slaughter to profit by erecting a shopping mall over the site where the bodies of the Palestinian victims are buried.  The author of the play – and now Theater J – want the audience to believe that play is about real life events in Tantura in 1948, but the allegation of a massacre was long ago challenged in Israel and shown to be false.”

Well, COPMA’s description of what The Admission “centers on” is less than accurate and, to my knowledge and especially since the play is still being work shopped, rather than a final product,, no one at COPMA had actually read the script or seen the play before starting their “boycott the Federation” campaign.  And, now that I have gone to one of the performances, the idea that the play is concluding that there was a “massacre” in Tantura (or Tantur) is ridiculous.  The play is not a political polemic – it is a highly emotional play showing how parties on two sides of a conflict, and their children, living together long after, come to grips with their own narratives of what happened forty years before.  At the end of The Admission, you don’t know what happened – you know that there was fighting, and you know a large number of people, disproportionately Arab, were killed.  Whether they were killed in combat, where they could have been spared without jeopardizing the battle or perhaps the war, how many were killed, these things you don’t know.  Was the Arab witness’s memory faulty or perfect (and in fact, he said contradictory things during the play) you don’t know.  Whether the Jewish commander’s memory was faulty or perfect, whether after years of saying nothing, he was now speaking “the whole truth”, you have no idea.

It’s a tautology but war is war.  It is also sad but true that there appear to be massacres (or alleged massacres) somewhere in the world on an almost daily basis (look now at Nigeria, Central African Republic, Iraq, Burma and of course Syria, to name a few places of present day concern).  It’s obvious that historic memory is faulty, but that the faulty recollections can become the history, and the history can impact on the present and make final reconciliation almost impossible for a lot of people.

The members of COPMA fear that history is being rewritten in a one sided manner, to the detriment of Israel.  They have no first hand experience of what happened at Tantura.  If it turns out that the Israelis did things that they should not have, the COPMA membership doesn’t want to know that.  Let sleeping dogs (or sleeping bones) lie.  Many Israelis agree with COPMA, I am sure, and many disagree.  Palestinians and Israeli Arabs undoubtedly are of at least two minds as well.  So, the discussion goes on, and The Admission is part of that discussion.

But perhaps what is most interesting is that the play parallels the Theater J/COPMA dispute.  The Jewish father/commander clearly would rather forget everything that happened at Tantur in 1948.  In fact, he has been working his entire life to assuage any guilt he might feel for having done things one way or another, by helping to bring about Jewish/Arab reconciliation in Israel.  This is how the two families in The Admission got together in the first place.

Having done all of that for so many years, he does not understand why he has to revisit the incident now.  But in fact he has kicked up the long hidden resentment of his Arab friend by rubbing salt in a long festering wound through his development plans.  The Jewish father is aghast – he is just like COPMA.  He does not want to discuss it.

But like COPMA , he is not able to stifle the conversation.  He cannot ignore it.  There is too much pressure, from too many sides, so the conversation continues, the conflict continues, victims continue to fall.

But there are differences.  The father has his financial security, his psychological health and, it turns out, his relationship with his son at stake.  COPMA has nothing at stake, other than misguided beliefs that the play was something that it was not, that Theater J and Ari Roth are anti-Israel, that somehow the play will harm Israel’s security, and that it is possible to determine, in an objective and rational way, what is “art” and what is “propaganda”.  Perhaps, they have learned their lesson.  More likely, they have not.

While billed as a “staged reading”, the performance is much beyond that.  None of the actors are on-book, there is furniture and a modicum of a set, and there is significant movement on the stage.  The acting is universally good – no reason to give a special shout out to anyone in the cast in particular.

It should be noted that every performance is followed by a discussion with different speakers or panelists.  Last night’s was very successful, moderated by Steven Stern and featuring Dennis Ross, American Camp David negotiator and now with Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Tamara Cofman Wittes, director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, and Ghaith al-Omari of the American Task Force on Palestine.  It was interesting that, while typically 2/3 or so of the audience will leave a theater and skip the talk-back, last night I would estimate that 90% of the audience stuck around.

The Admission is part of Theater J’s “Voices from a Changing Middle East” festival.  The next event we will attend is Monday night, a reading of “1948″ by famed Israeli author Yoram Kaniuk, a memoir of his first year in Israel and his time in the young country’s military.  We look forward to it.