For my parents, who returned me to the land; and in memory of Haim Tukachinsky z”l who heightened the senses through which I absorb the land…
I’ve always felt that the greatest pieces of art and literature are those that transcend time and place and allow us to connect on various levels- whenever and wherever they are beheld.
I read Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize winning play, Our Town, when I was in high school, and only took the opportunity to do so again 30 years later. The first time I read the play I remember being moved by the beauty of simplicity and the heartbreak of life, love and loss in a small town.
Today I find myself producing this play with Women In Theater (WIT) a troupe who will perform for women around the country in November, and I’ve had the privilege to look at Our Town with new eyes. The vast majority of women who make up the staff and cast members of Women In Theater are English speaking immigrants who have made aliya in the last 20 years. At WIT, we try to incorporate applicable historical and national educational programming in parallel with the shows we are running; and Our Townis no different.
Our Town and The Jewish Experience
Having researched the time period in which the play takes place (New England 1901-1913), I’ve had the opportunity, together with the cast, to explore how this time period played out for the Jews in Eastern Europe and pre-state Israel.
Grover’s Corners, the New Hampshire village which is the setting for Wilder’s play, exemplifies the dynamics of America’s post-Industrial Revolution and Progressive Era, in which there was a decided push and pull between maintaining small-town values and adapting to change. Rural communities were disappearing, and big city life was on the rise. And as this happened, something essential—a deep rooted connection to the fundamentals of simple existence, was disappearing as well.
At the same time, America was struggling to deal with its immigrant “problem”. The average American citizen was wary and decidedly unwelcoming to newcomers from outside the country’s borders.
Each of the characters in Our Town draw our attention to these issues, but Emily’s words are possibly the most effective. In the face of urbanization and a general abandonment of rural lifestyle in America at this time, Emily’s pleas echo a mourning the loss of this simple yet sincere connection between the individual and the community and an essential connection with their land.
When Emily bemoans life’s every day details being ignored, and while the Stage Manager refocuses our attention on the sky, the weather, the very individuals that make up our population, we are forced to examine the fundamentals of humanity. We are encouraged to stop and take note- to really look, listen, smell, touch…feel.
Inthe Land of Israel, the early 1900’s could not have been more different from the urbanizing trends typical of America at that time…
From Women’s Quest For Occupational Equality: The Case Of Jewish Female Agricultural Workers in Pre-State Israel-Yossi Katz (a1) and Shoshana Neuman
“Zionists sought to change the occupational structure of the Jewish community, which had hitherto focused on commerce, finance and brokerage. These were perceived as exploitative, parasitic occupations which had bred anti-Semitism. The Jews were thus urged to embrace productive occupations such as farming, which would make them more independent and improve them as human beings. A return to the soil was viewed as a balm for all the ills of Jewish society… From 1882 until the outbreak of World War I, some 49 Jewish colonies were set up in Palestine”
For many Jews, it took the scourge of anti-Semitism to spur their return to Zion. Regardless, they understood that in order to successfully resettle the Land of Israel after 2000 years, they would have to go back to the land, work it, and depend on its bounty. For centuries they had been reciting prayers affirming the Jew’s connection to the land and were now focusing on creating this reality.
The immigration problem also played out in a contrasting fashion. These “chalutzim”, translating their abstract connection to the land into an active commitment to physical existence within it, were coming from different countries with different backgrounds and were forced to work together toward a common goal. Each person who returned to Zion was an “immigrant.”
It’s nearly impossible to be disconnected from the details when you farm and work the land- one is all but forced to look at the beauty in simplicity, and one’s very senses: sight, sound, smell, touch, taste are heightened. This is what Emily outright decries- notice these things, fully love people and love life before it is gone.
For those of us fortunate to live in this country, on this land, this is our reality. The land and people are imbedded in our every moment- but there are still things we fail to notice. Our Town holds up a mirror to us and if we look closely we’ll see what we may ordinarily, yet unintentionally ignore. that every moment we live on this land, whether we farm, defend, study, pray…we are part of a much larger picture, but we are living an individual awakening and rebirth of this land.
As I absorb both the surface reading of Our Town and my own “subterranean” interpretation, I begin to look at all things around me in this matter.
The community of musicians, theater professionals and concert and theater goers lost a dear friend recently. On the 14th of Tishrei, Haim Tukachinsky, z”l, was killed in a hit and run accident in Jerusalem. Though he was of a caliber of musicians that one meets rarely, if ever at all, his life cut short did not allow the millions who should have known or known about Haim to appreciate him. And as I hear Emily from a distance and she is crying out, “Oh, earth, you’re too wonderful for anybody to realize you. Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it…every, every minute?” I would tell her of the people who knew Haim… “We realized! Every, Every minute!”
To be near Haim was to have your senses and emotions heightened and enriched.
Haim, we heard and felt the depths of your music- we soared higher with each consecutive note, we saw your inner and outward beauty- the happy countenance with which you greeted people and your unique fashion sense. We watched your full body absorption with your music, and noticed your attention to detail. We laughed at your jokes and your lofty vernacular which became ours. We marveled at your gift, your skill, and even at the strange way you held your pencil to notate your sheet music.
And we cried, Haim, we wept when you were taken.
We are stunned and raw and fighting our way forward through tears. But we noticed you every, every minute we had the absolute gift of being in your presence.
And as I, an immigrant returned to this land of Israel, remember to take in the sights and sounds and people, and connect with this very land, I nod to a great man who made me take note.