'Tell Her the Truth'
The siege of Gaza over the past several years, which nearly starved a high proportion of the population, was unconscionable in humanitarian terms, but an even worse corner was turned this past winter. A placard at a peace-movement demonstration in Tel Aviv in January proclaimed, Slaughter Is Not Security. Apart from some brave thousands who took to the Israeli streets throughout the weeks of Operation Cast Lead, a large majority of Israelis--and their supporters in America--were convinced that the carnage was, indeed, justified as defense. Some even boasted about it. In America's weekly Jewish newspaper, the Forward, the president of the Reform movement, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, in an op-ed defending the Gaza invasion, disparaged more hawkish Israel supporters for "the obscene, cowboy-like delight" in "the damage Israel's army is able to inflict." But even when softened into Yoffie's remorseful notion of the Gaza offensive as a "tragic necessity, unwelcome but inevitable," the justification amounts to the same thing: better them than us. Such dehumanizing rhetoric is common in mainstream Jewish-American and Israeli discourse (and, in fact, in all military conflicts). Churchill, a non-Jew, had the chutzpah to strip that rhetoric of its hangdog, contrite camouflage and reflect it back to us: "tell her all I feel is happy it's not her."
That hideous sentiment, however, is not the play's final word. There are three more lines:
Don't tell her that.
Tell her we love her.
Don't frighten her.
A playwright's presumptuous job is to imagine others, and the others Churchill has imagined in this play are Jews. If there's anger in the writing, there's also empathy, tenderness and intimacy. Nothing is more intimate than discussions between parents about what to tell their children; no act of speech is more carefully weighed or more fiercely protected. This is a family play, told from within the family. It concludes with love, and it concludes with fear.
Seven Jewish Children is a play. It must be read with an awareness of the incompleteness of plays on paper, destined as they are for collective rather than singular experience, for warm bodies speaking the lines, for empathy, for the variability of interpretation. All plays require that directors and actors make considered choices. Performance produces meaning. If an actor stresses "tell" in the line "Don't tell her that," it might suggest, That's true, but don't let her know. But if "that" is emphasized, it might mean, How can you even think such an outrageous thing? And much will depend on how the actor strikes the first word, "Don't"--collegially or adversarially.
Churchill ups the interpretive ante by leaving everything, beyond the lines themselves, to her interpreters. The monologue and the lines that follow it will carry different meanings if spoken, say, by a grandmother with a Yiddish accent or by a young man in an Israeli army uniform. Or by, say, a Korean-American man or a Chicana. Or, since the play is so short and could be watched three or four times in a row, with the lines spoken each time by different actors. Any director and company approaching the play will have to decide whether and how the audience will be made aware of the radical degree to which the written text has insisted, through its lack of character identification or stage action, on collaboration. Surely it's essential to understanding Seven Jewish Children that against the specifics of the script, the playwright, relinquishing nearly all traditional authorial control, engineers a far-greater-than-usual slippage among text and performance and audience reception, producing an unusually large amount of room for variant readings.
And it is perhaps only on stage that the central characters of the play come into their own: the eponymous seven Jewish children who are its heroines. We never see them. Our empathic imaginations are enlisted by the playwright. We have to conjure them.
In the opening scene of Churchill's Far Away, a girl asks her aunt about beatings she's seen her uncle commit. What's most terrifying is how easily the aunt placates, justifies and quells her niece's will to question. But in Churchill's play for Gaza, the girls never stop asking.
This is a powerful trope in Jewish culture; it's the questioning child around whom the Passover Seder is built. We're left to hope that this girl we've never seen, the last scene's girl, won't become one of the Israeli teenagers who recently gave the truly frightening Avigdor Lieberman the highest share of the votes in a high school election poll. Perhaps she's a pain in the ass, this girl; perhaps she'll keep questioning. Perhaps she refuses to succumb to those in her family whose loving desire is to protect her by not speaking, by not saying. Perhaps she's realizing that their repression of the truth has become not only misguided and immoral but fatal; for nothing survives on lies, on a denial of reality; eventually, reality wins. Perhaps she's found out about a relative of hers, mentioned earlier: "Don't tell her her cousin refused to serve in the army."
Perhaps this girl will grow up to work for justice.